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People of the Year 2013 | Ronda Rutledge

Executive Director, Sustainable Food Center

Eight years ago, she was hired to find a new executive director for Austin’s Sustainable Food Center. Little did she know the perfect candidate would be herself.

“Today is one of those days where, no I haven’t checked my email,” Sustainable Food Center Executive Director Ronda Rutledge says. “Right now, I’m just here trying to find a pen.”

From her desk at the SFC’s new offices, Rutledge is talking about the whirlwind-of-a-six months the organization has had. For one, despite existing in some capacity for nearly 40 years, until June they were the Sustainable Food Center without the center. Now, almost at the end of a $4.5 million project that put the SFC on the literal map, they are back to work from their new building in the Chestnut neighborhood off East MLK and Airport Blvd. “It’s been a dream come true because it puts us right in the middle of our client base, most of which live east of IH-35,” Rutledge says.

One organization in a “Social Profit Village” housing a likeminded set of nonprofits and start-ups, including People Fund, Urban Roots, Eco Rise, and (in the near future) Creative Action, the development is phase three in the ambitious Chestnut Plaza project originally started by former Dell Chief Financial Officer Tom Meredith. Situated on a donated 30-acre tract the Meredith family bought from the Featherlite Concrete Company, the project was conceived with the intention of working with the East Austin community to transform the former industrial wasteland into a collaborative, self-sufficient neighborhood. In 2006, Meredith’s son Will and partner Tom Patton took over the project, expanding its vision to include (phase one) Chestnut Commons, a four-acre, 64-home subdivision, (phase two) a Cap Metro rail line, and eventually (phase four), the development of the rest of the land, which will include a community garden, park, amphitheatre, skatepark, and a commercial/retail space.

Rutledge, who is Cherokee, worked for the American Indian Child Resource Center in the Bay Area, and nine years ago moved to Texas to be closer to family. Knowing she wanted to stay involved in nonprofits, Rutledge became an “affiliate consultant” for Greenlights, a role that positions seasoned executive directors in nonprofits who have lost administrators, allows them to assess the status of the organization, and find someone permanent to fill the position. “I wasn’t supposed to stay at the Sustainable Food Center,” Rutledge explains. “But the organization resonated with me—actually from an environmental standpoint. I think largely due to my experience and heritage, I am very much about what we are doing to our environment; food production is a huge part of that. From land use to water quality, air quality to the way animals are treated…that all spoke to me from this organization and from my own native beliefs of us being in symbiosis with this planet.”

As the Executive Director, Rutledge plays a largely policy-driven role: taking speaking engagements and getting involved in big-picture conversations. As of October, she is the chair of the Austin/Travis County Sustainable Food Policy Board, where, she says, she makes recommendations to the city about ways to make it easier for people to grow their own food in Central Texas.

The SFC’s own work, Rutledge explains, falls into three categories: how do you grow food, how do you share it, and how do you prepare it. In each of these facets, the organization has projects, from starting community gardens and farmers’ markets to its current focus, Sprouting Healthy Kids, which allows the SFC to act as a matchmaker between a local grower and a cafeteria so there can be farm-fresh produce going into school cafeterias. The only farm-to-school project in Central Texas, SHK started six years ago on two campuses and is now on 50 campuses in the Austin area. The new brick-and-mortar Center will also serve as HQ for its cooking classes and workshops, which are free for low-income communities and offer instruction on anything from breaking down a chicken to ideas for healthy kids’ lunches.

And with waiting lists for each of the SFC’s programs as well as many of the local CSAs not able to meet customer demand, the SFC’s biggest goal for the future is coming up with ways to increase food production, be it in Austin or through program replication trainings throughout the country. “This isn’t a foodie movement,” Rutledge says, an important distinction to make in understanding the SFC’s role. “We work with lots of restaurants and markets, but we are also talking about families that are growing food because that’s what’s going onto their family’s plate. That’s the cheapest, most accessible, healthiest food for their families. We are trying create a more sustainable solution for food security by giving people tools, training, and empowerment to learn how to create habits for themselves and their family for the long haul.”

Credits

Photography by Randal Ford

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