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Regenerate Our Land, Reform Our Food: a vision for an equitable, resilient food system in Central Texas

SFC envisions a model regional food system led by a revolution in small-to mid-scale regenerative agriculture.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Sustainable Food Center

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Our stakeholder team is comprised primarily of governmental agencies and other local & regional NGOs: Local and regional governmental agencies: City of Austin Office of Sustainability, Austin Public Health, Travis County Health & Human Services, Capital Area Council of Governments Local & regional NGO partners: National Center for Appropriate Technology, Farmshare Austin, Foodshed Investors, Texas Center for Local Food, Texas Farmers’ Markets, Fair Food Network, Central Texas Food Bank, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and many more. University Partners: UT School of Public Health, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.sustainablefoodcenter.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Austin, Texas

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Central Texas, a sub-region within the state of Texas (United States of America) that covers a total area of 23,680 km^2

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Central Texas is home to the seat of the Texas state government in Austin, where Sustainable Food Center (SFC) has been in operation for 45 years. Despite the many iterations of our mission over the decades, we have remained committed to a local Central Texas service area, stemming from our belief that a more localized approach to food production and consumption yields the best results for our economy, the environment, and our health.

Our history as an organization is rooted in the soil, and the connections we have forged between people and their source of food. We were originally founded as Austin Community Gardens in 1975 to address community food security for chronically underserved residents in East Austin with little access to fresh, affordable foods, and otherwise little access to suitable land for food production. This became an early signifier of our community-based approach to addressing problems in our food system.

In the 1990s when we rebranded, we began adding programming that included more and more food systems actors and representatives: bilingual cooking classes serving high-risk adults facing diet-related illness; farmers, ranchers and value-added vendors served through our farmers’ markets and farm stands; and families receiving public benefits through our innovative matching incentive programs, to name a few.

In the past 10 years, however, Austin and Central Texas has seen dramatic land development led by explosive population growth that has put stress on a number of the region's systems, including our food system. In the past 5 years we have lost an average of 9 acres of farmland per day to development. Climate change looms over the future of our food supply.

All these challenges and more point to an urgent need for SFC to act on a systems-level to organize the network of community members and partnerships we have built over the decades to leverage regenerative agriculture as a way of reforming our Central Texas food system.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Austin, Texas and the surrounding Metro Area has been booming for the past decade plus. The 5-county Metro Area now boasts a population of ~2,216,000 (as of Jan. 2019), as compared to 1,719,289 residents at the start of the decade in 2010 (a roughly 30% increase), with no indications of slowing down anytime soon. The metro area has been the fastest growing metro area of its size in the country for eight years running.

Surrounding Austin are dozens of municipalities. To the West: the Texas Hill Country leading the state in wine production; to the North: much developed suburbs increasingly home to more and more residents and corporate headquarters; to the East: flat, fertile plains – perfect for cattle grazing and in certain low-lying areas, food cultivation; to the South – a burgeoning population connecting increasingly with our neighbors in San Antonio.

As you might imagine, the culture of Austin has evolved dramatically over the past 50 years. What was once the sleepy state capital is now better known nationally for its technology sector (rivaling the Bay Area and earning the nickname “Silicon Hills”) and its entertainment sector as the “Live Music Capital” of the country. Through all of this, Austin has tried to cultivate and retain the cultural spirit of its unofficial slogan for the past 20 years: “Keep Austin Weird” – no doubt a reference to the independent, creative, free-spirited nature that Austin’s residents and small businesses have nurtured for decades. This is a vibrant community that embraces entrepreneurship, individuality, and (radical) authenticity, thus the seemingly endless parade of taco trucks, live music venues, start-ups and street art.

It’s easy to describe the City of Austin as an urban paradise, when in reality, it is still dealing with its own ugly past in the way that many southern cities in the U.S. must. The most obvious example that we still feel today stems from the City’s 1928 Master Plan, which redefined a citywide land use blueprint as a means of “legally” segregating the city along racial lines. The effect? The legalized segregation of blacks by the 1928 Master Plan evolved into the effective and real segregation of blacks and Hispanics in East Austin – a highly valuable and rapidly gentrifying geographic area today. Austin was bisected by race.

Today, the Austin MSA is a majority White region, despite the city itself being a “no majority” town, with no ethnic or racial group comprising more than 50% of the population. White and Latino/x populations both make up more than 40% of the population in the city.

Much of the minority growth today is happening outside the urban core, where now two out of every five residents is a minority. Between 2000 and 2015, according to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, black and Hispanic populations decreased in areas within 3 miles of Austin’s core but doubled in areas 20 miles or more from downtown, a phenomenon common in many major metro areas across the country, known by demographers as the “inversion of the American city.”

