Best Of Decibel 2021: The Calling

By Joe Rocha | Tuesday, January 4th 2022

To ring in the new year, Team Decibel is sharing their favorite stories of 2021. Decibel Executive Editor Samantha Guzman talks with Visual Journalist Joe Rocha about why The Calling resonated with him so much. It's a story about volunteers at the Cottonwood Baptist Church that distribute healthy, ready-to-eat meals to their Del Valle community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Samantha Guzman I've really enjoyed this time, getting to sit down with each one of y'all, and what I've noticed is that each of you all have sort of this unique perspective that you bring to all of your work. I'm curious, what do you think that is for you? If you could define what sort of the unifying theme that unites a lot of your work, what would that be?

Joe Rocha One is definitely growing up in San Antonio. I feel like I pick a lot of stories that I either relate to or just know a little bit about. The other part of it is I've actually lived in Austin for almost 20 years. A lot of these stories I've heard in the background or maybe not even seen reported before. So that definitely attracts me to tell these stories, especially if they haven't been reported on before, and I know that they're happening.

SG What was the favorite story that you've worked on this year?

JR My favorite story that I've worked on this year is The Calling. It's the story of volunteers at the Cottonwood Baptist Church who drop off healthy, ready-to-eat meals to the surrounding neighborhood. The meals are provided by The Cook’s Nook that was founded by Joi Chevalier. But for the story, we interviewed Reverend Byron Jackson, who was sort of at the helm of these food drop offs.

That neighborhood is sort of what folks there call a forgotten part of Del Valle. It's a food desert, mostly gas stations without healthy food options or affordable food options. So these volunteers drop these meals off weekly to the neighborhood because many of these neighborhood folks are elderly or they don't have transportation or even the means to buy healthy food.

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The Rev. Byron K. Jackson leads a prayer before he and volunteers distribute 125 meals to residents facing food insecurity in the neighborhood near Cottonwood Baptist Church on June 29, 2021.

SG So how did our method of listening first lead you to this story?

JR The fact that Del Valle is a food desert is an issue that was mentioned early on in our virtual events. As we started reporting and creating contacts, the issue came up even more. I actually met with a member of the Del Valle Community Coalition that had been doing food drop offs during the onset of the pandemic. And she brought up that folks either commute to get their groceries or get their food from these gas stations, and that there is this infrastructure already there with these gas stations that, you know, if they can be used in some sort of way.

So what I did for the written part of this story was get in touch with the Healthy Corner Store Program at the City of Austin. They set up fridges and gas stations with affordable, healthy food like vegetables and fruits, but also ready to eat meals by The Cook’s Nook, the same meals that are being handed out by the Cottonwood Baptist Church volunteers. The program isn't available in Del Valle yet, but the program lead I interviewed for this story said that they hope to expand there soon. I followed up with the exact issue that was mentioned to me by this Del Valle community member.

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Lead Production Chef Linda Niemeyer demonstrates to her staff at The Cook’s Nook how to chop a zucchini for a meal that will be distributed to community members in need on June 24, 2021. Niemeyer’s team preps, cooks and plates healthy ready-to-eat meals on mornings while a second team takes over in the afternoon.

SG I think what I love most about this story is that we hear a lot from our listening sessions about issues that are going on in the community. But it's really important to us that we don't just focus on the problems. We focus on the people who are doing great work and trying to provide solutions. And your story really highlights that. What did you find was the most challenging part of trying to tell this story?

JR This is such a big issue there that everybody wanted to talk about it, so everything sort of fell into place for this one. But if I had to really just pick out what was challenging, it's probably the b-roll that I shot because the church volunteers were just super efficient at handing out the meals. I needed to go like 20 times to go get b-roll. I was on foot chasing the folks around with a giant C300 [camera], and these folks were on foot too or handing out food from the back of their SUV, and they just moved around really quickly. You could just tell that they felt this urgency to get the meals to their neighborhood as soon as possible. I was definitely tired by the end of each shoot.

SG For folks that don't know, how much does the C300 weigh and how long were you on foot following these folks as they were dropping off these meals?

JR A lot of our footage, we shoot with on sticks, right? But because these folks were moving so fast, I had to go handheld. And the C300, depending on after you put all the stuff on it, it could weigh like 30, 40 pounds or something with the battery and all that. So we were walking around the neighborhood. It was probably like a little mile and a half radius and everyone just spread out. So I'm like there trying to pick on who I want to shoot, who I want to feature, who I have my mic’d up to get good audio.

And it was hot, too. It was in the summer. It definitely gave me perspective on what one of these food drop offs are like for sure.

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Volunteers Elizabeth Harris (left) and Brenda Williams (center) drop off meals to Cora Deary (right), who lives near Cottonwood Baptist Church, on July 6, 2021. Williams lives across the street from Deary and has been distributing food as a volunteer since September 2020.

SG What do you hope the audience takes away from watching this story?

JR There are so many pockets of neighborhoods like this in the Del Valle that lack so many things. Neglect is the word that comes up time and time after from community members there. They’ve felt neglected for years, but they're starting to get attention because there's all this development going on in the area.

I feel like in most of the stories we’ve reported on, it's like folks there just want consideration. They want local officials to be considerate of them, incoming businesses and even incoming residents, for these base level needs like medical facilities, grocery stores, transportation, internet, gyms. It's a long list and folks are just frustrated, and they want to be heard. So for me, I just hope that we're doing a good enough job because their voices are important, and they need to be heard.

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