Who’s hungry in Austin?

What does it mean to be poor in Central Texas? Often it means being hungry. Yes, there are a number of free meal providers for poor people in and around Austin, but just preparing and offering a meal is only part of the equation. Food pantries and other food providers can’t provide the transportation and access hungry people need to get to the food. In the meantime, those who can’t get to food – whether they be busy working moms, young children, elderly people with limited mobility, or disabled people – just stay hungry.

It’s a complicated problem, and one the Basic Needs Coalition (BNC) is trying to solve. According to a 2007 survey BNC, 75% of all people living in poverty in Travis County do not have access to a food provider (like a food pantry or a “soup kitchen.”) Here are more results from the survey:

Demographics of Food Pantry Clients in Travis County:

  • 81% of food pantry clients are female.
  • 67% live at or below the poverty line.
  • 21% work full or part-time.
  • 30% are disabled or retired.

(Capital Area Food Bank)

An analysis of food providers for low-income individuals and families by zip code showed:
* 13 of the 24 Travis County zip codes with high poverty levels do not have a food provider, representing 6,946 poor, or 75% of all the people in poverty without access to a food provider.

* Limited evening hours and limited hours on Saturdays may pose a serious challenge for the working poor in accessing food pantries.

* While in general, pantries appear to have an adequate supply of food, there are shortages of dairy products, fresh produce, and fresh or frozen meat, impacting the nutritional health of adults and children in poverty.

* Transportation may pose an obstacle to pantry utilization, especially in rural areas with little to no access to public transportation.
(BNC Travis County Food Provider Survey Results, 2007)

Availability of Prepared Meal Provision in Downtown Austin:

* 9 of 10 meal providers are open to the public.

* Breakfast is provided to the public by at least 1 provider 5 days a week, with an additional day for women. Smaller providers serve breakfast. Weekly breakfasts served by each is between 150 and 225.

* Lunch is covered by at least 2 providers 7 days a week, each serving between 300 and 2,275 weekly meals.

* Dinner is provided 7 days a week, with at least 2 providers for 6 of those days. 2 of the 3 dinner providers serve more than 1,500 weekly dinners.

(BNC Travis County Food Provider Survey Results, 2007)


1. Join Caritas of Austin, the Basic Needs Coalition, and leaders from faith-based organizations on February 13 at the Mexican American Cultural Center for Poverty Roundtable 2008. This educational forum is an opportunity for Austin’s faith community leaders to examine the reality of hunger. Presentations will focus on effective collaborative models for organizations to become actively engaged in addressing food security in the Austin Area. Advanced registration is required and the faith community will be given priority. A light lunch will be provided.

WHAT: Poverty Roundtable 2008
WHO: Representatives from the BNC Food Security Committee and leaders from
Central Texas faith-based organizations.
WHEN: Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River Street
WHERE: Wednesday, February 13th, 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

For more information please contact Tamara Landry Bell at 479-4610, ext. 224 or tlbell@caritasofaustin.org.

2. Let your Federal and State elected officials know what you think about issues regarding poverty. To be connected by telephone to the office of any U.S. House Representative or Senator, call 1-202-224-3121. Or visit the Capitol website to contact any state legislator.

3. Visit the BNC website at which will be updated throughout the year with information and progress on systemic solutions.

4. Contribute in-kind or financial contributions to local BNC Partners. Visit the Basic Needs Coalition website for a complete listing.
5. To volunteer, contact the United Way Capital Area’s Volunteer Center at 2-1-1 or visit Hands on Central Texas for opportunities to help out. Or visit the Basic Needs Coalition’s website for any volunteer opportunities.

About The Basic Needs Coalition:
The Basic Needs Coalition is a coalition of nearly 40 public and private social service providers working together to serve people in need in our community. The Coalition is comprised of non-profit organizations, local governmental agencies, faith-based organizations and community advocates. The information above comes from Caritas of Austin.

1000+ Gather to Honor Austin Philanthropists

Austin Philanthropy Day Kirk Watson

Senator Kirk Watson presided over the 2008 Austin Philanthropy Day Awards

Yesterday’s 2008 Philanthropy Day lunch event produced by the Austin chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals was huge, crowded, and more fun than it should have been. Almost every nonprofit in Central Texas was represented, and despite the large number of attendees, this was a pretty chummy crowd.

