Dr. Camesha Grant, PhD, has been fighting hunger with the Food Bank for New York City (FBNYC or “Food Bank”) for the last 10 years. She currently serves as the Vice President, Community Impact and Investment, building relationships and engaging with individuals and organizations, thought leaders, university and healthcare partners, and others to build partnerships and collaborations that advance FBNYC’s mission and values. Previously, she spent 17 years working in foster care for the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice from Virginia State University as well as both a Master’s and a PhD in social work from Fordham University.
Food Policy Center: Welcome, Camesha! Could you please start by telling us how you came to have the position you currently hold at Food Bank? What drew you to that position? Did you have an interest in hunger relief and food security prior to beginning your work there?
Camesha Grant: Believe it or not, it was my work at the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) that piqued my interest in food insecurity. As a part of doing a neglect or abuse investigation, we were required to look into the family’s refrigerator and pantry. Oftentimes, they wouldn’t have enough food for everyone in the household and were at risk of being deemed neglectful. During my first year at Food Bank for New York City, I partnered with ACS to institute the first-ever pantry in an ACS office!
FPC: How have hunger and food access issues in NYC changed for better or worse since you started at FBNYC 10 years ago? Has your approach to addressing hunger changed at all?
CG: In a city as dynamic as ours, things are always changing, and that includes issues of hunger and food access. At Food Bank, we are on a mission to empower every New Yorker to achieve permanent food security, which means we have to expand and stretch our programmatic approach to meet the moment. At the height of COVID-19, for example, we launched a Mobile Pantry Program to deliver food directly to high-need communities across the five boroughs. We also established new partnerships with hospitals and medical centers so that they could provide food to their patients. This past spring, when many pandemic-era benefit programs came to an end, we increased our outreach and advocacy work so that New Yorkers wouldn’t lose vital SNAP benefits. While food insecurity remains a major issue in our city, Food Bank remains committed to building a more hopeful, dignified, and equitable future for all of our neighbors, no matter who they are or where they come from.
FPC: In a feature article published in 2018, you mentioned that the human connection is the most important part of your work. What have you learned from your interactions with community members at food pantries and community kitchens? How have your conversations with these individuals inspired your work?
CG: I’d have to say there are some things I’ve learned and some things that have been reaffirmed. I’ll start with what’s been reaffirmed: New Yorkers are strong, resilient, gracious, dynamic, kind, and grateful for support. What I’ve learned is that no one stands on a pantry line unless they absolutely have to. When someone visits us, they’ve usually already gone weeks without enough food. Shame and stigma prevent so many of our neighbors from reaching out for help, but once they take that brave first step, I think they’re surprised to find how welcoming we are. We serve without judgment, and I’ve learned time and time again that all anybody wants is to be seen and feel safe. Our neighbors inspire me every day with their humanity and good humor – they are as hopeful, sassy, hilarious, and real as any New Yorker could hope to be.
FPC: Everybody needs food to live, but not all foods are created equally – the cheapest and most convenient foods are often the least healthy (e.g. fast food, sweets, processed/prepackaged foods). What is your advice for someone who is experiencing food insecurity but cannot afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, or for an unhoused individual who gets ingredients from a food pantry but does not have the means or time to cook a meal? How does FBNYC ensure that food-insecure New Yorkers have access to nutritious foods? How do you emphasize the need for including food items sourced from local New York State farmers and producers?
CG: For someone who is experiencing food insecurity and struggling to afford fresh produce, I would first and foremost say that we see you, and no person should have to be in the position where they are not able to buy the foods they need or want for themselves or their families. At Food Bank we have nutrition education programs specifically designed to teach community members about preparing healthy foods on a budget. We teach shopping tips, like how to get more bang for your buck by buying in larger quantities (such as a large bag of brown rice instead of the small), buying products that are not name brands, which tend to be more expensive, and looking at the shelves that are above or below eye level, because the most expensive items are at eye level. Other shopping tips include looking for items on sale, using coupons, and buying fresh produce that is in season, which is much less expensive than items not in season. And speaking of produce, another great tip is to buy it frozen! Many times, produce is frozen directly after being harvested, so it actually contains more nutrients than in a fresh item that has traveled for weeks (sometimes months) to get to the produce section in the store. In our nutrition education workshops, we also talk about minimizing food waste at home. This can look like making a large pot of soup or pasta with vegetables and beans and freezing some for later.
Another way to increase nutrition and food access in the home is to make sure you’re utilizing all available resources. See if you qualify for SNAP (for individuals and families), WIC (for children under five, prenatal or breastfeeding moms), and/or CSFP or DFTA (senior food assistance programs). You can also visit your local food pantry or soup kitchen for food; in fact, we have a food locator on our website (foodbanknyc.org/get-help) to make finding a pantry easy. Going beyond food in our service is vital to our mission, so, in addition to the aforementioned nutrition education workshops, we also provide free tax-filing assistance, financial empowerment workshops, and resource referrals. Call us and let us help you figure out what you need!
