Sprouting Healthy Communities

By Andrew Smiley

Sustainable Food Center’s 1996 study of food access in East Austin revealed a startling lack of healthful food options available in the neighborhoods within this vibrant community. The results sparked a series of citywide actions, including the establishment of Austin and Travis County’s first food policy board and a new dedicated bus route to provide easier transportation to and from grocery stores.

Sustainable Food Center (SFC) responded with programs to help create community gardens, establish neighborhood farm markets and provide cooking classes to teach healthy preparation methods, menu planning and food budgeting. But as our city continues to expand, the groups most at risk for obesity and diet-related disease have spread beyond the original neighborhoods.  
To address this, SFC has launched its most recent initiative as a targeted-community approach to food issues.

The new Sprouting Healthy Communities program reaches the community level via relationships already established with students, parents and partners through SFC programs and projects currently in place at Webb, Gus Garcia and Dobie middle schools.

The result is a domino effect of healthful new options. While students at Dobie Middle School select fresh, locally grown vegetables in the lunch line and take part in SFC-sponsored after-school gardening and cooking activities, facilitators prepare for the six-week cooking class—presented in Spanish—at the Gus Garcia Recreation Center directly across the street. Of the 20 participants, many are parents of Dobie students who found out about the class through the school. From information shared during the cooking classes, several parents will sign up for the Basic Organic Gardening classes—also taught in Spanish—held around the corner at Iglesia El Shaddai. And all attendees will be encouraged to stop by one of the nearby farm markets for fresh fruits and vegetables and to redeem supplemental WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program benefits for healthy produce.

“Schools are often a hub of interaction for neighborhoods,” explains SFC executive director Ronda Rutledge. “By partnering with our schools and offering gardening and cooking classes and farm markets in the neighborhoods, we’re able to reach school children as well as their parents.”

On a recent anonymous evaluation survey, one graduate of the cooking class series expressed her gratitude for learning to prepare vegetables and fruits, and exhibited a newfound excitement about planning and preparing meals. “I really had fun!” she wrote. “As a diabetic you may have saved my life.”