We’ll cover the event with more photographs in our first issue, but I wanted to share with you some of the highlights and photos. Thanks to photographer Greg Cestaro for the great pictures.

Austin Philanthropy Day Conspirare

Philanthropy Day opened with a performance by Conspirare

Austin Philanthropy Day Sara and Dick Rathgeber

“Aspiring philanthropists have to find a cause that they truly believe in.” Sara and Dick Rathgeber accept the award for Outstanding Philanthropists.

Austin Philanthropy Day Jody Denberg

Jody Denberg of KGSR accepts the award for Outstanding Philanthropic Corporation.

Austin Philanthropy Day Michele Walker-Moak

“Every girl deserves to be diva for a day!” Beth Tracy of IBM presents Michele Walker-Moak of Applied Materials with the Outstanding Community Affairs Executive Award, with tiara.

Austin Philanthropy Day Ed Gardner

“If you could see these little kids come to the Assistance League and Operation School Bell and get their first set of new clothes… it causes tears to your eyes.” Ed Gardner, a volunteer for the Assistance League of Austin, accepts the Special Recognition Award for his work leading the renovation of a building for the ALA.

Austin Philanthropy Day Ryan Berber

“I’ve been blessed with an unusual opportunity,” said 21-year-old Ryan Berber, winner of the Kelly Davidson Memorial Outstanding Philanthropic Youth (Young Adult) Award. “It’s only right that I pass it on.”

Austin Philanthropy Day Brianna Vogel

“I want to be a scientist or an art teacher when I grow up,” said third-grader Brianna Vogel, winner of the Kelly Davidson Memorial Outstanding Philanthropic Youth (Child/Teen) Award. Vogel created Brianna’s Pennies of Love, formng a board and raising $1800 of funds to buy art supplies for a local pediatric cancer center.

Read more about the AFP and its Philanthropy Day event here.

And who knew THIS was Austin?

I’m working on a story for the first issue about the United Way Capital Area’s recent change to its funding model. David Balch, president of UWCA, was kind enough to spend some an hour getting me up to speed about the particulars of this change. It’s a complicated story and it makes me wish I were a better journalist, but it’s the kind of thing I love to write about. I’ll do my best.

Whether you support the new model or not, you can’t deny some of the facts and stats that compelled the UWCA to rethink its strategy. I consider myself a pretty informed person, but here are just some of the things I didn’t know … and that scare the bejesus out of me:

1. About 40% of Central Texas children entering Central Texas public schools are at leaset 18 months behind in basic language and cognitive skills.

2. 40% of Central Texas families live at or below the Family Security Index income level, which measures real income required to provide families’ most essential needs.

3. Austin has a higher proportion of workers earning poverty level wages than any comparison city its size – and the highest racial income inequality among comparison cities.

4. One-third of Central Texas children entering 9th grade do not make it to the 12th grade three years later.

Let’s take another look at that last one: Out of three 9th graders in Central Texas public high schools, one of them will drop out. What do you think that person will do without a high school degree? I don’t care if you’re not worried that they don’t make as much as the other two kids, but you’ve got to care that there will be more people in our community doing whatever they have to do to make ends meet, and living one paycheck away from needing support from social services or the state.

The scarier thing is, that stat doesn’t represent an improvement in our community – in fact, that situation is getting worse.

What can we do about it? We are churning out poor people and high-school dropouts like there’s no tomorrow. That’s sure to keep Austin weird. Not in a good way.

Who knew this was Austin?


Ignacio Cruz, Shannon Sandrea, and Kristin West at the MLK Day of Service

Who knew Austin looked like this? I’m specifically speaking about the attendees of this past weekend’s MLK Day of Service event, produced by the United Way. I’d heard about this event before, so I decided it was time to finally check it out. “This is actually one of our smallest events,” Mando Rayo told me. He’s the director of Hands on Central Texas… I’ve mentioned him before.

Small or not, this was a lively group of about 150 who showed up despite the cold, drizzly weather. They gathered in a big hall on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University – “Texas’ first institution of higher education, by the way,” said State Rep Dawna Dukes, a speaker at the event. I didn’t know that. In fact, I was surprised by a lot of things that day. Admittedly, I don’t get out as much as I should. But I’d never seen such a mix of people! White-haired white men, dreadlocked and Afro’d African-Americans, white women, Hispanic men, teenagers, small children, people of every color, gender, size, and age that I’ve ever seen in Austin, all in one big room.

