Partner Profile: Sustainable Food Center
In this Partner Profile, we head down to Austin, Texas to speak with members of the Sustainable Food Center – a few of whom have participated in the FSLN’s Food Systems Leadership Retreats in New Orleans and Kansas City. Here, we hear from Hilda Gutiérrez, Director of the Food Access team and Joy Casnovsky, the Deputy Director who oversees all programming for the agency.
Thanks, Hilda and Joy!
- Why was SFC formed?
Austin Community Gardens (ACG) started off in the 1970s as a project of the YWCA. In the 1980s, it became its own non-profit. Then in 1993 Sustainable Food Center was created to work to assist low-income communities through sustainable agriculture initiatives. Since AGC and SFC worked together frequently and had compatible missions, they merged to strengthen programs, integrate talents and consolidate administrations. Today we strive to cultivate a healthy community by strengthening the local food system and improve access to nutritious, affordable food.
- Who do you serve?
Farmers and low income residents.
- What specific needs are you addressing?
Culturally competent cooking and nutrition education lead by community members; direct-sales outlets for farmers’; affordability of fresh, local produce through our SNAP and WIC incentive project; garden leadership trainings and tools.
- What is one thing that makes your organization stand out?
SFC has been working within food systems for many years. We started distributing WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program Vouchers (FMNP) in 1999 and we are still the Contracting Entity for WIC FMNP in Central Texas. Starting with a USDA FMPP, we launched our SNAP/WIC incentive program at one market in 2012. We now work with a network of 18 markets that use our incentive dollars.
- How has SFC evolved over the years?
In many ways, we’ve grown up from a fairly scrappy organization housed in a rat-invested portable on a school campus (no joke!) to having our own building. Ten years ago there were 12 employees, now we have around 26 employees. We interpret this to mean that the work we are involved in is important and there continue to be needs. The question we are grappling with now is, where does it make sense to continue to grow versus lean back?
- Are there any organizations or individuals you look to as a role model in your work? Why?
Locally, there are two women who have been doing some extraordinary work: Paula X. Rojas and Kellee Coleman. They have founded an organization called Mama Sana/Vibrant Woman https://www.msvwatx.org/ that centers directly impacted communities. They have built individual’s capacity to advocate for the change our community needs in order to build resiliency within low-income communities of color and address gentrification and health disparities. They are both moms and you often see their children at meetings and advocating at City Hall with their children. They keep a pulse on community needs and ensure that policy makers hear about them.
SFC has historically centered directly impacted communities in our programming work. As we transition into our new vision, we strive to not only continue on that path but also lift the voices of directly impacted communities into the policy realm. This approach is rooted in Zapatista philosophy: one must lead by obeying. By centering directly impacted communities, we inherently shift the food system at its core so that it can serve the many.
Systems Leadership Approach
- How does SFC partner with others to catalyze systems change?
We certainly are still learning. Some of that learning is figuring how to work better in collaboration with myriad organizations with whom we share the food systems space. We just finished a collaborative USDA LFPP grant that we facilitated; it included four partner agencies all working together over 1.5 years. Our grant deliverable ended up taking a completely different course than what was originally anticipated. That being said, the collaboration created a launching pad for additional work that was identified as vital. Each entity has a role to play that compliments one another’s work from a system’s perspective.
- What is 1 key to your organization’s success?
Helping people fall in love with food. Before working at SFC, I (Hilda) frequented SFC’s farmers’ markets and took a gardening and a cooking class. I can say that my life was not the same after that. I was reminded of the importance of sharing space with strangers and trusting in our capacity to create joy through food, whether growing it or eating it.
There is a moment I have seen on more than one occasion when I am at a farmers’ market. It is that moment when someone who uses SNAP benefits takes in the market environment and there is a sense of possibility and wonder that wasn’t there before, as if someone is experiencing this really amazing thing for the first time – something that was always there but they didn’t know it existed and now they have found it. It is really hard to describe but you can see that they are experiencing the world in a different way and with all of their senses.
I think creating these types of experiences for people has been key to our success.
- Given what you know now, what are three things you wish you’d done differently as the organization developed?
- Been more cautious about being able to take on everything. For many years, there were few organizations in the food systems space, so we tended to take on all that we could since no one else was doing it. Now we are at a point when we are evaluating our core competencies and figuring out how to make the best impact, and what role we play. It’s hard to say no to an opportunity when there is a need. At the same time, passing on opportunities may also allow innovation among other organizations.
- Assign multiple people to one project. This would allow us to go deep instead of wide in our work and facilitate staff transitions which are inevitable in any growing organization.
- Defined our target audience. Our target audience has been everyone who eats. This has made it challenging to figure out where we needed to focus our efforts.
- What is one of SFC’s proudest achievements?
In 2013, we built our permanent home in East Austin. Like many burgeoning non-profits, we bounced around to various office buildings, some better than others. We modeled it to reflect our programming needs, such as including a commercial kitchen and teaching garden. It’s a really wonderful feeling to have a home and have the capacity to invite people over, so to speak.
- What is one challenge you’re facing right now? Anything your fellow FSLN members might be able to help with?
Right now we are working on developing a 20 year Vision. This will require some pretty big changes. We can use some support on change management in particular.
- Any words of wisdom for fellow food systems leaders?
Look at the directly impacted communities around you. Create the space necessary so that they can be the architects of change.
- Have you created any useful processes/resources that you’re particularly excited about? If so, please share!
There was a moment several years ago where urban farms became entangled in a debate about racism and gentrification. The tensions escalated into City Hall. At that time, we did not have the staff capacity to weigh in on a policy level but our inaction on this topic affected our reputation.
We heard feedback from the community that SFC was a predominantly White facing organization that served wealthy White residents. Our programming has always centered farmers and low income communities of color and now we were stuck in the middle of a debate where those two communities were pitted against each other.
Our response was to be introspective. We invited a consultant to lead racial justice trainings with our entire staff which resulted in a three year racial justice strategic plan.
The strategic plan assigned deliverables to each SFC team. We also formed a Racial Justice Team comprised of staff from all departments to help ensure the racial justice strategic plan deliverables were met.
Last year, we grew the scope of the team to include an analysis of LGBTQ+ communities and we renamed it to the Equity team. In the coming year, we hope to provide additional staff training on ensuring that SFC spaces are inclusive/reflective of LGBTQ+ communities. We have laid the groundwork for that this year with an environment analysis.
The trainings we underwent provided us with a common language and solidified our commitment to racial justice; this was made actionable through our racial justice strategic plan. The formation of the Racial Justice team ensured that we remained accountable to our plan. All of these pieces together resulted in organizational change and we would recommend a similar model to others in the field.