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Commissioners Court approves community-generated emergency food contract

Wednesday, April 22, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

In an effort to simultaneously cut down on food waste and increase community access to food, the Commissioners Court unanimously approved a contract to provide supplemental emergency prepared food to Travis County residents.

The $160,000 contract is the result of a collaborative effort between the Cook’s Nook culinary incubator and commercial kitchen, food distributors and Travis County community-based organizations. Using a three-phase plan, the Cook’s Nook will facilitate the acquisition, preparation and distribution of precooked, reheatable meals. Service operations began April 21 and continue through May 31.

In the first phase of the program, April 21-May 17, the culinary incubator will distribute 733 daily meals through nine community partners. Phase two will run from May 18-June 7 and will add an additional four community-based organizations to the directory for a total of 1,453 daily meal distributions.

There is an option for a supplemental third phase to extend the program through June 31 and incorporate five additional organizations, but the Commissioners Court will decide whether to authorize funding for that phase at a later date.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion expressed his desire to transform the program into a long-term sustainable solution. “This Covid-19 has told us a whole lot about our delivery system, where there are gaps, where things are broken,” he said. He said community-based solutions are “truly a time-honored tradition among communities that government hasn’t always served.”

Even with the expansion of emergency food services through this public-private partnership, community activist Zenobia Joseph said not all demographics will be able to take advantage of the meals.

Joseph pointed out that local service providers targeting Travis County’s elderly population will not be able to use the program unless the third phase is funded. Family Eldercare is an organization requesting a partnership with the Cook’s Nook to provide 150 daily meals through this program, and it has been scheduled for the last phase of participation.

“There is additional capacity,” said County Executive Sherri Fleming, who said that Health and Human Services staff will return to the Commissioners Court to request an expansion of services if necessary. Although expanding the program will require additional financial investment, she noted that county staffers have applied for reimbursement for the contract expenditure through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Despite the hundreds of daily meals the effort will provide, “This is a very small section of what they’re really holding in those facilities. You’d be surprised,” said Joi Chevalier, the owner of the Cook’s Nook.

Even so, commissioners commended the initiative. “I think we moved fairly quickly in this case to avoid the loss of more food,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea. “This proposal is the result of that cumulative thinking in the community.”

Fleming similarly commended the plan, saying it required staff to “think outside the box” but will allow the county government to reach previously underserved communities in addition to bridging the gap for residents who are unemployed and newly food insecure as a result of Covid-19.

Chevalier told commissioners the nonprofits and community organizations she has spoken with are anxious in the face of an increase in individuals requiring assistance. To alleviate their anxiety, she said the program is designed to function as a long-term community solution.

Food suppliers and community organizations wishing to participate can contact the Cook’s Nook directly or reach out to county community centers if they need help facilitating a connection.

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