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

23680

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

2400000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

2020 Challenges:

Central Texas is home to a vibrant and growing regional economy—one with significant market demand for local and sustainably-grown food. The rapid population growth driving the economy has also exacerbated pressures on the local food system, such as the availability of affordable farmland and the accessibility of fresh food for lower-income consumers. The threat of fertile farmland loss looms large. Austin and San Antonio are quickly growing into peri-urban areas. Intense demand for new housing and commercial development pressures have led to a precipitous 20% decline in area cropland (1,642,163 acres). The amount of cropland lost in 5 years is twice the size of New York City, and is the equivalent of losing 223 acres of cropland every single day.

In addition, of the over 1.1 million residents living in Travis County, approximately 15.2% experience food insecurity. It is incumbent upon local food system stakeholders to develop sustainable market solutions that benefit producers and consumers alike.

There’s a disappearing middle segment of producers who are too big to sell direct to consumer and too small to compete with mega farms. This is in part due to the fact that producers face systematic challenges to scaling, including structural economic barriers and lack of infrastructure supports.

From a policy perspective, our food system faces challenges mostly from state and federal government, neither of which have supported small to mid-size diversified producers in recent history. On social issues like food access, much work still needs to be done to convince state lawmakers to invest more in health prevention and food security programs like Double Up Food Bucks as a cross sectoral solution to ending hunger and supporting local agriculture.

2050 Challenges:

In Texas, the looming realities of rapid population growth and weather intensity mean that the things we rely on to live — water, energy, dependable infrastructure, and an ecosystem to support them — are under unprecedented risk.

Texas’ population today is nearly 28 million. By 2050, that number is predicted to double to 55 million, with most people clustered in already-dense urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. Limited resources will be in even greater demand.

Add to that the environmental stress from prolonged droughts, record-breaking heat waves, and destructive floods, and what we have won’t be enough.

In the Austin Metro Area, demographers don’t predict any reason for change, with vast amounts of land surrounding the city still available for development.

In the next 20 years, the Austin metro area’s population is expected to nearly double to 3.6 million, according to city projections. Urban planners say finding ways to support the region’s increasingly more suburban communities with the transportation infrastructure, health care facilities and social services more common in big cities has become of paramount importance.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Sustainable Food Center’s long-term vision, “Regenerate Our Land, Reform Our Food,” is centered on the big, hairy audacious goal of dramatically increasing consumption of regionally- and regeneratively-grown food in Central Texas. We have outlined nine sets of priorities to address the immediate and long-term challenges to our food system:

Priority 1: Development of city/regional action plan to support our long-term goal

Priority 2: Preserve and support existing sustainable small to mid-sized farms to increase production and ensure future farm viability

Priority 3: Foster development of a new generation of sustainable farmers to increase production

Priority 4: Incentivize existing farmers to transition to more sustainable/regenerative methods of food production

Priority 5: Build regional food infrastructure to support distribution, value-added processing and lower costs of nutritious, local, culturally relevant foods (NLC)

Priority 6: Increase wholesale purchasing (institutions, grocery, local chains) for local, nutritious and culturally relevant food

Priority 7: Ensure that NLC food is available direct to consumer

Priority 8: Ensure that NLC food is affordable

 Priority 9:  Provide educational opportunities that promote consumption of NLC food

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Regenerate Our Land, Reform Our Food envisions a long-term future for the Central Texas food system in which:

Sustainable and regenerative small to mid-size farm production increases through new and transitional farms.

Farmland is preserved for regenerative management to combat climate change and provide fertile, viable soil for future generations of producers and consumers.

Infrastructure exists for small to mid-sized farmers to move their products to outlets, and affordable outlets are in all communities.

Individuals and families who are purchasing local food and growing their own food have the resources and skills to prepare the food and incorporate it into healthy, culturally-relevant meals.

Policies at the state level support new and beginning farmers, provide insurance for small scale agriculture and specialty crop production in order to reduce risk, and increase incentives for this type of farming such as procurement requirements/policies for publicly-funded institutions.

Policies at the local level increase access to local food by providing subsidies to low income families and or utilizing publicly-owned land for agricultural production.

SFC’s envisioned future has been integrated into a region-wide food vision and strategy with multiple agencies and NGOs working in a concerted way to bring about these exciting changes. SFC has been recognized as a leader in catalyzing food system change.

 Central Texas is recognized as one of the most sustainable, equitable foodsheds in the US.  

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Despite the outward appearances of a vibrant and growing metropolis, Austin and Central Texas has become a fragile region. Farmland loss, global warming, population growth, and socioeconomic inequality push our systems to the brink.

Our food system, while a complicated intersection of so many industries and policies at all scales of society and business, is at its core how we as a community feed ourselves. It’s a reflection of our collective decisions over the generations about how we want to move our culture forward, who or what we want to invest our resources in, and what we choose to eat.

While human ingenuity has optimized so much of our food system from where it was a century ago, it hasn’t been without its costs, none of which is more apparent or punishing for future generations as the damage done to the environment: immense waste, the depletion of soil, the loss of biodiversity from monocropping, air and water pollution, etc. Any gains we perceive to have made in the way of food and nutrition are at risk of being wiped out entirely.

