When the coronavirus pandemic hit and many restaurants shut down or reduced their kitchen output, food suppliers across Central Texas were left with unpurchased inventory with a limited shelf life.


But a new initiative providing emergency prepared food for a growing at-risk population aims to avoid food waste while addressing food insecurity and securing jobs.


Travis County commissioners on Tuesday approved redirecting $160,000 from last fiscal year’s social services budget to fund an emergency food access network through at least May 31.


"This unforeseen and unprecedented event requires a variety of solutions to meet the growing needs of our community at this time," said Sherri Fleming, county executive for health and human services.


CORONAVIRUS IN TEXAS: What we know, latest updates


The network Keep Austin Together and the Cook’s Nook, a culinary incubator and commercial kitchen, plan to assemble local restaurants and their kitchen staffs to prepare meals that will be distributed by participating nonprofits. Several organizations have signed up to be recipients of the emergency food, including River City Youth, the Del Valle Community Coalition and the Grant Worship Center.


The program aims to provide about 24,000 meals in three phases with distribution beginning as early as next week. Residents interested in receiving meals should contact any of Travis County’s seven community centers. The network plans to track key metrics such as the amount of food waste avoided and the number of jobs created.


The Cook’s Nook owner Joi Chevalier said that although the network took rapid action to launch during the COVID-19 emergency, the infrastructure it’s building can potentially be helpful in the future.


"Having a prepared food capacity, as-needed, is an essential element to the city and county’s emergency and resilience planning moving forward and will create a more robust local food system," according to a letter Chevalier and the network wrote to the court.


As Travis County look ahead at what countywide operations will look like after shelter-in-place orders expire, Judge Sarah Eckhardt said residents should not expect to return to normal. Instead, she said, "we will need to adapt in order to keep operating."