One small Austin food pantry is on a mighty mission to end food insecurity and waste.

By Kelly West and Katie Friel

, , ,
Share this LinkedIn

On the banks of the Colorado River, just a block east of downtown Austin, sits a large, nondescript high-rise. If you live in Austin, you may have noticed it — or not — driving north on I-35, the highway that cordons off the east side of the city from the west. If you haven’t seen it, imagine a brown, box-like 1970s apartment building, one that looks more at home in the outer boroughs of New York City than the heart of Texas.

The Rebekah Baines Johnson Center, named for president Lyndon B. Johnson’s mother, is a 250-unit apartment tower and independent living center for seniors and those with disabilities. Run by the Austin Geriatric Center, the center’s mission is “to provide an affordable home for seniors in a safe, supportive community, where they can thrive and age in place with dignity.” In a city like Austin, where the income needed to live comfortably now sits at $73,163, according to Forbes, affordable housing for vulnerable populations is increasingly hard to secure.

Like so many booming cities, housing is only one piece to the puzzle of living. The Serafina Food Pantry, located on the first floor of the RBJ Center in a former kitchen space, began as a way to help residents access fresh, free food. With many residents on fixed incomes supplemented by social security, the pantry helps those living at RBJ bridge the gap when money runs out.

When the Serafina food pantry started, it didn’t have a physical space. Farah Rivera helped her neighbors apply for a healthy food program, and 47 bags of food arrived before the space was ready. “I just started calling my neighbors,” Farah Rivera said. Now the nonprofit pantry has outgrown its stock room and taken over a former kitchen space at the RBJ Center.
When the Serafina Food Pantry started, it didn’t have a physical space. Farah Rivera helped her neighbors apply for a healthy food program, and 47 bags of food arrived before the space was ready. “I just started calling my neighbors,” Rivera said. Now the nonprofit pantry has outgrown its stock room and taken over a former kitchen space, serving not only residents, but anyone in the community. 

For years, Rivera had watched as her fellow RBJ residents struggled with food insecurity. Getting to the grocery store — an H-E-B more than two miles away — required a lengthy bus ride that could take up to 35 minutes each way. Factor in mobility issues, and making the trek wasn’t even an option for some of her neighbors. 

At the suggestion of a friend, Rivera began work on what eventually became the Serafina Food Pantry. “I started talking to Central Texas Food Bank and started asking people and going to organizations and other programs,” explains Rivera. She quickly built a network of nonprofits, small grocers, urban farms, and local co-ops to help funnel food into the pantry. “I would tell them point blank: I have a building full of seniors that need food, can you give me something?” Rivera says.

Much of what ends up on pantry shelves falls into two categories: expired goods and “ugly” produce considered not attractive enough to put on shelves. If the idea of eating something past its expiration date seems unappetizing, Rivera is quick to point out that best-buy dates are part of a store’s business model, and often food is good long after the date listed.

Farah Rivera unpacks boxes of donated food at the Serefina Food Pantry, which serves residents of the housing center as well as the neighboring community. Rivera, who also lives at RBJ, started the food pantry when she saw the needs of her neighbors.
Farah Rivera unpacks boxes of donated food at the Serafina Food Pantry, which she started in 2013 when she saw her neighbors’ challenges accessing local groceries. “You have to take responsibility for people who are next to you,” Rivera says. “You can’t wait for everybody else to shoulder the burden.”

Beginning at 8 am on Friday mornings, Rivera and a host of volunteers make their way to the ground-floor pantry, a cinder-block room lined with industrial shelves and stainless-steel tables. With St. Patrick’s Day a few weeks away, friendly leprechauns and a few green streamers greet guests as they walk through the doorway. 

Today’s team includes Tracy and Gordon Buie, whom Rivera met in 2016 at the Festival Beach Community Garden, a two-acre urban farm just steps away from RBJ. (“I kidnapped them,” Rivera jokes of their first meeting.) Undoubtedly charmed by the affable Rivera, the Buies, who live nearby in Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood, have been volunteering nearly every Friday for the past three years. During school holidays, the couple brings their seven-year-old granddaughter, Sadie, who is learning Mandarin and chats with some of RBJ’s Chinese residents while dishing out pastries or hot breakfast.

Quiling Zhang, left, and Yuzhen Zhang (not related) sing a song as they unload donated food at the Serafina food pantry. Both women are residents at RBJ and have been volunteering at the pantry for years.
Quiling Zhang unloads a cart of donated produce at the Serafina food pantry.
Quiling Zhang, left, and Yuzhen Zhang (not related) sing a song as they unload donated food at the Serafina Food Pantry. Both women are residents at the RBJ Center, and both have been volunteering at the pantry for years.

Outside volunteers work in conjunction with resident volunteers to ensure the food pantry experience is both orderly and fair. Over the course of the morning, batches of food arrive from Sprouts, Wheatsville Co-Op, and Austin Baptist Church. As each delivery appears, volunteers organize the food and determine how many of each item residents may take to ensure everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the array of ingredients.

