Essential Austin nonprofit is finding new ways to feed the community amid COVID-19

Plug into the Urban roots instagram to feed and you’ll find a new series of videos featuring Executive Director Max Elliott teaching viewers how to plant peppers; showcasing its ready crop of kale and the helpful larvae of aphid-eating ladybugs that live on the leaves; or interview (from a safe distance) local catering business leaders. His tone is even and hopeful, a brief lifeline for those of us struggling with isolation as the COVID-19 outbreak continues.

In 2008, Elliott founded Urban Roots as a nonprofit agricultural initiative in East Austin with a mission “to use food and agriculture to transform the lives of young people and to inspire, engage and nurture the community.” . Over the years, he has grown the 3.5-acre farm to support 75 paid internships and scholarships for teens and young adults each year.

Normally over 1,000 volunteers step in throughout the year to help collect over 25,000 pounds of food, almost half of which is distributed.

April is a peak month for activity at Urban Roots. When the first harvests begin to arrive, the farm is usually full of young people and volunteers learning the tasks, skills and responsibilities of an organic farmer. Like so many other institutions in the time of COVID-19, however, Elliott has had to quickly reimagine what Urban Roots can do to help during this crisis.

“We are a youth development organization, and our farm is our vehicle for change for these young people to learn the value of meaningful hard work, learn where food comes from, learn to give back to the community,” says Elliott . “With this COVID outbreak, we have had to pause all of our youth programs.”

As a non-profit organization, Urban Roots survives on a few diverse sources of income – a combination of grants, sales at the farmers market, individual and corporate support, and donations from events. His biggest fundraising event was due to take place later this month, but Elliott was forced to cancel the gala.

“It’s about 20% of our budget,” he says. ” It’s going to be hard. Our fiscal year ends at the end of July, and we are not going to make up for that with product sales.

Beyond funding setbacks, Elliott faces another crucial challenge for farms: a labor shortage. With volunteer and youth initiatives suspended indefinitely, the farm, considered an essential business by the city, is open to staff only.

“We are, by design, a non-profit farm, so our staff is primarily a group of youth development experts,” says Elliott. “So we’re reorganizing our team and sort of cross-training so that our staff can keep working and pulling the crop, and we can keep serving the community.”

The spring harvest that has started in recent weeks and is starting to pick up speed now is proving plentiful. Even with new sanitation protocols and retrained staff, the question for Urban Roots remains how best to use all of these products and stay on mission.

“This week is sort of our ‘restaurant week,'” says Elliott. “The restaurant community has been so generous and supportive of us over the years. They had to make very tough decisions to lay off employees, and in the meantime they are trying to take care of their employees as best they can and provide food and groceries.

“We collected about 240 pounds on Tuesday morning to distribute to our friends at La Condesa,” Elliott continues, and he directs similar collections to Suerte and Launderette staff later in the week.

With young people who would normally work those crops instead sheltered at home — many in southeast Austin in areas with limited access to full-service grocery stores — Elliott also has a plan for the to help.

“Next week, we will collect a lot of products for our young participants, distributing food to them and their families,” he says. Some families will come to the farm for product box pick-up, while others with limited transportation options will have product delivered directly to their homes.

In keeping with their mission to feed those in need, a large portion of Urban Roots’ harvest will typically go to soup kitchens and other food security donation programs. The new precautionary measures put in place to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus have complicated the distribution of products to these organizations. According to Elliott, the dozen hunger relief partners he regularly works with — Caritas, Meals on Wheels and the Capital Area Food Bank among them — need to adapt as quickly as he does to continue offering their services.

“As they adapt to this new landscape, we need to adapt to best meet their needs,” he says. “Some organizations are not providing soup kitchens as they used to because there is a greater concern about safety… The emergency food relief system is changing rapidly, so we need to be in communication [with our partners] to see who can best use the products and how we get them to them. So it’s in progress. »

As for the larger Austin community, Elliott says Urban Roots plans to make its first appearance this year at the SFC Downtown Farmer’s Market on Saturday, April 11. , Elliott plans to offer prepackaged vegetable boxes in the future.

“All CSAs are full,” he says, “so there’s a huge demand. We’ll just roll this out slowly and see how it goes. We want to get to a place where we sell [30 or 40 boxes] per week, as well as 30 or 40 donations per week. He compares his model to that of TOMS shoes. “You buy a box, and it will support [the donation of another box] which will go to someone in need.

Despite the upheaval and in keeping with his optimistic nature, Elliott sees some bright spots.

“We see many of our other partners as [produce delivery services] Farm to Table and Farmshare are thriving,” he says. “We see a lot of our fellow farmers thriving. And it’s exciting.

While other for-profit farms find new niches and new ways to generate revenue, the nonprofit landscape remains a scary place for someone in Elliott’s position.

“We’re not able to get volunteers, and it’s really difficult because I know a lot of people want to help that way,” he says. “In order for us to continue growing food for the community, we would really appreciate any donations people can make. You can make donations on our website

As harvest season begins in earnest, Elliott finds that farming is even more essential now, not only for those who benefit from the produce from his farm, but also for those who work hard to bring those produce to the community. .

“The farm is currently this amazing haven for our staff to recharge, be outdoors, be in a healthy place, grow food, nurture the community, and have purpose,” says Elliott. “For us, it’s a huge privilege that the best thing we can do for Austin right now is to keep growing food.”

Comments are closed.