Feeding thousands: How Austin groups are tackling food insecurity during coronavirus
How much food do you have in your house?
A week’s worth? Maybe two? Do you know how you’re going to pay for the next round of food you buy at the grocery store?
Food insecurity is an issue that many folks face every day, but three months ago, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Austin, thousands of Central Texans found themselves asking some of these very basic questions, some for the first time.
Joi Chevalier, founder of the Cook’s Nook and a member of the Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board, knew that folks who had never reached out for assistance before were going to need help getting food — and they were going to need that help quickly.
Chevalier teamed up with a few other people in the food industry, including Mokshika Sharma, Robert Nathan Allen, Karen Magid and Jarred Maxwell, to form the ATX Food Response Working Group to come up with a temporary fix.
“A week or two after South by Southwest, we saw that we were going to have new people who were going to be affected by COVID,” Chevalier said on my Austin360 Facebook livestream last week. “They were going to need help getting food, maybe for the first time.”
These were neighbors who might not already be on the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or who didn’t have kids in the school system but who found themselves with only a few days’ worth of food or without a way to get to the grocery store.
The working group came up with an emergency food initiative called Keep Austin Together, which connected local nonprofits that serve this vulnerable population with food suppliers that had extra food and commercial kitchens whose staff could prepare it.
Within three weeks, they had gotten approval for emergency funding of about $250,000 from Travis County and were delivering 1,500 meals a day to more than two dozen community groups, including Black Mamas ATX, Keep Austin Fed, River City Youth and Eberhart Place, an affordable senior housing facility in South Austin.
In nine weeks, Keep Austin Together has delivered more than 41,000 meals to residents throughout Travis County. The meals are prepared at RPM Kitchens and the Cook’s Nook, two shared kitchen spaces in East Austin, and delivered by Try Hungry, a local catering company that drops the meals off at the partner organizations, which then distribute them to their clients.
Chevalier said that by offering prepared meals, this public/private partnership has allowed many members of the community to focus on taking care of other things besides food that are just as important to survive.
Keep Austin Together’s funding was extended this week through Sept. 30., which will allow the group to continue to provide meals throughout the summer.
Another group whose community food effort is continuing this summer is Austin Shift Meal, from founder Mandi Nelson in partnership with the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, which provides meals to furloughed restaurant and hospitality workers.
Each Tuesday, the organization sets up at a different restaurant, which is paid via Austin Shift Meal, to prepare 50 meals with snacks and drinks that are available to people in the hospitality industry.
Austin Shift Meal has donated more than 2,000 meals, and it is soliciting donations to continue this community service in coming months. Past restaurant partners have included Aviary, Baretto, Sala & Betty and Loro. You can find out more about upcoming meal days and how you can support the effort at austinshiftmeal.com.
At the end of March, Austin writer and photographer Jane Ko of A Taste of Koko partnered with Mylk Collective and 365 Things Austin to create Hundred for Hospitality, which provided 100 meals a day to laid-off service industry workers.
The effort raised $15,000 in donations, which went to restaurants that provided the meals. The partner restaurants included the Peached Tortilla, P. Terry's, Austin's Pizza, Old Thousand, Burro Cheese Kitchen and Easy Tiger.
The initiative provided more than 4,000 meals before coming to an end in May, but it was so successful that it expanded to Houston, where it recently gave away 100 meals a day for 10 days. You can find out more about this project at hundredforhospitality.com.
I’ve been trying to keep track of these community meal efforts for the past few months, and I’m likely to have missed some, but I wanted to give two more examples of local food entrepreneurs finding ways to use food to give back to Austinites who have been working overtime these past few months.
Ronald Cheng, the longtime restaurateur behind Chinatown, has delivered more than 1,500 meals to neighbors in need, from emergency medical services staffers to folks in the hospitality industry. If you want to support this continuing effort, you can donate to @chinatownatx on Venmo.
Mike Sistrunk’s company, HooDoo Crawfish, has been hosting crawfish boils around the city for customers who can place orders for pickup or delivery, and a portion of the proceeds goes to HooDoo Heroes, which Sistrunk started to support firefighters and EMS workers with their own crawfish boils.
Since the lockdown started, Sistrunk and his team have been giving away crawfish to first responders, and he’s continuing to raise money through a GoFundMe page so they can do these giveaways for the remainder of the crawfish season.
“I want to encourage people that whatever you do in your business or in your job, you can do something to give back,” Sistrunk said. “If I made shoes, I’d make shoes for ’em. If I wrote songs, I’d write ’em a song. But I boil crawfish, so this is what we’re doing.”