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Community gardens help provide healthy food for those most in need

Food insecurity affects the lives of a growing number of Central Texans. Many are in low-income families — disproportionately Latinos, as ¡Ahora Sí! reported last week — who find themselves without easy access to fresh food.

Some are trying to fill that need with community gardens.

More than 200 residents of the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center, on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake east of downtown Austin, can enjoy kale and fresh carrots thanks to the Festival Beach Community Garden.

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At the garden, Johnson Center residents and other volunteers grow their own vegetables, fruits and herbs, which are distributed at no cost twice-a-week at a local food pantry. The fresh produce is also available to others in need, said Farrah Rivera, president of Serafina, a nonprofit organization that manages the food pantry.

About 181,000 people, or 17.8 percent of Travis County residents, don’t have consistent access to adequate food. The vast majority of them, 67 percent, are low-income, according to the organization Feeding Texas.

Many of the Johnson Center residents are seniors, have disabilities or serious health problems and are unable to work. For many, walking or taking a bus to the nearest grocery store, an H-E-B located 2 miles away, is a real challenge.

And even when they manage to get there, they cannot afford to buy all the healthy food they need, Rivera said. “They buy the cheapest, which is usually not the best type of food for them or for their health conditions, but that is what they can afford.”

RELATED: Latinos in Austin suffer food insecurity, food deserts the most

Johnson Center resident Rosie López said she visits the pantry every week to get the carrots, chard and onions she needs. “I love to eat vegetables.”

The garden plots that supply the Johnson Center are supported by the Sustainable Food Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates improving access to nutritious and affordable food.

The Sustainable Food Center provides agricultural supplies, including plants and organic fertilizer, said Julio Pérez, 53, who manages the Johnson Center garden.

“I depend on the food I grow here, just as they depend on me to grow it for them,” said Pérez, who became disabled due to a medical condition 16 years ago and no longer works.

RELATED: Lack of grocery in Del Valle fueled resident petition

Bianca Bidiuc, who manages the Grow Local School Garden program for the Sustainable Food Center, said the Johnson Center garden should be replicated among low-income communities. “Growing your own food can be one of the cheapest ways to access healthy food.”

“We are really supportive of gardens, because we think they represent access points to healthy food that people may not otherwise have,” Bidiuc said.

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