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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”