Hunger is something everyone can relate to. Some are fortunate to experience it as a fleeting sensation, a gentle reminder, but others feel it deeply, relentlessly, oppressively. While hunger is a huge issue worldwide, it’s a pressing issue here at home, too. In such a food-obsessed culture, it’s easy to focus more on the haves than have-nots and miss such glaring problems affecting our friends, neighbors, and family.
1 in 7 Central Texans are at risk, only 7% of which are unhoused, while food waste is rampant at every level of production and distribution. That old model doesn’t stand a chance, especially if The Central Texas Food Bank has anything to say about it.
Serving over 60,000 people every week across 21 counties equivalent to the size of Massachusetts, I was lucky enough to get an inside view of the operations. Headquartered a short drive from downtown Austin, this hub of activity thrums with a whole different sort of energy. At any given time, a half dozen forklifts are buzzing through the immense maze of the warehouse, stacked from floor to ceiling with pantry staples, while semitrailers unload directly into the walk-in fridge and freezer, each bigger than the average gymnasium. You could easily get lost in the 135,000 square foot facility without a guide or a map.
It’s not all dry beans and pasta, though. Contrary to the common misconception, there’s a selection of fresh produce here that could put a mid-tier grocery store to shame. In fact, over a quarter of the food items moving through this building are fresh fruit and vegetables. Much of that is rescued, prevented from going into landfills for petty reasons like blemishes, odd sizes, or simply oversupply. Over 28 million pounds of produce was saved from that fate, putting into the hands of those who need it most.
That alone makes a huge impact, but that’s not enough. The Central Texas Food Bank is committed to uprooting the old system from the ground up, quite literally. Just beyond the loading docks lay two extensive gardens: One for teaching, one for larger production.
They’ve truly though of everything, including wheel chair-accessible raised beds, examples of container gardens for those without yards, and a classic “pizza garden” to appeal to kids. It feels like such a rare and beautiful opportunity to connecting with nature, providing both education and inspiration to grow your own food, no matter the circumstances.
Let’s not overlook the commercial kitchen, preparing meals for the community while providing culinary training for job placement at the same time. It becomes a self-sustaining system, but only with the proper support. Volunteers are the heartbeat of the operation, sorting donations in the warehouse, distributing it through mobile pantries, delivering it to those without transportation, and more. There are plenty of hands on deck during the holidays, but there’s a continuous need throughout the year. There’s never a bad time to help, no matter how much or how little, because time is an incredibly precious resource too.
The Central Texas Food Bank gives me a profound sense of hope. There’s such unwarranted shame and stigma that remains surrounding the issue of hunger at large which is detrimental to absolutely everyone. Who wins when so many suffer? This operation is proof that it doesn’t have to be that way. Anyone that needs help, gets help. With this revolutionary approach, it is possible to stop hunger in its tracks and nourish the community.
As one of, if not the single most important pantry staple in kitchens worldwide, olive oil is big business. Production has more than tripled in the last 60 years, skyrocketing beyond 3,262,000 tons at last count in 2019. From that endless pool of golden oil, US production is a comparative drop in the bucket; less than half of a percent of that figure is grown domestically. Finding a local olive oil producer out in the middle of Texas, of all places, is akin to finding a mirage in the desert.
However, against all odds, Texas Hill Country Olive Co is not a heatstroke-induced day dream, but a real place just 40 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Austin. Winding down twisted roads that cut through open fields, the brief journey out of town drops you into a wholly different world. Situated on 17 acres of pristine alkaline soil, the orchard is home to 2,000 olive trees. What began in 2008 as a winery quickly evolved into a world-class olive oil powerhouse, netting the small business top honors in the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) for their very first harvest, back in 2010.
Locals and tourists alike gather to take a peek behind the curtain, enjoying guided tours that run the length of the grounds and back through the mills within the facility. When I visited back in late February, it was perhaps not the most auspicious time; still reeling from the devastating winter storm, the damage was readily apparent. Trees lay barren, cracked and bleeding vital sap down every weathered trunk. Typically, olive trees can withstand a change of about 15 degrees over a 24-hour period, not the mind-bending 90-degree shift we saw over the course of a week. Some can be saved by severe pruning, but others can only be salvaged as mulch or fertilizer at this point. The only olives visible outside were found on the ground, dried and withered, ghostly reminders of previous growth.
Despite that, there’s still hope in the forecast. Flowers are blossoming now alongside April showers, and each individual flower will develop into a single olive. All olives start green, slowly darkening on the branches to a dark mottled plum hue. Unlike large scale commercial operations, you won’t find any lye or chemicals to artificially force this brilliant metamorphosis. Come September and November, the harvest will begin, yielding anywhere from 18 – 35 pounds of fruit per tree. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that it take 14 pounds to make one 250ml (1 cup) bottle of olive oil.
Presses imported from Italy complete the transformation right on site. Flesh and pit alike go straight in; washed, crushed, and made into paste, the mash is agitated at 65 – 85 degrees to maintain the illustrious designation as “cold pressed.” Spun at high velocity, the paste is separated from the oil using centripetal force.
After seeing such love and labor go into every golden drop, you can fully appreciate the depth and breadth of flavors presented in each lavish tasting flight. Dancing through different blends and flavor-infusion oils, various balsamic vinegars are presented as complimentary and contrasting pairings. Explosive aromas overwhelm the senses, astounding the unprepared with every subsequent sip. It’s a heady experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Don’t fill up on the complimentary bread and apple dippers, though. The Orchard Bistro at the heart of the everyday operation is a destination in itself. Menus vary seasonally, sourcing local produce with an emphasis on cooking everything from scratch. Much is culled from their own garden for freshness that can’t be beat.
Ask the chef about vegan options, and they’ll make sure you’re taken care of. Perennial staples include crisply toasted crostini, whole olives, and olive oil with homemade sourdough bread for dipping. For a light lunch, the antipasto salad is far better than your average leafy affair; a riot of colors, adorned with pickled vegetables and marinated chickpeas. The heartier grain salad includes tender, toothsome farro with the produce du jour. Don’t forget to check the daily specials for the soup offerings, hot or cold. I was lucky enough to drink down a creamy cauliflower bisque when I stopped by, lavished not with heavy cream, but [of course] olive oil.
Plan to spend a day out at Hill Country Olive Oil Co, taking in the fresh air, relaxing on the dog-friendly patio, and if you come later in the summer, getting your game on in their planned bocce ball court. Make sure you grab a bottle of the signature strawberry-balsamic lemonade, sweetened primarily with the concentrated vinegar itself. Before long, you’ll feel like part of the family here, too.