On days when a delivery is late — or worse, doesn’t come at all — the team scrambles to find alternatives. “There are always frustrations when the arrangements don’t materialize,” says Rivera. “I take it very personally. This is not just a job, I live here. I’m with them in the elevators.” 

By 10 am, the pantry is prepped and ready. The first clients walk in past green St. Patty’s decorations — only four at a time — and begin to inspect the products, picking produce, inspecting meats. As they get to each station, a volunteer shouts out a number indicating how many each person can take.  RBJ residents are not the only ones who benefit — the pantry is open to anyone in the community. 

“Every day I hear people say, ‘I have to go to H-E-B and spend money I don’t have,’” says resident David Orsan, who worked for the Human Rights Campaign Fund before retiring and moving to RBJ. “[The pantry]’s a great asset.”

And it’s an asset that doesn’t end when the pantry closes its doors. After the last shopper has come through, volunteers pack up the food for transport to a local church, or directly to people living on the streets, the next link in the chain. 

David Oneal carries a bag into the Serafina food pantry. People are asked to bring their own bags and containers to pick up food, which is one of the ways the pantry is trying to reduce waste.
People bring their own bags and containers to pick up food from the Serafina food pantry. The pantry was started by a resident of RBJ who saw the food insecurity experienced by her neighbors, and it now serves both residents and community members six days a week.
David Oneal and other visitors bring their own bags and containers when they visit the food pantry, part of the overall effort to reduce waste.

As the pantry grows, so too have its offerings. Monday through Thursday, Serafina now offers hot meals to residents through Copia, a company that helps businesses donate food to nonprofits. In Austin, Rivera explains, many of the participating businesses are tech companies donating their free lunches, a common perk given to employees. The partnership reduces food waste and serves as a tax write-off for the business. 

Over the years, Serafina has expanded beyond the RBJ campus into the surrounding East Cesar Chavez neighborhood. “People from the neighborhood —  residents, homeless, families — all come,” explains Rivera. “During the school year, we go to [nearby] Martin Middle School and deliver food to forty neighborhood families at the family resource center.”

In order to continue growing operations, Rivera is working to secure the nonprofit’s 501(c)3 exemption. She’s constantly on the lookout for help with grant writing, fundraising, or gas money for delivery vehicles. “I need help with all of that,” she says with a sigh.

Lynn Walker takes plates of prepared food from the Serefina food pantry to residents who are unable to get down to the pantry due to issues like health or disability. Walker works four days at week at the food pantry as part of an employment program offered by AARP, which employs adults over the age of 55 to work in community service.
Lynn Walker takes plates of prepared food from the food pantry to residents who are unable to go themselves due to health issues or disabilities. Walker works four days at week at the food pantry as part of an employment program offered by AARP, which employs adults over the age of fifty-five to work in community service.

Gaining 501(c)3 status for Serafina is part of Rivera’s long-term commitment to the pantry, and to her neighbors. Outside the RBJ Center, the constant clamor of bulldozers and cranes is a reminder that the nearly fifty-year-old tower is soon expanding into a larger mixed-use development, which promises an additional 250 affordable units for current and future residents. 

“They have agreed to provide us with new space when this building is remodeled,” Rivera says of the Austin Geriatric Center, “so we can continue to serve not just the current population, but the population to be.”

By 10:30 am, the pantry is finished for the day, and Rivera is finally sitting down. Before coming to RBJ, Rivera was a photojournalist working in her native Puerto Rico. Though a battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma forced her to quit work and ultimately move closer to her family in Texas, Rivera has channeled the scrappiness she honed as a journalist into her unexpected new role at Serafina. 

“You have to be fluid. It gives us more time and resources to keep nimble,” she says of her work. “If you’re too rigid, you might as well stop.”

Farah Rivera directs volunteers from Urban Roots as they harvest produce at Festival Beach community garden to bring back to the food pantry. “We have to stop thinking that we’re isolated in the world because everything you say and everything you do affects somebody.” Rivera says, “You can’t wait for a big government or a corporation solution. You have to do it yourself.”
Farah Rivera directs volunteers from Urban Roots as they harvest produce at Festival Beach Community Garden to bring back to the food pantry. “We have to stop thinking that we’re isolated in the world because everything you say and everything you do affects somebody,” Rivera says. “You can’t wait for a big government or a corporate solution. You have to do it yourself.”

Serafina food pantry serving times

21 Waller St, Austin, Texas 78702

[The pantry is open to anyone, you do not have to be a resident at RBJ Center. Please bring bags and/or containers.]

  • Monday 4pm
  • Tuesday 4pm
  • Wednesday 4pm
  • Thursday 4pm
  • Friday 10am
  • Saturday 11am