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East Side residents shop at one of the SFC’s farmers’ markets File photo DATELINE TEXAS Thoroughly Grounded BY ERICA C. BARNETT On a July morning at Austin East Side Market its so hot that even the lightest clothing clings to the skin. But the inconspicuous cluster of vegetable stands that local residents call El Mercado is an oasis of activity. A grove of crepe myrtles provides some relief from the heat The flow of customers is steady. And Kate Fitzgerald can’t seem to sit still. s director of food assistance in Jim Hightower’ s Department of Agri culture in the late 1980s, Fitzgerald t up the program that allows farmers’ markets to accept WIC \(Women, Infants Side Market’s informal manager and director of the Sustainable Food Center, Fitzgerald is watching the coupon program work. Many of the early-morning customers pay with WIC coupons, and most, like Fitzgerald and market staff-member Hector Hernandez, are speaking Spanish. “These kids are going to eat fresh food tonight,” Fitzgerald says, pointing to a trio of children peering from the open window of a nearby ear. “This is putting power back in the hands of people.” As Fitzgerald sees it, some of. that power derives from the building of community. Residents of East Austin buy produce from small farmers participating in the market program, and the money stays close to home, in the hands of local business owners who have a direct relationship with their customers. “A small amount of space, a small amount of money, and not a lot of technical expertise” can make a difference in people’s lives, Fitzgerald says. The SFC’s programs are innovative and ambitious, but they are designed to get as much as possible out of a $200,000 annual budget. The East Side market serves a poor, predominately Hispanic area of Austin. Next door, at the Seton East Community Health Clinic, SFC’s La Cocina Alegre \(Happy women to learn to cook simple, nutritious meals with fresh produce. Down the street, at El Jardin Alegre matronly women Fitzgerald calls the senoras have planted herbs and vegetables in forty garden plots. Fitzgerald says the garden saves each of its tenants between five and six hundred dollars a year in grocery costs. And the “psychological benefit” of owning and controlling such a garden is also important, she says. The SFC has also pushed local government toward addressing the problem of food scarcity in Austin’s low-income neighborhoods. According to the center’s 1995 report, Access Denied, the entire local food supply for the 24,000 residents of Austin’s East Side is provided by two small supermarkets \(inacconvenience stores. The Center used the study to persuade Capital Metro to add an East Side Circulator route to its regular city bus schedules, and East Side neighborhoods are now linked to Austin supermarkets. The Center was founded in 1993, after thousands of family-owned farms across the state went out of business in the farm crisis of the mid-‘ 80s. In 1996, an East Austin farmer offered to rent his land to the Center. Today that tract of land in the Montopolis neighborhood is the SFC’s home base, and includes a two-acre farm with a greenhouse, experimental and children’s gardens, a pasture for a few goats and cows, and an acre of cultivated fields that provides much of the produce for the center’s four farmers’ markets and its limited business with grocery stores and restaurants. . During the summer, the farm .is staffed by teenage workers recruited through the city’s youth-employment program. Most of the youths were on the verge of expulsion from school when they came to the program and some are or were gang members. Fifteen-year-old Hector Hernandez is one of five teenage workers at the SFC. He got into the program in 1996, through an SFC garden project at Del Vale High School, where the four-year dropout rate exceeds 50 percent. After being kicked out of his ninthgrade classroom and placed in an “alternative” learning program, Hernandez was on SEPTEMBER 12, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5