It was the quest for better fuel, not food, that got Jake Stewart into sustainable agriculture.
After studying environmental science at Texas A&M and earning a master's degree in renewable energy at the University of North Texas in Denton, the 36-year-old Houston native traveled around the world working for international nonprofits to find better sources of biofuel.
But as he saw land and resources leveraged for fuel instead of food and how little was actually being accomplished at an international level, he headed back to Texas, where he switched gears to find ways to improve the food system.
"As I got lower to the ground, at the village level, I saw how much impact you could have," he says.
A year ago, he was hired as the City of Austin's first full-time sustainable urban agriculture and community gardens coordinator, a position within the parks departments that the City Council voted to create in February 2011.
When compared with the debate over fuel — both renewable and nonrenewable — food just doesn't carry the same political baggage, Stewart says. "You don't run into the angst or opposition that you do with fuel. People understand how spending money on local food is good for the economy, good for kids, good for food security. They see a great value to having production close to home. "
Plus, although people buy gas and pay the electric bill, they are physically picking out which foods to bring home to cook for dinner. This tangible connection to food makes people feel powerful when they are making purchasing decisions. "People feel like they can have an impact on what they eat," he says.
The number of community gardens and urban farms in Austin has doubled in the past decade because more people who don't necessarily have a background in agriculture see an opportunity to increase the amount and proximity of locally grown produce.
But with community gardens, Stewart says it's less about growing hundreds of pounds of produce to feed every family on the block and more about sharing the passion and building up that sense that you're part of something collective. "That has a ripple effect through the neighborhood."
Because it's just him and part-timer Sarah Brownstein, whose position is also new in the parks department, they tend to focus on helping projects that already have momentum. Even if you had all the money and land you could want, "you can't just build a garden and expect that people will come. It doesn't work that way," he says. "Gardens have to bubble up from the ground. Community is the operative word in ‘community garden.' "
There are about eight or nine new community gardens and farm projects in the pipeline, and more than 30 of the established ones will be open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. April 28 for the third annual Austin Community Gardening Tour. The East Austin Farm Tour on April 15, also in its third year, is another opportunity to see the kinds of projects that Stewart helps facilitate. (For more information about the tours, visit communitygardensaustin.org and boggycreekfarm.com.)
Stewart is excited that the Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program finally has a website (austintexas.gov/austingrows) to help guide people who are curious about starting a community garden, shopping at a farmers market or finding out about things such as water rates for urban farms.
With the drought, Big Ag and the widening gap between those who can afford to eat local, organic produce and those who are lining up at the food pantry, there's a lot to feel pessimistic about. But, like farmers, those who are advocates on their behalf have to focus on the problems that they can solve.
"It's not a doomsday thing," Stewart says. "Rather than be depressed by it, we need to figure out how we're going to innovate around it. ... We have to manage food just like we manage water, fossil fuels or other resources."
Because he doesn't have a budget to work with, Stewart, a lifelong gardener himself, is churning out grant applications as fast as he can write them.
"What I don't have in resources, I have in passion," he says. "But right now, it's a lot like drinking out of a fire hose."
His phone rings off the hook, and his days are filled with meetings, conference calls and more meetings.
Stewart often finds himself acting as a bridge between people, businesses and community groups that might not have gotten along so well previously. "I try to help us remember that we're all trying to solve this problem together," and the solutions aren't just magically going to appear out of City Hall. "We're in an innovative town. That's what Austin does," he says. "This is an open-source problem, and it will have to have an open-source solution."
It's all feel-good work, but data are what really earn respect and credibility, especially within city government. This is where working with international companies and nonprofits comes in handy. Stewart knows how to talk effectively to both people who work in soil and seeds and those who work with city budgets and code. "We need to leverage what the city can do with what the community wants to do."
Stay up-to-date with the latest food news by following food writer Addie Broyles on Twitter (@broylesa) or on her Relish Austin blog, austin360.com/relishaustin. Contact Addie at 912-2504.