For unhoused individuals, I would say please tell your local food pantry what you need so that they can best assist you with the foods that actually work for you. At Food Bank, we have an internal Nutritious Foods Committee that meets monthly to discuss community nutrition needs and procurement. One thing the committee does is to distribute an annual Nutrition and Cultural Food survey to our members and clients to help us identify their requests and food needs. One question on this survey is specifically about ready-to-eat foods, which helps us gauge how to provide our member organizations who are serving clients who have minimal or no kitchen access with the foods that best meet their needs.
We also ask questions about diet-specific and culturally relevant foods, such as heart-healthy, low-sodium, kosher, and halal items. We then work with our nutrition and procurement teams through monthly collaborations to determine strategies for procuring nutritious foods and delivering those foods to the network. As part of our monthly Member Newsletter, we provide healthy recipes that teach our agencies and clients how to prepare products in a healthy way. We also create and promote short recipe videos in both English and Spanish that show clients how to prepare healthy and tasty foods on a budget.
Sourcing produce and commodities directly from farms is also an area of focus. We want to ensure that we are supporting local NYS farmers while also providing nutritious foods to the community. FBNYC works with multiple grants that specifically support this work and allow for increased opportunities in this area.
FPC: While there are several factors that contribute to hunger (including unemployment, homelessness, chronic medical conditions, lack of healthcare, and racial discrimination), it generally boils down to poverty as the root cause. What is one policy that you would advocate for in order to reduce or eliminate poverty in NYC? Do you think eliminating poverty would also end hunger?
CG: Programs and policies that make food, housing, healthcare, and education more affordable can help reduce poverty. The tax system is a critical part of the safety net. You asked for one, but two tax credits that are extremely powerful and valuable in the fight against poverty are the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.. Both have a positive impact on children’s health and education, and we make sure our neighbors are able to take advantage of these vital credits through our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which provides free, secure, and IRS-certified tax-filing assistance to New Yorkers each year.
FPC: What do you see as the biggest challenges to overcoming hunger in NYC? What is FBNYC doing to address these challenges? What policies should government officials advance to help alleviate hunger?
CG: There is no one challenge that trumps another when it comes to fighting food insecurity in New York City. As with any major issue, it intersects with so many other things – unemployment, lack of affordable housing, high healthcare costs, systemic racism, and the ever-changing socioeconomic pressures that come with living with an urban system as large and vast as ours. But you’re asking me this question now, and in this moment, one of the top priorities for us at Food Bank is fighting for a strong Farm Bill, which is currently up for reauthorization in Congress.
The Farm Bill’s name might not immediately bring to mind urban hunger; nonetheless, this legislation is essential in the fight for food security in NYC, funding lifeline programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
This year, it’s more important than ever for our elected leaders to come out strong in the fight against hunger. This starts with strengthening SNAP by removing barriers to participation. Nearly 1.8 million New York City residents and 42 million people nationwide rely on SNAP for food; it is the backbone of our fight against hunger. It reduces the strain on food pantries, which were never meant to be used as main sources of food, and injects funds into the economy. Every dollar of SNAP money spent at a bodega or supermarket injects more than $1.50 into the local economy.
Lawmakers must also push to diversify the support that TEFAP is able to provide. TEFAP is the main federal support for food pantries and soup kitchens. Last year, it provided more than 32 million meals in New York City alone. First, Congress must authorize increased investments in TEFAP food supply, storage, and distribution. Also, TEFAP should increase access to kosher and halal meals – ensuring that families with religious dietary requirements are able to access nutritious food with dignity and in keeping with their faith.
FPC: What is the one most important thing that New York State legislators can do to help ensure that our fellow community members have enough to eat?
CG: New York legislators are urged to work with Governor Hochul to ensure that food assistance programs are fully funded to meet the ongoing, increased need at food pantries across our city and state. We call on them to strengthen SNAP, our nation’s most effective anti-hunger program, so that it reaches more New Yorkers and provides them with a more substantial benefit, ideally one that better reflects the true cost of essential food and resources in our state. The need for food remains extremely high across our city, especially as food prices soar and resources dwindle for those who need them most. SNAP provides almost 3 million New Yorkers with the assistance they need to buy nutritious groceries. These federal dollars generate increases in economic activity statewide. New York State can be a leader in food security increasing New Yorkers’ access to SNAP and thus strengthening their buying power.
Grew up in: Queens, NY
City or town you call home: Rockaway Beach, NY…my happy place!
Job title: Vice President, Community Impact and Investment
Background and education: BA, Virginia State University, Master of Social Work (MSW) and PhD in Social Work. Both from Fordham University. Let’s go Rams!
One word you would use to describe our food system: inequitable
Food policy hero: Michelle Obama
Your breakfast this morning: A cup of coffee with french vanilla creamer
Favorite food: Seafood. All of it!
Favorite last meal on Earth: King crab legs, lobster mac and cheese and grilled asparagus.
Favorite food hangout: TATIANA. Raised in the Bronx, Chef Kwame Onwuachi describes the restaurant as his love letter to New York written with the flavors, aromas, and textures of his childhood. The food and ambiance are both amazing!