Interview with Rick Luftglass, Executive Director, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund
Hometown: Armonk, NY
Education: MBA, Stanford University Graduate School of Business; BA, History, Haverford College.
Favorite Food: Chocolate!
Food Policy Books Recommended: A Place at the Table (a great overview of multiple food issues, published as part of the public campaign for the film of the same name); The Way America Eats (Tracie McMillan), Sweet Charity (Jan Poppendieck)
Favorite informational food policy websites: Healthy Food Access Portal, Leadership for Healthy Communities, Food Research & Action Council
You graduated from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business; I’m wondering what motivated you to get involved with foundation work, and now food policy? Was there a specific trigger or inciting incident?
At Stanford, I was particularly interested in the intersections among the public, private and nonprofit sectors. I had started my career in nonprofits, and when I got to business school I took both business and public sector courses. I was fascinated by what happens at the nexus points. Examples of this nexus are the role of business in society, the use of business skills in the nonprofit sector, and public/private partnerships that bring together public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic entities. Where do interests align? Where might there be conflict or tension?
That led me into corporate philanthropy at Pfizer and the Pfizer Foundation. It put me right at that intersection – it was philanthropy within the context of a pharmaceutical company during a time of public mistrust and a changing health care policy landscape. What’s your role in an environment such as that? I took it as an opportunity to find points of common interest and to identify how a company’s philanthropy fits into a broader perspective of corporate social responsibility. Some of the programs we funded included disease prevention, treatment, and the issue of health disparities, but we also greatly expanded the company’s programs to provide access to medicines for low-income, uninsured patients who otherwise could not afford them. We donated our medicines through over 400 community health centers and public hospitals. We also had science education initiatives, with thousands of skilled employees volunteering in schools, and we created a public/private partnership to build a new public school and affordable housing in Williamsburg/Bed-Stuy, where the company was founded over 160 years ago. All of these are examples of philanthropy that that cuts across sectors, uses the breadth of assets that you have, not just grants, and that takes advantage of the interrelationship among issues rather than seek a singular approach to a singular problem.
That took me to the Illumination Fund, a private foundation where I felt I could bring all of that together. At the Illumination Fund, yes, we are deeply involved in healthy food initiatives, but it’s not food for food’s sake – it’s part of a larger mission to increase access and opportunity for New Yorkers, particularly in underserved communities.
That’s a long answer to a short question, but for me it was a process and evolution, not a specific trigger or inciting event.
What do you think are the greatest food (policy) challenges facing NYC in the years to come?
Without a doubt, I’d say the greatest challenge is that of disparities among neighborhoods. You see it in statistics about the rates of diet-related diseases as well as food insecurity in different parts of the city and among different populations. Compare rates on the Upper East Side to those in East Harlem or East New York. The differences are so stark that you have to ask “Why?” and “What can be done?” Of course it’s intertwined with the issues of poverty, unemployment, educational quality, affordable housing and economic activity. So food policy and food initiatives aren’t going to solve the problems, but these issues are interrelated, and healthy food has a major role to play in building healthier and more viable – and vibrant – communities.
How would you describe the current food movement in the New York City? Do you think it is becoming more effective? Why?
Absolutely. Look back a few years. Let’s say a decade ago – people weren’t talking about “food deserts” and “food insecurity.” Now, those terms are in policy discussions, the media, and even in the public lexicon. That speaks to increased awareness, concern, focus and concrete action. Now New York City has Green Carts, Healthy Bodegas, Health Bucks, more farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods, urban farms, mobile markets, nutrition guidelines for schools and childcare centers, and an incredible array of organizations committed to making changes.
New York City is one of the largest purchasers of food in the United States. Do you have suggestions on specific ways food policy advocates and government officials can use this advantage?
