Lisa Barden serves people and the planet while rescuing food.
By Brandi Clark Burton. Photo courtesy of Lisa Barden.
One of Austin’s most influential women in food is not who you’d typically call a foodie. Lisa Barden, the executive director of Keep Austin Fed and vice chair of the Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board, spent most of her career behind a computer. “After 21 years in IT at UT Austin, I was ready for a change of pace,” Barden reflects. “I dabbled with some new career directions, but got my first taste of the food world as a volunteer food runner for Keep Austin Fed.” Little did she know this would be the start of her life in public service and her first step on the path to becoming a respected community leader.
It was a three-year journey from volunteer, to half-time program director, to full-time executive director. She was the first paid staff member because she helped raise the money to do it. “I told the board, ‘I can’t work for free, but I’ll help find funds to cover salaries.’ And I did.”
Barden started expanding her community engagement by volunteering to serve on the advisory council for both Coming of Age Austin and the City of Austin Zero Waste Advisory Commission, “always raising awareness for the need to simultaneously prevent food waste and address food insecurity.”
In the seven years since Barden stepped into a staff role at Keep Austin Fed, the scale and impact of the organization have mushroomed. The demand grows greater still. When she took over, there were an average of 55 volunteers completing 250 food runs each month. Now, “We have about 120 active volunteers monthly. But we’re doing 700-plus food runs every month, so we can always use more volunteers.”
Each month, about 95,000 pounds of fresh and nutritious donated surplus food is delivered from area grocery stores, shops, events and restaurants to organizations that help feed individuals and families struggling with food insecurity.
Donating unsold food helps both the givers and receivers. Food businesses benefit in multiple ways by reducing food disposal costs and potentially receiving tax benefits. Plus, donating surplus food helps ensure that the food they put so much work into bringing to market isn’t going to waste.
“There are hungry people all over Austin. It is completely unacceptable that nearly 15% of Austin-area residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and a third of these are children,” Barden laments. “Getting these food donations delivered provides critical resources to our community.”
EcoConcepts in Action
- Become a Keep Austin Fed food runner
- Attend a Keep Austin Fed virtual orientation.
- Join the notification list and start picking up “runs” as a volunteer food runner; do a shift sorting food at one of the hubs; or help out with a free mobile market.
- Do as many or as few shifts per week or month as fits with your schedule. Every time you know you are making a difference. Learn more at keepaustinfed.org.
Barden is on a roll this fall, snapping up top awards and prize checks. At the recent Philanthropitch event, Keep Austin Fed took home the largest combined monetary award from the judges, sponsors and audience in support of further expanding their cooler capacity. Having cold storage allows for donations that happen after hours or that are too large for a single recipient organization to be safely stored at a safe temperature until distributed.
Just last month, Barden also claimed the first prize grant in Impact Austin’s Health & Well Being category. “I hope this is a sign that people are really grasping the win-win of food recovery and that we can soon grow our staff, expand our volunteer base and extend the reach of our services,” she reflects.
Carrying the messages of preventing food waste and feeding our hungry neighbors, Barden continues to step up to serve in multiple community leadership roles. Currently, as vice chair of the Austin & Travis County Food Policy Board, she takes the goals of addressing health disparities and ending food injustices seriously—while working to ensure a healthy and equitable food system. As if that weren’t enough, she is also the co-chair of the public policy committee for One Voice Central Texas.
“The One Voice coalition advocates for policies and resources to assist our local health and human service nonprofits to ensure a thriving community,” she explains. “I am a firm believer that we are stronger together and that we will only be able to effect change when we all collaborate to make a difference.”
Learn more about One Voice Central Texas and support the organizations in that network that serve our community’s most vulnerable at onevoicecentraltx.org. Share your input on Austin and Travis County’s first-ever Food Plan.
Brandi Clark Burton is a long-time evangelist for food waste prevention and recovery. She organized a campaign to boost food donations in Austin and mentioned Keep Austin Fed in her 2009 TEDx talk called “Trashing Food.”