Austin Trip – Austin Central Library Talk

Austin Central Library – Sustainable Food Systems Talk

While I was house-sitting for my grandparents in Bastrop, Texas, I planned excursions into Austin to see some sights and attend some public talks. My first public talk was at the new Austin Central Library as part the “Talk Green to Me: Sustainable Living Series,” a collaboration between the library, the Austin Office of Sustainability, and several other organizations speaking in the series.

This was first talk I attended in the series, which was presented by Edwin Marty, Austin’s Food Policy Manager, discussing about the State of Austin’s Food System.

After I parked in the Seaholm District, I walked over to the Austin Central Library and walked around for a bit before the seminar began. This is the main library sign on the corner facing Cesar Chavez Street and the public access to the Colorado River walking trails.

Here’s a view of the entirety of the library building that I took on the Butterfly Bridge. From this view, you can see the solar panel shade roof on the left corner of the building, the native landscaped walking trails that run under the overpass bridges, as well as the closest corner above the restaurant and bike garage and bike repair station.

” ‘Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.’ This quote from Lady Bird Johnson is carved on a metal shade outside the third- and fourth-floor windows of the library’s east wall.” — The Austin Chronicle

This is a view of the metal shade artwork outside the windows of the library’s east wall, which also includes many other quotes. But what is really interesting is that the quotes are written to face the interior of the building, so the sunlight makes them easy to read on the inside of the library floors.

This is a picture of “the Austin Central Library’s new downtown restaurant Cookbook Cafe on 710 West Cesar Chavez Street is drawing from, well, the library’s best assets: cookbooks. The counter-service menu is a patchwork of influential cookbooks, from granola parfait from The Commander’s Palace Cookbook to Julia Child’s split pea soup to rice pudding from Dorie Greenspan.

Cookbook Cafe is “truly an extension of the library,” said Cookbook and ELM Restaurant Group chef Andrew Curren. “We wanted the cafe to not only be an amenity to the library, but an opportunity for guests to learn, read, and peruse cookbooks while experience dishes straight from the books.”” — Austin Eater Article

I entered the library to the central staircase mezzanine, which was lite by the large windows designed to maximize the natural light in the building and on ever single floor. The library also designed the reserved books section into the main floor library lounge, so patrons could easily grab their reserved books and leave, or sit down and read without having to search library floors.

The Library Foundation presents “Refugee Is Not My Name” as part of the Mayor’s Book Club at the Central Library Gallery, a traveling art exhibition highlighting photographic portraits, film, and stories of refugees from around the world who have resettled in Austin. This exhibition meets Austin residents where they are – in public and iconic spaces throughout the city – and invites them to come and learn the names, see the faces, and get to know some of their refugee neighbors as the unique individuals they are.” — CultureMap Austin

In addition to having pictures and biographies of local refugees and a video documentary playing in the background, this exhibit also posed the question, “What do you have in common with your global neighbors?” Paper cards and sharpies were provided for guests to answer that question, with responses like: DNA, love of music, great cooking, annoying siblings, desire for a home, and interpretive drawings.

What was also a pretty cool feature was a digital librarian that was projected onto a human silhouette. This librarian could answer basic questions in both English and Spanish to help patrons find their way or what they might be looking for!

CAW, by artist Christian Moeller, is a 37-foot-tall kinetic sculpture resembling a gigantic cuckoo clock overtaken by blackbirds. It is accompanied by an LED screen on the fifth level of the library, which features an artist-created mystical black bird set within a Texas landscape. Instead of running on a conventional video loop, the bird’s behavior and gestures on screen are controlled by a computer program, with the aid of an external human sensor and remote control kit. The artwork is inspired by Austin’s Grackle population and, since the artwork was created for a library, by the strong presence that black birds occupy in literature and mythology– from the Greek myth of the god Apollo (who reportedly turned the bird’s feathers from white and silver into black), as well as Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “The Birds”. The art piece contributes a strangely domestic element to the overall ambiance of the Central Library, like a fireplace or an aquarium would. The artist hopes that it will be something we won’t tire of looking at, an object of character that grows on us and becomes a friendly companion during our hours of contemplation and thought. Mounted on the six-story wall in the library’s atrium, it is dynamic and visually-engaging, enhancing the height and openness of the building’s architecture.” — City of Austin Webpage

Also inside the Austin Central Library is Recycled Reads, which receives all of Austin Public Library’s discarded material, as well as donations from the public. They sell, recycle or repurpose this material, and all the proceeds benefit the Austin Public Library.

The presentation was about to begin, so I made my way down the stairs to the lower mezzanine which severed as a space for hosting presentations, talks and other functions right below the winding stair case.

Edwin Marty, Austin’s Food Policy Manager, started his presentation on the state of Austin’s Food System, which was a very interesting subject, especially coming from Edwin – who’s position was recently made specifically for him due to his background and previous experience with the city.

I’ve included a Facebook video below of the full-long hour presentation!

The presentation was broken down by how the city is addressing the food cycle into four main sections: (1) Growing Food, (2) Selling Food, (3) Eating Food, (4) Composting Food.

Edwin then broke down the finances of the economic impact of food for the city of Austin, which equals $4.1 Billion according to survey research, making up 0.45% of GDP in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area!

The statistics on food security not only highlighted the 16% food insecure population, but also highlighted the southeast crest of the city where most of this population lives – in some zip codes without grocery stores!

The presentation continued on with food recovered from restaurants, grocery stores, and food retailers in order to feed hungry people with the food products that would otherwise go in another direction like the trash, compost or to feed animals instead of humans.

About halfway through the presentation, a local Austinite came in dressed in a T-Rex inflatable costume before making its way up the stairs into the main library floor!

At the end of the presentation, Edwin provided some book recommendations offered through the Austin Public Library, specifically: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Diet for a Small Planet, Fast Food Nation, Closing the Food Gap.

More can be found here: APL Recommends: Sustainable Living

Presentation Notes

The following are notes and quotes I made during the presentation that stood out the most to me:

  • “Nutrition doesn’t begin at the table.”
  • One of the issues with the city’s food system is government segmentation, there is no holistic perspective using systems thinking with a horizontal view to coordinate actions for a better ROI.
  • Less than 1% of food in Austin is local.
  • 9 acres of land are lost each day for development, as an average of 335 people move to the area daily.
  • “We are building the wrong type of houses, for the wrong type of people, on the wrong type of land.”
  • Zip code factors for Social Determinants of Health:
    • Housing + Transportation + Access to Health Food = Quality of Life
  • Finances/Economics are the biggest barrier to nutritious food.
  • 40% of food is wasted from – the production fields, supply chains, grocery stores, and our plates.
  • “The hungry population is statistically immune compromised.” (Seniors & Homeless)
  • The largest consumer of compost is the Department of Transportation, for re-seeding roadside grasses.


My experience at the Austin Central Library attending Edwin Marty’s presentation on the state of Austin’s Food System was really eye-opening. How a city can tackle hunger and food systems in a progressive and efficient way even with so many moving pieces is impressive to say the least, and Austin is heading in the right direction – from energy efficient public buildings like the library to city programs offering residents rebates for chicken coops.




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