Sustainable Food Center offers an alternative vision for our food system in Central Texas that focuses on resilience and collaboration. Resilience through a radical transformation in agricultural land management – through regenerative agriculture. Collaboration through a shared vision for how our community feeds itself – a diversified supply chain of nutritious food that offers unique economic opportunity at every scale of production and consumption. We know that there is a huge untapped demand among Austin area residents of all backgrounds for nourishing, fresh foods. Sustainable Food Center wants to lead the way for our community in Central Texas to become a model for building up an equitable and regenerative regional food system and food supply chain that others in North America and around the world may replicate.

Sustainable Food Center’s long-term vision, “Regenerate Our Land, Reform Our Food,” is centered around our goal to drastically increase the consumption of regionally and regeneratively-produced food in the Austin Metro Area. Currently, that figure is estimated to be about 1-3%. Increasing that number means more regenerative acres in production and tonnage of food produced. It also means more acres preserved and likely more farms and farmers. Regenerative agriculture demands diversified operations and better markets for carbon-capturing, nitrogen-fixing, climate-resilient crops, in addition to more robust system infrastructure to support middle-tier agricultural production (food hubs, cold storage, transportation partners, etc.) This vision will require public awareness and education in collaboration with local government, corporate partners, academic institutions, health care systems, energy systems, and the non-profit sector.

Environment:

SFC’s mission is to cultivate a just and regenerative food system so that people and the environment can thrive. Central Texas is a fragile ecological region, subject to heat waves, flooding, and drought exacerbated by climate change. Land development pressures brought on by a growing urban population continue to eat up valuable open, arable land that provides an important resource buffer and carbon sink. SFC envisions two key strategies to stem the challenge of farmland loss and land use/management. 1) The creation of a regional farmland trust to allow private (or public) land to be placed into ag conservation easements and to be used exclusively for regenerative farming, 2) farmer education and training to advance on-farm regenerative practices and ultimately support the conversion of conventional farms to organic (and beyond).

Diets:

SFC has long been an established leader in nutrition education and healthy food access programs in the Austin Metro Area, with flagship programs like The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® and Double Up Food Bucks the most recognizable. We and many of our partners understand the relationship between diet and accessibility/affordability. If we want to expect for low-income families to begin consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables, we need incentivize those purchasing decisions by making them more available and more affordable and more culturally relevant across an increasingly diverse population in Central Texas. We envision the social sector continuing to lead in community-led educational programming to ensure people have the knowledge, skills, confidence, and access to prepare fresh, seasonal ingredients for their families. We want to see an expansion of existing programs so that every family is able to take a cooking class, and all families are able to access fresh, affordable, regionally-produced food.

Economics:

As Paul Rice, CEO of Fair Trade USA recently said in an interview: “If [a] farmer is starving, she's not going to have the economic means to invest in product quality, and the product quality is determined largely on the farm.” An investment in regeneratively grown produce – a standard of product quality -- is an inherently economic investment in the soil and in the farmers and ranchers that manage the soil and grow our food. As a growing urban community surrounded by rural ag communities, Austin and other municipalities in Central Texas have to work together to invest more in food systems infrastructure that allow for farms to invest in product quality. SFC envisions supporting the growth in “Ag of the Middle” economics in Central Texas – where small to mid-size farmers are able to access wholesale markets or value added processing facilities to support regenerative agriculture on the type of scale needed to achieve our dream. We envision working with cross sectoral partners to establish more wholesale purchasing relationships with local businesses and producers, including school districts, convention centers, restaurant groups, etc., which would necessarily give farmers a scale-goal to reach to encourage growth. Ultimately, we would push for large scale capital investment (public and private) in food systems infrastructure such as traditional food hubs to support increased supply.

Culture:

Our vision for the future of the regional Central Texas food system emphasizes equity and access, twin pillars of the food justice movement. Our community may continue to struggle with housing affordability and may be confronted with future economic struggles. Despite systemic socioeconomic challenges, we will continue to make sure that affordable access to fresh, local, culturally relevant food is achievable for everyone. We know the best way to do this is to empower community leadership to support programs and investments that enhance the quality of life determined by their own set of values. All we can do is ensure that we have the resources in place to meet them where they are.

Technology:

Technological solutions will be vital to optimizing a regional food system and ensuring transparency in the supply chain. We envision tapping into the incredible pool of talent in the Austin area and local academic institutions to develop web-based tools that can enable actors all along the regional food supply chain to participate in the local production, storage, value-add, processing, transportation, and retail economies. Consumers will then be able to directly verify the source of their food if it’s not accessed through direct-to-consumer markets.

Policy:

SFC envisions a multi-level local, state and national policy strategy aimed at supporting new and beginning farmers, provide insurance for small scale agriculture and specialty crop production in order to reduce risk, and increase incentives for this type of farming such as procurement requirements/policies for publicly-funded institutions.

We will advocate for policies at the local level to increase access to local food by providing subsidies to low income families and or utilizing publicly-owned land for agricultural production (e.g., community and school gardens).

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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