Austin skyline panorama

By SUSAN LAHEY, Contributor to Silicon Hills News

For a lot of people, COVID-19 was like a tsunami they never saw coming; not Joi Chevalier. The founder of the Cook’s Nook culinary incubator knows Austin and Travis County’s food landscape—and its gaps. She understands the brittleness of supply chains and that many people live just one incident away from food insecurity, without knowing it. She also knew that when restaurants shut down, that blocked a food path for a secondary population who benefitted from the overflow. Before many people had even registered what hit them, Chevalier had founded and gotten approval and funding from Travis County for Keep Austin Together, an initiative to deal with a new population of food insecure Austinites.

“If you think about how transportation works in Travis County, we have food deserts; we have transportation routes that don’t exist,” Chevalier said. “Del Valle does not have a grocery store. You were going to have those who can’t even get to where the supply chain does go, and others who are under quarantine or immunocompromised who can’t leave their homes.” 

Unexpected food insecurity

Chevalier, who narrowly lost a bid to become Texas Comptroller in 2018, worked in product management and marketing for decades. She was accustomed to defining a product’s “audience.” The audience for Keep Austin Together included a lot of people who weren’t necessarily receiving food assistance prior to COVID: The elderly or people in assisted living facilities; people with disabilities (physical or mental); community members isolated in rural areas without access to facilities; people who have been displaced due to COVID-19; people who are pregnant, postpartum or sole caregivers for infants and small children; independent youths; people lacking transportation, a kitchen or other resources including students, people in recovery, people who have recently arrived in the community, those in supported housing, focused on childcare or home-bound services, as well as communities in transition or experiencing homelessness

Many of these people would not think of themselves as candidates for a program like this, so they’d be tough to find, she said. “Finding those audiences was paramount; they will not speak up for themselves.” Chevalier has an extensive network in the local food industry. She and her team enlisted the help of other food programs like Caritas and Keep Austin Fed to identify recipients and how to connect with and get food to them.

While many food programs provide packaged goods—pasta, beans, milk–this program needed to provide fully prepared meals for people who didn’t have any place to prepare their own.

Building the plane in the air

In figuring out the strategy, they focused on institutional kitchens like hotel kitchens, rather than restaurants. Restaurants, Chevalier said, are designed around their own menus and aren’t particularly flexible to prepare different menus of emergency food every few days. Plus, as noted by Mokshika Sharma, program manager for Keep Austin Together and co-founder of Sigma Lion, they weren’t sure when restaurants would be opening and they’d lose their meal source.

They ended up working with Sysco, a major food distributor whose normal customer base includes hotels, stadiums, and university campuses, all of which were suddenly empty. But they worked with many others, too.

“We worked with a total of 25 organizations, that spanned from established organizations that have been around for 25-plus years, to social initiatives that were built just for COVID response,” said Sharma.

Co-organizer Robert Nathan Allen said that, in addition to paid participants, more than 45 volunteers have donated over 116 hours providing support to The Cook’s Nook and RPM Kitchens, where the food is made. More than half of these volunteers were organized through the Austin Stone Community Church, the rest are just community members who wanted to help.

They make a meal a day for their beneficiaries. In the first eight weeks, they served just over 40,800 meals; by June 30th they will have served about 50,000.

That’s when the program is scheduled to end, though it may have to be extended as the virus continues to ravage the country. It’s not, Chevalier notes, a program that would be necessary if everything were working the way it’s supposed to. But it benefits the community tremendously in times like these when everything isn’t.