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Get Inspired: A New Kind of New Year's Resolution

At the start of every New Year, we are bombarded with messages telling us how we should improve our lives: we should exercise more, eat healthier, and set ambitious goals for bettering ourselves. And yet every year by February our gym routines decline, our eating habits return, and our shiny goals fade away into the day-to-day.

This year, rather than focusing on changing yourself, we are encouraging you to focus on what you can change in your community. If we took the collective energy put into New Year’s resolutions and funneled it into supporting community leaders and improving the health of our community, imagine how much more we could accomplish.

With this in mind, we sat down with three leaders from different sectors working within food and agriculture in Texas. We asked what drives them, what barriers we face as a community, what it takes to do their work successfully, and how you can get involved.

Racelis and Hunter (L. Richards)

Racelis (left) and Hunter. (Photo by L. Richard)

Alexis Racelis – University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Alexis Racelis is an Associate Professor at the School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences at UT Rio Grande Valley, focusing on Agroecology and Resilient Food Systems. As a professor, Alexis’ work is multifaceted – including teaching courses, leading research that involves a 5-acre working farm, and codirecting the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Advancement.

Food production doesn’t mean food access

Alexis considers one of our greatest challenges to be the impact of food production on farmers and farm workers. Many of the places that produce our nation’s food suffer from the highest rates of food insecurity and diet-related disease.

This is true in the Rio Grande Valley where Alexis is based. He reported that although the Valley produces 240% of the food it actually requires to feed its residents, it isn’t staying local. The food is traveling many miles to feed the rest of the country and is inaccessible to the very people who grow it.

The type of agriculture practiced here is often detrimental to the health of the planet and specifically to this region: residents of the Rio Grande Valley are forced to deal with the effects of pesticides, herbicides, agricultural waste, and pollution.

Racelis and Students (K. Lavallee)

Racelis and students. (Photo by K. Lavallee)

An opportunity for change

Though it’s easy to feel disheartened, Alexis sees an enormous opportunity for change. Food systems have the greatest impact on our planet, but also the greatest potential to move toward regeneration.

Alexis is driven to do this work because he knows he can truly make a difference, and he shares this sentiment with his students. “My students are growing up in an era where they are dealing with the consequences of what we did in the last generation, and they can feel burdened by this. Having them engage in this work that’s timely and relevant inspires them to keep on this track”.

Alexis hopes to help others understand the interconnectedness of food to many other societal issues. He knows that although large-scale, industrial food production can have a negative impact on the environment and people who grow it, with this comes a great opportunity to make positive change. This may be the only industry that has the power to transform social, economic, and environmental issues all at once, and Alexis and his community are trying to do just that.

Heather Helman

Helman at a Mobile Market at Central Health Southeast Health and Wellness Center

Heather Helman – Farmshare Austin

Heather Helman is the Food Access Director at Farmshare Austin, a local non-profit whose mission is to grow a healthy local food community by increasing food access, teaching new farmers and preserving farmland.

Heather’s professional background began in agriculture, and it wasn’t until she was actually working on a farm that she tasted truly fresh produce that hadn’t been shipped from across the country. Now she wants to ensure that others can access healthy, affordable food grown in their own community.

Farmers’ markets for all

Heather manages Farmshare’s Mobile Markets – mini farmers’ markets that set up around East Austin and Del Valle in communities with socioeconomic or geographic barriers to accessing healthy food. The markets are open to the public but specifically designed to serve customers who may not live near or be able to shop at traditional grocery stores or farmers' markets.

Heather pointed out that there is a lot of money to be spent on food: regardless of income, food makes up a significant part of everyone’s budget. Grocery stores often overlook the communities where Farmshare sets up Mobile Markets as they tend to open stores in more affluent neighborhoods. Mobile Markets show customers that they are a valued part of the community, by providing fresh, healthy produce at affordable prices.

Padron Farm Stand

Barriers to food access

Heather believes that the biggest challenges our community faces around food access include gentrification, transportation, and fluctuating immigration policies. There is a massive wealth disparity in Austin. There are few - if any - affordable, walkable neighborhoods, which limits people’s ability to easily pick up groceries. The city is struggling to develop without displacing families who have been here for generations. These families often get pushed out to areas of the city with fewer resources.

Fear and uncertainty around immigration policies prevent families from seeking services that make healthy food more accessible, such as SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) or even Mobile Markets. Heather said that “when immigration policies come up in the news, we have to look at how to make customers feel safe and welcome, and let them know we are never going to put them in harms’ way. We need to cultivate an atmosphere of trust and safety in the community to truly provide food access to everyone living here”.

Farmshare aims to make their Mobile Markets accessible for everybody, and the more folks that shop at the markets, the more produce they can bring to the markets and the more their programs can grow.

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Dominguez con Ponce (center with apron) with THK class participants

Selene M. Dominguez con Ponce – The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre®

Selene M. Dominguez con Ponce does a little bit of everything – she works for a tax preparer, runs a small food business, and on top of all that she is a facilitator with The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre®.

After Selene took her first THK class, she loved it so much that it became her dream to teach the classes herself. As a facilitator, she goes out to community centers, churches, and clinics to teach cooking classes to community members. She teaches class participants how to make healthy recipes, use products from the farmers’ market, read food labels, and make recipe substitutions with familiar ingredients.

Knowledge (and money) is power

Without a doubt, Selene feels that the biggest barrier to accessing healthy food is money. Selene moved to the United States 18 years ago from Mexico. She said that the food she grew up eating is delicious and healthy - if you have access to quality ingredients. Unfortunately, it’s just not always easy or affordable to access these ingredients. People end up spending their money on more affordable food options and often experience health disparities as a result.

She believes another barrier people face is a lack of knowledge. She wants everyone to know that - that learning about ingredients, utilizing information on the internet, and taking cooking classes can ultimately benefit your family in the future. She also believes that people need to experience good, healthy food firsthand. Talking about food is one thing, but it’s when people come to THK classes and get the experience of cooking and tasting it that they truly appreciate it’s value.

Selene utilizes Whatsapp to spread the message about her work. She shares information about cooking classes to more than 800 of her contacts, ranging from school groups to church groups to immigrant community chats. She is a part of SFC’s Spanish Facebook group Come fresco y sano en Austin, a group dedicated to recipe and idea-sharing with more than 1,000 local members.

Selene feels it’s her purpose to share cooking and nutrition with her community. “I want to share that you have the option to get a better life through eating well. It’s the key. Start eating well, thinking well – everything starts with that”.

Healthy but delicious

Selene also shares food with her community through her business, Salunas Creations. She uses local ingredients to create delicious products such as salsa, pesto, muffins, and even spicy Oaxacan mole cupcakes. Over the years she has modified ingredients to make the products more nutritious, like swapping sugar for honey and chocolate for 100% cacao.

Farmshare Students

Farmer Starter students working on Farmshare Austin's certified organic farm in Cedar Creek

Change at every level

We have no doubt that it takes effort at every level to make change toward a more equitable food system. Individual action, peer to peer education, agencies providing direct services, and institutional research and leadership are all needed.

As we embark upon this New Year, we invite you to make a commitment to better your community by supporting the work of Alexis, Heather, and Selene in any way that you are able:

How will you take part?