Everything but the Food: Real Ideas to Fix Real Problems

by Heidi Andrianos
food insecurity

Walking around Harlem one day, Tony Hillery counted 53 fast food restaurants and 29 pharmacies within a 5 block radius. “That’s when it really started hitting home,” he said, “this problem we face…How do you eat healthy on a food stamp budget when there are no healthy food options?” This question reflects a shocking statistic in NYC: despite the fact that close to 1.6 million New York City residents receive SNAP (EBT) benefits, almost as many (1.2 million) still lack access to nutrition that is adequate enough to support an active, healthy life. Hillery’s observation, and his subsequent work to build Harlem Grown, reminds us that, like many issues of our time, food insecurity requires a far more complex solution than supplemental income alone can provide.

 As part of our Food Policy for Breakfast Panel Series, we invited Tony Hillery and three other food-security professionals to reflect on the factors that impact food insecurity and how we might fight the issues that create food injustice. Our guests, listed below, helped us understand how our access to land, education, employment opportunities and food insecurity, are all shaped by public policies and programs.

Charles Platkin, PhD, MPH; Director NYC Food Policy


  • Tony Hillery, Founder and Executive Director, Harlem Grown
  • Karen Pearl, President and CEO, God’s Love We Deliver
  • Shanna Castillo, Director, Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability, NYCHA
  • Ray Figueroa-Reyes, President, NYC Community Garden Coalition; Program Coordinator, Brook Park Youth Farm; Faculty, Graduate Center for Planning and Environment, Pratt Institute

Education seems to be a critical component of many programs that aim to address food insecurity. Why is that?

Among the pharmacies and fast food restaurants in Harlem, Hillery also noticed a vacant lot located across from an elementary school. Over the next eight years, he helped turn this space and nine other locations into Harlem Grown, a network of urban farms that offer ongoing education through year-round farm tours, youth programming and job training for young adults. In light of Harlem Grown’s success, Hillery quickly reminded us that he is “not an expert, just a lucky guy who had some time and started volunteering.” He wanted the audience to know that he, like many others, initially assumed that if people have access to healthy food, they will eat it. Instead, he said, he quickly learned that “I could give out a hundred pounds of kale, and eighty of it would end up in the garbage.” Based on that, and as he continued to work with and learn more about the community, Hillery adjusted his original plan. “It’s not as simple as food and seeds,” he said, “Education is everything, and if kids don’t know what’s on their plate, they’re not going to eat it.”

At the Brook Park Youth Farm, Ray Figueroa-Reyes runs an Alternative-to-Incarceration program through which young people who have been touched by the criminal justice system receive mentorship and job-training while learning to cultivate a garden. Figueroa-Reyes hopes that, by engaging in urban agriculture and collaborative entrepreneurship, young people can transform their relationship to food, to their community and to their sense of self-efficacy. Working within the Mott Haven community, he has witnessed the long-term impact of food insecurity. He explained how poor nutrition during childhood can often lead to incarceration: “As a young person growing up, you wake up and possibly get one meal, maybe not, and likely you end up going to school without food. And then what happens is that when you are hungry you get angry – hangry as we all like to call it. You are frustrated and you act frustrated. And then you have a teacher who isn’t trained in culturally competent disciplinary measures, so they send you to the principal’s office. From there, detention and suspension. High suspension rates lead to incarceration, statistically speaking.” This experience is especially common in low-income communities, he added, “where rent burden implicates food insecurity. This is one reason that we see especially high rates of incarceration in areas like the South Bronx.”

The intimate connection between food insecurity, housing affordability, education and job stability is the reason for the Resident Economic Empowerment and Sustainability (REES) department at NYCHA. “One thing that ensures there aren’t food deserts is that people aren’t stuck in generational poverty and are able to access the things they need,” says Shanna Castillo, Director of the REES, which provides NYCHA residents with access to competitive wages and career pathways through intensive job training programs. Castillo also reflected on the importance of adapting programs to meet the needs of the community, “A decade ago NYCHA was attempting to provide residents with direct services such as resume prep and High-School Equivalency testing. Then we had to ask, how can we provide this to the 400,000 residents who want these services? Now we are leveraging the resources that already exist in the city, working better and more strategically with our sister city partners, and working with non-profit organizations that have a proven success record and credibility.” With this new program model, NYCHA has helped secure 15,000 resident job placements since the start of the DeBlasio administration in 2014.