Government has to be at the table with advocates, the private sector and other stakeholders. That’s how systems change. The sheer volume that public institutions buy is enormous – public hospitals, public schools and other entities serve huge a number of New Yorkers, and disproportionately the people served by those institutions are the poor, the unemployed, the underemployed, low-wage workers, and families who are scraping by and need extra support or a boost. But systems don’t change overnight, and when you peel back the layers you start to see lots of challenges, some at the policy level, and some at the financial and operational level. The agencies and stakeholders have to sit together to identify opportunities and impediments.
It’s also important to recognize that government doesn’t just purchase food directly, but it establishes guidelines and requirements for nonprofits and other agencies that are contracted as service providers in communities. Government shouldn’t just set mandates, but actually find ways to help those service providers.
What is the one food policy change at the local or national level that would have the greatest impact on health in New York City?
Given the recent cuts in SNAP – and the way those cuts impact New York City – that issue rises to the top. While most people think of SNAP as a food security program, in reality it serves multiple purposes. It’s an income boost for the working poor and lifts many above the poverty line. It has an economic impact in New York City – benefiting businesses in low-income neighborhoods and generating economic activity. And of course, it has health benefits – over two out of three SNAP participants are children, elderly and people with disabilities, and SNAP is a critical source of nutrition.
In New York City, SNAP is also important to the viability of programs that support access to healthy foods. SNAP dollars can be used at farmers markets and many Green Carts, enabling those healthy food retailers to be successful in high-need neighborhoods.
We know the federal SNAP budget isn’t going to be restored, at least in the short term, so it’s going to be critical that SNAP dollars be used most effectively. Ensuring that healthy food retailers can accept SNAP, promoting their use, and coupling SNAP with nutrition education opportunities, can have a great impact on health, food security and economic opportunity.
The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Foundation has funded several food related organizations and projects, is there an overarching strategy involved? Is there a plan to connect these various funded groups?
The Illumination Fund’s overarching work in food is called “Healthy Food & Community Change.” Rather than a set of isolated grants, the strategy and structure are very intentional.
Healthy Food & Community Change has a three-pronged strategy: deep, multifaceted neighborhood initiatives; public-private partnerships; and significant academic investments to advance knowledge, practice and build a pipeline of future leaders.
The first component – neighborhood initiatives – came out of the understanding that change is local, inclusive and holistic. It’s not swooping in with ad hoc projects, but working with people and organizations that are invested in communities, embedded in communities, and have a vision of what makes a healthy, vibrant community of opportunity. Our first grants in this area are LISC NYC’s Communities for Healthy Food NYC, and City Harvest’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative. LISC works in partnership with Community Development Corporations (CDC’s) that take a comprehensive approach to neighborhood improvement – building affordable housing, creating jobs, developing neighborhood economies, and expanding educational opportunities. LISC and the CDC’s see healthy food not as a patchwork of programs, but as an integral aspect of what makes a healthy, vital community. City Harvest’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative is another example of an approach that goes deep into communities with neighborhood-based, inclusive and multifaceted initiatives that address food security, nutritional knowledge, access to healthy food, and community ownership.
The second component – public-private partnerships – grew out of the successes of the NYC Green Cart Initiative, which was a partnership between the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, as well as Karp Resources and numerous nonprofits. This past summer, we launched the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) in New York, a Wholesome Wave initiative with the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, and supported Share Our Strength to conduct a campaign to boost participation in the NYC Summer Meals Program, which is led by the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Education and other city agencies in partnership with Share Our Strength and the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. We also funded the purchase of a new Summer Meals Mobile Truck to provide meals in public locations. Summer Meals participation shot up, and the (now) four mobile trucks accounted for 300,000 meals, which was an increase of 200,000 over the prior year.
We also believe that there’s a great need to build the evidence base, learnings, and human capital needed to increase the impact of initiatives to expand access and consumption of healthy foods. So, we funded the creation of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and recently announced support to expand the NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter by bringing together community residents, organizations leaders, and Hunter College students and faculty to create and implement a Plan for Healthy Food for East Harlem.