New-to-Austin nonprofit surpasses million-pound produce donation

In the past 18 months, Brighter Bites has given away a million pounds of produce to Austin-area families. For free.

The Houston-based nonprofit launched in 2012 and expanded to Austin at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, serving eight local schools.

For eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring, every family at each of those schools can sign up to receive two brown paper bags full of eight to 12 varieties of fruit and vegetables.

Brighter Bites works with the Central Texas Food Bank to distribute between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds of produce at each school, each week, but Austin program director Maggie Whittington says the nonprofit’s ultimate goal is that the families they serve fundamentally change their eating patterns by participating in their program.

“Hunger relief is not our mission, but it’s a beautiful byproduct,” says Whittington, a San Antonio native who earned her master’s degree in public health in New Orleans and worked with Edible Schoolyard before coming to Austin a year ago.

About five years ago, Brighter Bites founders Lisa Helfman, director of real estate for H-E-B, and Shreela Sharma, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, saw a need for changing food buying and eating habits, not just getting food in the hands of people who need it.

They partnered with the Houston Food Bank, which already had access to surplus fresh food and the trucks to move it, to distribute the food in schools. The idea hinged on two factors: volunteers from each school to help unload and pack all the produce and support from the schools to implement nutrition education in the classroom.

“The entire concept of Brighter Bites is a co-op model, so we want it to be parents, school members and community members who are all coming together to actually put these bags together and provide this produce to the families,” Whittington says.

Within the first year of operations, the Brighter Bites founders knew they had a model they could replicate in other markets, so they expanded to Dallas and then Austin. In each city, Brighter Bites works with the local food bank and school district to serve low-income families for 16 weeks out of the school year.

Schools with at least 80 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch can apply for the program, and if a school is selected, every family can sign up, not only the ones who qualify for the lunch assistance.

At Odom Elementary in South Austin, nearly 200 families are picking up about $20 worth of produce every week, as well as kid-friendly recipes, handouts and other educational materials to support what their students are learning in the classroom. They offer samples so the students and parents can try the recipes before attempting to make them at home.

In all, more than 1,500 families participate through Brighter Bites partnerships with Casey, Cunningham, Langford, Linder, Metz, Norman and Odom elementary schools, as well as Uphaus Early Childhood Center.

It’s just the right balance of food access and education for advocates like Whittington, who knows that one without the other doesn’t actually address the bigger public health issues facing Texans, including high obesity and diabetes rates in both children and adults.

With up to a dozen kinds of fruit and vegetables packaged together for pickup at a central location every week, Brighter Bites feels like a different kind of CSA, or community-supported agriculture, and Whittington says that the repeated exposure to a 16-week Brighter Bites program or a CSA is one of the best ways to imprint palates with new kinds of produce prepared in different ways.

“Our focus is behavior change and empowering these families to feel comfortable experimenting with fruits and vegetables, some that they’ve seen before, some they haven’t,” she says.

Offering an abundance of produce on a regular basis creates a risk-free opportunity for the entire family to try new ways of cooking and eating new ingredients or familiar ingredients in new ways. “For a low-income family, it’s a wasteful use of resources to buy food for a dish that you’re unsure if you’ll like it,” she says.

So where does all this food come from? The Central Texas Food Bank, which, in all, distributes about 33 million pounds of food a year to partner agencies throughout the area. Although the food bank moves millions of pounds of fresh food a year to those other agencies, Brighter Bites’ model turns the schools into a distribution hub with direct access to families and allows the food bank to quickly and reliably move even more perishable food.

The food bank receives much of that food by donation from grocery stores and food service providers that have excess food, but the food bank also buys some food, including large quantities of surplus or secondary produce, all of which is in perfectly good condition to eat. Thanks to the Brighter Bites partnership, the food bank has an outlet for many thousand pounds a week of that produce through the nonprofit’s pickup sites at schools throughout Austin.

On a recent weekday morning, more than a dozen volunteers — all women with some connection to the school, through family or living in the neighborhood — gathered in the Odom cafeteria to await the food bank truck.

As soon as the truck arrived, they kicked into gear, pulling carts piled high with bags of turnips, cauliflower, apples, oranges and more than half a dozen other kinds of fresh produce onto tables. With music playing loud enough that everyone within earshot was tapping toes or shaking hips, volunteers then started filling the brown paper bags — more than 400 total — with a specific amount of each kind of produce.

Each teacher received a pair of bags and a suggested activity to teach from one or more of the ingredients, and the rest of the heavy double-sacked bags went into the library to await pickup after school.

Once the school day was over, parents and other caregivers stopped by the Brighter Bites table on the way out to pick up the bags of produce, the educational materials and recipes, which are available in Spanish and English, and a sample of the dried apples that one of the nonprofit staff members had made earlier in the week.

Volunteer Consuelo Lopez has been helping pack and distribute the food at Odom Elementary since Brighter Bites launched there in fall 2015.

“There is so much harmony and vibrancy when we get together in the mornings to pack the vegetables,” she says. “We dance and have fun and do good for each other. I love it.”

One shift that she’s made in her house is keeping the produce out on her table, so whoever comes through the house can just pick up an apple or an orange out of the bowl or, when she’s cooking, she can see what’s available. “If you keep it in a drawer in the fridge, they aren’t going to pick it, but if they can see it, they will pick it,” she says.

The quantity and quality of produce surprised Veronica Gonzalez Rivera, parent support specialist at Odom. “They said this was extra food that they couldn’t sell or were going to have to throw out, but I can’t believe how great the produce is,” she says. “This is food that should never ever be thrown away.”

Rivera says that the cross-cultural food education has been amazing to watch because so many parents she interacts with on a daily basis are eating things they’ve never eaten before.

They are baking potatoes instead of frying them and trying new produce, such as green or purple cauliflower. Rivera, who is from Puerto Rico, says that before Brighter Bites came to Odom, she had no idea what to do with beets.

A parent at the school had learned a new recipe that called for grating beets and carrots and tossing them with lemon juice to make a salad. “Once I learned that, I started making those beets, and now even my niece loves them,” she says.

“Ninety percent of my families are receiving this, and the ones that aren’t are coming to volunteer and help because they are a little better off than the others but still want to help,” she says.

She knows that, like the seven other schools that are in Brighter Bites and the many others that aren’t but want to be, Odom will have to apply this spring for consideration to participate next school year. (Last year, 26 elementary and middle schools applied in Austin. They do serve some sites during the summer months.)

Brighter Bites’ ultimate goal is that the families they have brought together through this program will continue to seek out the whole, fresh ingredients and the healthy cooking techniques on their own. “Families need to feel empowered enough to make those purchases after the program ends, or we haven’t done our jobs,” Whittington says.

But that doesn’t mean Rivera, the parent-support specialist, is ready to see it end. “It’s not a forever program, but I want to keep it forever.”

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