“Education is also a significant part of the services at God’s Love We Deliver,” said President and CEO, Karen Pearl. God’s Love We Deliver is a meal delivery program that specializes in medically-tailored meals for patients living with severe and chronic illness. “We are delivering meals, but we are also delivering nutrition and science and education and helping people understand how to use food to get better. If you just tell people to eat healthy, they don’t know what that means.” More importantly, healthy food is not a one-size-fits-all concept. All of the 7,200 meals that they deliver each week are specifically tailored to alleviate the symptoms of HIV, cancer, Alzheimer’s, kidney disease or any number of other chronic disorders. “Food is medicine, and food is love” Pearl said.

Sexism, Racism, Classism: All of these factor into who’s poor and who’s hungry in America. Many believe that the problems of our food system can only be solved with systematic changes – what are your thoughts and what does this mean for your programs?

“I come from the lense of illness, and one thing we know about people who are sick is that illness is a major leveler of all those social determinants of health. People who are sick lose their social networks, their economic stability and their access to basic needs of existence, which is ultimately food,” Pearl said. “Eighty percent of our health is around social determinants and only  twenty percent is around medical care. If we could look at fixing that eighty percent, we would have a much healthier society and much better health outcomes across all populations…making sure that people have access to employment and stable housing all impact health, and it needs to be part of our goal.”

Hillery reminded us that wealth and poverty are legacies in the United States: “The majority of wealth is inherited and almost all poverty is inherited. Generational poverty is a cycle. we have spent tens of billions of dollars trying to eradicate generational poverty, yet we are more poor than we’ve ever been.” For Hillery, this outcome confirms that a top-down solution doesn’t work. Through his work at Harlem Grown, Hillery has witnessed the harsh reality of underfunded schools, which, he says “are all in communities of color. They are underfunded, and put in a corner to fend for themselves. The children we work for have no extracurricular funding – no gym, no art, no activities. Education is everything.…we work with underfunded schools that are predominantly … 42 percent of the children we serve are in transitional housing… Of the 1.1 million children in NYC schools, 1 in10 are homeless. There are so many levels that children are dealing with to try and learn before they walk in the school door. There are no social workers to service these kids, but there are disciplinary measures and standardized test-taking…this is all part of the vicious cycle that we need to break.”

Figueroa-Reyes suggested that poverty is not only inherited, it is also planned. “From the perspective of the New York Community Garden Coalition (NYCGC), we bump up against something every time, and that is municipal urban planning.” This has historically been an issue, he said, “starting in the twentieth century–exclusionary zoning, then red lining, then urban renewal, restrictive covenants, block-busting, and planned shrinkage. All of these are explicitly intentional, racist policies created to relegate primarily black and brown people to carry the disproportionate burden of poverty.” What does this mean for the NYCGC? “Poverty is not purely economic, it is the ability to be productively engaged in your life as an active member of society in a way that is self-determining. Community Gardens serve as a vehicle for community-driven self-determination.”

Given that poverty is not coincidental, Figueroa-Reyes suggested that strategies to address food insecurity must include political action. “We need a political analysis of power. Term-limited tenure for elected officials drives policy in a way that you look at treating symptoms, not the root of the issue.” He suggested taking inspiration from the new, innovative policies that are being proposed. “You have some really bold new deals right now that are getting at the root of the issue in Albany and certainly in DC with Alexandria Ocacio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Direct balloting such as in Baltimore is also a great tool that has historically helped marginalized communities take control of their own destiny.” 

In thinking about addressing food insecurity through structural change, what are some policies that we might advocate for?

To begin, healthcare policies might address food insecurity by encouraging investments in nutritious food. “From the perspective of God’s Love, we are working to change health care policy and law to make medically tailored meals reimbursable,” Pearl said, “Research shows that people who have access to medically tailored meals have better health outcomes, and the system saves 24 percent  on costs. If we were able to change health policy to reimburse people for medically-tailored meals, they would do better and the system would save money. From a policy perspective, this is a complete across-the-board win. My business is food and nutrition, but I have a hunch that this is similar for other social-determinants of health, and it makes a lot more sense to do it this way.”  

“Yes and No,” Hillery responded. “In our three-block radius [in Harlem], we still have 29 phrmacies and 50 fast food restaurants. This is all about larger profits. In the bigger picture, 98 percent of our children are on some sort of government assistance. We aren’t paying for this food anyways; we are paying for medicine.”  He worries that in the face of an industrial food system with high profit-margins, a 24 percent healthcare cost-savings on its own may not be enough to sway policy-makers.