I live on the West Side. Not west of Mopac, I mean west of I-35. We west-of-I-35’ers don’t get to see many different kinds of people. Now, I’m from San Antonio and have lived on the South Side of Chicago and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so I’m used to getting a mix. Can I just tell you how nice it was so see this mix again? And here in Austin? Oh, it was nice.

Other nice surprises:

1. I didn’t realize just how willing these people would be to participate. A group called Theater Action Project (yet another nonprofit I’d never heard of – and I’m looking for these NPOs, folks!) got the entire 100+ group to walk around, jump, yell out their names, touch each other, laugh, and work together. I know this sounds strange to point out, but the fact is that hardly any of these people knew each other. All strangers, making little houses over other strangers. Wow. You can’t get that level of participation at a wedding.

mlk-theater-action-project-3.jpg mlk-theater-action-project-1.jpg

2. I didn’t know anything about The Cipher. And you must check these young men and women out. They are all self-expression, hurt, and hopefulness: “Tell me what would you say if you had the whole world paying attention.” This group of about nine young people, led by a young man named Gator, perform original beats and rhymes one after the other, each reflecting on the message of “I have a dream.” These are Austinites, folks, and you should hear what they have t say.

3. As a child, Pastor Joe Parker knew Dr. Martin Luther King. His father was a pastor and a friend of MLK. And MLK has had a profound effect on Pastor Parker’s life. Joe Parker was an attorney – and a successful one at that – but he left it all for the Baptist ministry. He was called to service and, more importantly, he answered that call. Pastor Parker spoke at the MLK event on Saturday, and he was captivating. Who knew one of Austin’s best leaders had been directly inspired by one of the world’s greatest leaders?

For more about the event, visit the UWCA blog.

Blog to watch: Candid Communications

Sarah Michel, development associate at Caritas, has decided to take on the blog thing herself and focus on important socio-economic issues around the world. Her work at Caritas has exposed her to refugees from a number of countries going through “political unrest,” as they call it, and her blog is going to be an attempt to learn more about these issues, spread the word, and spark her readers into some form of action.

Here’s an excerpt from the latest entry:

While we were all eating our black-eyed peas for good luck on new year’s day, Kikuyus were being burned alive in a church, a place known to so many as a sanctuary, a place of refuge.

It doesn’t hurt that Sarah’s a really talented writer. Please visit her blog and encourage her to keep it up!

Issue #1 Preview: Photos from Volunteers

One of the stories we’ll feature in the first issue will be about volunteering and what that experience is like. We want to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s really like to serve. First-person accounts are always interesting, but we wanted to tell the story from a few different points of view. So here’s what we did….

We chose two Thanksgiving events to enlist volunteers to chronicle their days. Then we gave them disposable cameras and asked them to take pictures – not of the event itself – but of their experience volunteering. We worked with two extremely helpful organizations – Caritas and El Buen Samaritano – to organize these projects. Thanks to them for all their help!

Not sure which we’ll use yet – or what we’re looking at exactly – but we think we’ve got some great stuff for this story. These are just a few from Turkey Trot volunteers. Wait until Torquil gets his hands on these… you’ll see why we’re so excited about them.

From Turkey Trot

From Turkey Trot

From Turkey Trot

From Turkey Trot

More to come!

Day of Service – Tomorrow!

Tomorrow I’m going to the United Way’s MLK Day of Service, with the kick-off at Huston-Tillotson University on East 7th and Chicon. This will be my first time attending, and the plan is to take photos and see what all the fuss is about. People seem to love this event.

The United Way and Mando Rayo’s team at Hands on Central Texas has arranged for nine big volunteer projects to take place in the afternoon. The projects are all over town – some of them outside – and the opportunities range from painting and cleaning up a room to planting and building benches. Just about anybody can pitch in, no experience required.

One of the projects I’ll follow is the MLK Peace Bench Project, the goal of which is to literally construct 100 “peace benches” to place at various community centers in East Austin. See more about the project here and photos of prototype benches.

But, like I said, there are eight other projects just as worthy and gratifying as this one. I’m looking forward to it and will be sure to post about the event.