Interview with Dara Cooper, NYC Food and Fitness Partnership Director, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation
Dara Cooper serves as the director of the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership, a coalition of groups working to improve food environments in Brooklyn. Dara brings a wealth of experience in local food systems, community access, community health and community economic development both domestically and internationally. Prior to joining Restoration, Ms. Cooper led the launch and expansion of an award winning mobile market and community health program, which became a nationally recognized model for healthy food distribution and community based self-determination and empowerment. She has worked on or advised healthy food access initiatives all over the country and is committed to strengthening local food systems and actively working against racism and other forms of oppression in our global food system.
FPC: What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate?
I identify as an activist who sees the intersections between food justice and all of our critical work towards liberation. As a woman of African descent in this country, I’ve understood at a very early age very intimately what injustice in this country looks like when many of us struggle without access to good food, struggle with inferior environmental conditions, struggle with hyper policing and mass incarceration, and struggle with the highest rates of heart disease of all time. It’s a very violent phenomenon.
The first time I decided I wanted to actively work on food justice was over 10 years ago when I would witness what I realized was one of the gravest injustices in my community—nutritional violence. I remember watching Black children on the south side of Chicago go to the gas station (their version of bodegas) for breakfast to eat honey buns, chips or flaming hot Cheetos with (what looked like) 5 day old gray hamburger meat and plastic nacho cheese. Not a piece of fruit or vegetable could be found anywhere near. This was so unfair to me.
Through organizing and political education, I understood this was all not by happenstance and in fact, policies (i.e., redlining) with explicit racial bias helped to instigate the conditions in which we were living. I also came to understand that just as policies helped to instigate inequities, with a strategic lens around racial justice, we can use policy work to lessen the impact and perhaps shift the tides. At the end of the day, just as so much of our food insecurity, inequities, and injustice is the source of so many ills in our society, it is also one of the greatest promises of our liberation — taking back power over this system and our own communities and health.
FPC: Can you briefly describe what distinguishes the community work of the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration?
Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation is the first and oldest community development corporation (CDC) in the country with decades of deep roots in the Bedford Stuyvesant community and throughout the borough of Brooklyn. With a commitment towards improving the quality of life for Brooklyn residents, there is a very unique opportunity in having a CDC lead good food and community health work. Having an organization—with predominantly Black leadership, reflective of the community—that works towards the holistic health of the community is important, given its vantage point and investment in the overall economic, cultural, political and social thriving of the community.
With our good food work, one of our primary goals in transforming the community food environments is shifting power in our local and regional food economy. We envision expanded opportunities for residents of Central Brooklyn to produce, sell, access and consume more sustainable, higher quality, healthier food.
FPC: You have several important initiatives, is there one particular program you are most excited about and which seems to be most effective? Also, can you provide one important case study (can be very brief) of the impact of this particular program?
One of our initiatives that I’m most excited about is our farm to early care work. We piloted this work about a year ago in partnership with Corbin Hill Food Project and we are very excited about the long term implications of the work. We currently have 10 child care sites enrolled who have agreed to source their menus from our local distribution partner (Corbin Hill Food Project), ensuring children have access to farm fresh, locally sourced, quality produce in every meal. Additionally, in partnership with young people from New York Cares, we worked to build gardens on site with planters in every room so that every child is connected to how food is grown and excited about what is on their plate.
This is exciting because all of the children are from income challenged households and are mostly Black and Latino. It is exciting to work with parents and staff who have fond memories of growing food (or of their parents growing food) and now having the opportunity to reconnect with that experience and good food heritage at their local early child care center.
FPC: What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?
One of the greatest challenges right now would be inequitable access to resources and means to gain control over our food system and thus our health and sustainability. Land—the privatization of land, gentrification (particularly displacement) and the lack of sustainable access to land particularly for communities of color (to connect, cultivate a relationship and to grow our own food)—is one of our greatest challenges and yet our greatest opportunities. Communities are organizing to resist. A recent example is the announcement from the New York City Housing and Preservation Department of the 17 community gardens at risk in being demolished. Many of these gardens, including Isabahlia and Tranquility farms are in our areas and are invaluable assets in our community. I am hopeful that this will create an opportunity for critical spaces, land cultivation and community food access via community gardens to be a more permanently sanctioned space as key to community self-determination and empowerment.
Another key challenge would be low wages and corporate exploitation of workers. Again, we see promise with a minimum wage increase but we know from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and others that we have a long way to go.
FPC: What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that would have the greatest impact on health and food justice?
On a local level, protecting community gardens, supporting community-led food access solutions, investing in good food subsidies, and good food job opportunities are critical.
Additionally, one of the greatest impacts I see on health outcomes would be investing in city good food procurement policies to demonstrate the city’s commitment to fair, just, responsible, good food grown by diverse farmers and producers of color with producers committed to fair wages and good food jobs. This would include farm to school and especially farm to preschool. According to a recent report by Child Welfare Watch, children who are food insecure face cognitive, emotional and physical disadvantage relative to food secure children. Investing in the highest quality of farm fresh sourced meals for children at the preschool age should be the next champion banner to follow up the mayor’s UPK rollout.
FPC: Can you briefly explain how race influences access to healthy food and good food jobs? I realize this is a big topic, but just some of your key thoughts.
One of the greatest issues we face regarding race and access is a very obvious issue: the exploitation of labor—particularly of Black and Brown communities in this country. We have a system based on the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, based on the enslavement and exploitation of African people, and continued exploitation of Brown people. Until we address reparations and repair or eliminate that system of exploitation, we will continue to see the deep, pervasive inequities that exist. With that, a very foundation of this system is based in the fallacy of white supremacy, which permeates so much of our lives. We have to persistently commit to address it, correct it and rectify it in order for us to see real change.
I am hopeful for so many of promising conversations and movements (including Black Lives Matters) focusing on racial justice and equity. With that, I see a real change in how we view communities of color and lift up leadership of color. Additionally, we understand communities of color not solely as “consumers” and “workers” but also producers and agents of change.
These are exciting and promising times.
Food policy websites you read:
Great article that I love lately with great historical and contemporary context: Radical Farmers Use Fresh Food to Fight Racial Injustice and the New Jim Crow
One of my favorite contemporary Environment Justice writers, Brentin Mock:
Your current location: Brooklyn, NY.
Hometown: Chicago, IL.
Brief resume: Director of community health initiative at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, activist, organizer and contributing editor at Praxis Center:
Your favorite food: Anything I grow myself or from my favorite farmers. Or black beans, avocados, mangos, and any green leafy vegetable.
Your website: www.nycffp.org or www.daracooper.com or https://www.kzoo.edu/praxis/category/env-food-sus/