Pearl reminded us that we also need to look more broadly at food-system policies such as the USDA Farm Bill and the way that they impact frontline communities. While policies may appear to support innovative agricultural development, a closer look exposes inequalities that are inherent in the legislation. Take the federal agricultural budget, for example. In places like Green County, New York, USDA rural development loans fund not only food production but also the creation of for-profit prisons in places like upstate New York. Local governments are then incentivized to fill more beds with federal detainees in order to access federal funding. To prepare for closing Rikers, Mayor DeBlasio has proposed a new prison to be located in Mott Haven, coincidentally nearby the Brook Park Youth Farm. “This is a vicious cycle,” says Figueroa-Reyes, which puts vulnerable communities closer to incarceration.

For this reason and many others, land use is at the core of Figueroa-Reyes’s activism. “What we need is community land trusts, which allow people to have ownership and control of fundamental resources to support and produce for their community. We [need to look] at opportunities for green jobs for our people. In a coastal city like NYC, we are very vulnerable and need a strategic plan for housing, food and urban farming.” In addition to being community-oriented, he says, these projects can improve the local economy. “To incarcerate a young person in New York State is ten times more expensive than educating him.” Income-generating activities such as a local farm stand and wholesale production for Small Axe Hot Sauce are incorporated into the programming at Brook Park Youth Farm. Given that “community based alternatives to incarceration create viable outcomes for pennies on municipal dollars,” he asks, “why not take the millions of dollars that we are saving …to do meaningful human capital development work? Or in social services, such as guidance counselors?” These alternative investments would transform community access to food, health, and education, suggested Figueroa-Reyes. “Right now, we have more police in our Bronx schools than social workers. This is about social justice and fiscal equity.”

Several panelists said that a critical analysis must also occur on a programmatic level. “Invest less in programs and more in people,” Hillery says. “[Harlem Grown] is funded to provide paid jobs at NYCHA but we have students jumping turnstiles to get to work and then getting arrested. Programs all have buckets that people need to fit into. People need support from the moment they get up until the moment they get back to bed. If we say our program starts at eleven; be here then – what is happening before eleven? People need support on the job and off the job, beyond program outcomes…We have to ask ourselves, are we there for the work or are we there for the organization?” This is precisely how God’s Love We Deliver got its start serving people with HIV in the eighties. Pearl shared, “When the Ryan White Care Act got approved in congress, people got wrap-around support services that enabled those living with HIV to get access to the resources they needed to sustain themselves and move forward. People are complex and they need services that support them in that full picture…there is nothing more important than education, but quality education doesn’t work if you don’t have access to food and healthcare.”

While Castillo agreed that barriers to program participation need to be addressed, she also noted that it can be difficult to find funding for these investments. In order to maintain interest in their employment services, the REES program at NYCHA has partnered with local employers whose impact is visible to the community, “We have identified employers first and we have catered our training, both at the housing authority directly and at our contractors, to meet the needs of the employer…When we are able to create strategic partnerships that bring employers to the table, where we can see the pipeline for residents, residents are better able to see the growth opportunity and are more invested in the program.” Since joining REES, Castillo has worked to rebuild community partnerships with employers such as trade unions that provide career pathways. These strategic partnerships offer unique educational opportunities, career stability, and can alleviate costs for both the organization and the participant.

In the end, the panelists awed the audience with their range of work and unyielding commitment to social justice in their programs and in their communities. We learned that community food access and food insecurity is deeply impacted by policy, and that strategic programs need to be designed  by and for the community which they serve. “The people that you recruit from your community – empower them to be your boss,” Hillery said, “Don’t think about scaling as much as you think about the people you are serving.” Figueroa-Reyes agreed, ending the event with an inspiring reflection  on his work at Brook Park Youth Farm, “Everywhere we work there is love and hope and something rippling throughout the community. We have actually done gang mediation – something the police or schools could never do. We are actually saving kids. There is a great sense of solidarity at the street, community level when people see that you are there and you are not going anywhere. There is a tremendous feeling around community land trust – people want ownership and control.”

You can listen to the full conversation here:
Food Policy for Breakfast: Everything But the Food

Pyke, A. (Oct 23, 2018). “Rural Jails, Brought to You By the USDA” Think Progress

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