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Customers wait at the Double Up Food Bucks booth at the SFC Farmers' Market Downtown to pick up their WIC produce box

Pandemic Pivots: How SFC provided Food Access & Education in 2020

Like many others, Sustainable Food Center has faced the challenge of how to serve our community during the pandemic. Economic hardship and shortages of grocery staples made our Food Access and Education services more in-demand than ever before. During this uncertain time, we have seen a higher need for food assistance and a growing interest in eating healthy, local food.

Historically hands-on and community-based, our Food Access and Education team needed to adapt quickly to safely provide our services. By working with key partners and researching best practices, we have started to deliver our services in new ways. Today, we’re taking a closer look at some of the pivots our Food Access and Education team has made since March.

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In past years, the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program has relied heavily on in-person interaction. (Photo taken in 2016)

Pivot 1: Finding Safe Ways to Provide Food Access

The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), also known as the WIC Voucher Program, is a seasonal, federal nutrition benefit available to eligible WIC recipients. Beginning every April, eligible WIC recipients can receive a booklet of vouchers worth $30, one time per year. The vouchers are good for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases at participating farmers’ markets. SFC matches the $30 benefit dollar-for-dollar with Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB), which do not expire, so each participant receives a total of $60 for fruits and vegetables.

With unprecedented levels of unemployment and an increase in WIC applications, FMNP and Double Up Food Bucks became an even more vital resource for our community. To offer these programs as safely as possible, we developed an online ordering system so participants could redeem their vouchers for a prepacked box of produce available for pick-up at SFC Farmers’ Markets. Through a collaborative effort with Austin/Travis County WIC, Texas Department of Agriculture, and local farmers, SFC launched the WIC Voucher Produce Box Program in early June 2020.

To offer our food access programs as safely as possible, we developed an online ordering system so participants could redeem their vouchers for a prepacked box of produce available for pick-up at SFC Farmers’ Markets.

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Food Access Associate safely assisting a customer as they pick up their WIC produce box at the SFC Farmers' Market Downtown

Our partners at Farmshare Austin — who normally sell affordable, local produce and grocery staples at Fresh for Less mobile markets around town — also adapted their model at the start of the pandemic. They closed their mobile markets and moved to a curbside delivery model, where customers place their orders online.

As both Fresh for Less and WIC vouchers moved to an online ordering process, we realized the digital divide — a lack of equitable Internet access — might be a barrier for some customers. To ensure customers were getting the food they needed, we created a bilingual Help Desk phone line to help both Farmshare customers and WIC Voucher recipients navigate this new process.

SFC promotoras (community health workers), who would normally do in-person recipe samplings and promote Fresh for Less at community events, staff the Help Desk, answering questions about using the online system, WIC vouchers, Double Up Food Bucks, or Fresh for Less. Since the spring, the Help Desk has reached more than 500 customers a month.

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Fruits, vegetables, and FNMP vouchers prepackaged and ready for pick up.

Pivot 2: Creating New Methods for Community Outreach

Another part of our work with Farmshare Austin — and our community engagement work in general — is promoting Fresh for Less and Double Up Food Bucks at community events. But with the cancellation of most community events this year, we had to get creative.

When promotoras were not answering Help Desk calls, they placed calls to past customers and individuals in our network to inform or remind them about our resources. We increased our social media engagement and even used billboards to spread the word. Instead of leading in-person recipe samplings at Farmshare’s mobile markets, we included recipes and nutrition flyers with curbside produce orders. And this fall, we launched a video series of short recipe demos.

Pivot 3: Adapting Educational Programs to an Online Format

A cornerstone of SFC’s programming is our free peer-facilitated cooking and gardening classes. Normally, we offer between 22-30 The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® and Intro to Food Gardening class series each year. But when the stay-at-home order was issued in Austin in early March, we couldn’t adapt in time to safely offer our spring classes in a new format, so we canceled all remaining class sessions.

We turned our energies to meeting the immediate need for food resources and shared additional resources online. We also created a quarantine cooking video series, published a digital version of our cookbook, and posted recipes to our blog. As it became clear that the pandemic wouldn’t be over soon, we reimagined how we could offer our classes online this fall.

Our first priority was making sure online classes would remain as accessible as possible, especially for people who already face barriers to participating in a healthy, local food system. We researched which video platforms were most user friendly and best for viewing on a phone rather than a computer. We adapted our curriculum to feature shorter classes, keeping in mind participants may be sharing a device, have shorter attention spans virtually, or may experience screen fatigue. In October, we debuted our virtual Happy Kitchen and Intro to Food Gardening classes, offering nine different online class series (five in English and four in Spanish).

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A facilitator films cooking demos for online Happy Kitchen classes.

Again, the digital divide was a challenge with the virtual class format. To get the most out of the class, participants need an internet-connected device. Participants did have the option to call into the classes, but they wouldn’t see the visual aids and demonstrations.

While virtual classes weren’t accessible for everyone, this new format allowed people to participate who would not have been able to attend in-person due to childcare needs or transportation issues. At our in-person classes, we offer transportation assistance and free childcare to reduce barriers to participating, but these barriers were removed altogether for online classes. We had virtual attendees from as far away as Bell County.

We got such positive feedback on the accessibility of the classes that we are evaluating offering both virtual and in-person classes in the future to expand our educational programming reach.

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Gardening supplies waiting for Intro to Food Gardening participants to pick up from our office.

During our in-person classes, participants go home with resources such as groceries and starter gardening materials. For the gardening classes, we hosted a small distribution event outside the SFC office where most participants could stop by and pick up materials. For our cooking classes, thanks to our partners at H-E-B and Farmshare Austin, we distributed groceries three times during the series.

The Happy Kitchen also adapted by using a new video format for cooking demos. Recipe demos for each class were pre-taped and the demo videos, as well as full class recordings, were available for participants who couldn’t attend during the scheduled class time. We got such positive feedback on the accessibility of the classes that we are evaluating offering both virtual and in-person classes in the future to expand our educational programming reach.

Growth Despite Challenges

While adapting to serve our clients during a pandemic had its challenges, we also saw growth and progress during this time.

The difficulties associated with safely implementing the WIC voucher program led Austin/Travis County WIC to launch a WIC Proxy Pilot program. This program allowed participants with qualifying conditions (like immunosuppression) to have someone shop for them and deliver their produce boxes to the participant’s home. Additionally, we saw the redemption rate of WIC Vouchers grow this year to 82.9%, compared to 69.5% in 2019.

We also adapted our Spread the Harvest resource giveaway day to provide participants with gardening resources in a contactless drive-through format. While the logistics weren’t easy, our hard work paid off: We saw an increase of 150 new individual Spread the Harvest members. In total, we reached 405 gardens through the giveaway, the highest number yet in a single season.

"I want to thank you for mailing seeds after the Resource Giveaway was canceled. I started many flats of seeds at home that were sent to me with the plan to give seedlings away to my students' families since many of them are starting gardens at home during the stay-at-home orders. Thank you! I'm so grateful for the SFC and what it has been able to provide for the community." - School gardener and Spread the Harvest participant

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Participants receive seeds, plants, and compost at our first drive-through Spread the Harvest event. The event drew more participants than ever before!

Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, we served our clients in safe and effective ways — and experienced both growth and innovation! While there is still room for improvement in ensuring online ordering and virtual classes are accessible and easy to use, we see these as opportunities to expand the reach of our programs. These pivots also reminded us of how important it is to build strong partnerships with other organizations to better serve the community. We are excited to take these lessons learned into 2021!