Interview With Cathy Nonas, Executive Director of Meals for Good

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
Meals for Good

Cathy Nonas, MS, CDN, is the executive director and founder of Meals for Good, a nonprofit that works to alleviate food insecurity in New York City. She is a clinical dietitian who began her career at the NYC Obesity Research Center, has served as an assistant clinical professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and is currently a fellow at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at NYU. She was also a member of the National Institutes of Health committee that updated national obesity and lifestyle guidelines. Prior to starting Meals for Good, Nonas was a senior advisor at the Center for Health Equity in the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and was involved with improving nutrition in child-care centers, implementing citywide calorie-posting regulations, creating the NYC Green Cart initiative, and building the Health Bucks program.

Nonas received a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences at Hunter College and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition at New York University

Food Policy Center: Welcome! Thanks for taking some time to chat today. Could you please start by telling me about your professional background and how the idea for Meals for Good came about?

Cathy Nonas:  I had been wanting to get deeper into the community, to reach those who were most in need of healthy food, and my son was the one who actually came up with this idea for how to do that. We began by asking restaurants to add between $0.25 and $1.00 to one food item on the menu and then give that amount to us as a donation every time someone chose that item. It was a great way for the restaurants to show their sense of community – they used a little chef’s hat icon on the menu, with an explanation of the donations. They were all generous, adding their donations to their most popular item. The money went to providing fresh produce to under-resourced pantries. Then COVID hit and the restaurants closed, so we began to seek donations from individuals and companies instead, and we started working with tenant associations and community-based organizations to supply the foods people were missing – definitely proteins and produce but also basics like oil and flour – things you can’t usually get from a pantry. This was the impetus for our voucher program that I hope will be replicated across the country.

FPC: You have been working in nutrition and food access in NYC for several years. What do you think have been some of the biggest improvements in the city’s foodscape over the course of your career? What do you think are the most crucial changes that still need to take place? 

CN: The biggest improvements have been an increase in fresh produce, particularly in underserved neighborhoods. Farmers markets, green carts, and opportunities for bodegas have all been a boon to those who struggle to find healthy, affordable food. Also, universal free meals in NYC public schools have made a huge difference. 

I think we still need to find ways to increase the opportunity for people from different cultures to obtain more familiar foods, whether it’s through pantries, grocery stores, or schools. And I think we can be more creative in how people obtain food – for example, by serving school breakfast to both parents and children or opening up some school kitchens to people who don’t have one of their own so that they can make their own food.

FPC: What is the one food- and nutrition-related policy you have worked on that you are the most proud of, and why?

CN: I really do believe it takes the proverbial village, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some terrifically thoughtful, creative people. Health Bucks, which began as a $2 voucher to be used at a farmer’s market, is certainly one that I’m proud of. It started as a trial in the Bronx with $5,000, and now it is one of the largest municipal farmer’s market programs in the country. The success of Heath Bucks helped to increase the number of markets in low-income areas. And the idea has not only grown around the country, but it was also the basis for the NYC Health Department’s current Get the Good Stuff and Groceries to Go programs as well as for the vouchers that Meals for Good distributes now.

FPC: Meals for Good helps local food pantries acquire fresh produce to provide for their clients. What products are in greatest demand? How, if at all, are you able to help pantries that do not have refrigerators to store produce?

CN: We help underfunded pantries, the smaller pantries that cannot fundraise for themselves and rely solely on what they get from the City and State. Their typical bag of food contains potatoes, onions, maybe apples, canned foods like beans, and bags of rice. So I can give them grants to obtain what they think their clients are missing. They get to choose what those items are, and often it’s lettuce and fruit, but it can also be yams and beets. We also give incentive grants – on top of the other grants – and these encourage pantries to try a new product without losing any of the money from the original grant. For example, many pantries in Harlem have tried bok choy, which has been successful because it appeals to their many Asian customers.

We visit all our pantries to make sure they can handle extra produce. If a pantry doesn’t have a refrigerator, we help them contact the Food Bank or United Way, and we offer produce that doesn’t have to be refrigerated and that is delivered close to the pantry’s distribution day.

FPC: Could you explain how the Meals for Good voucher program operates? Who is eligible to receive these vouchers, and what are they able to purchase? 

CN: It is similar to SNAP. MFG contracts with supermarkets to accept the vouchers, and, for simplicity, the vouchers can be used for anything that is SNAP-approved. We give the vouchers to a community-based organization (CBO) that provides support for people who cannot get SNAP benefits, and the CBO distributes the vouchers to their clients as they see fit. Each voucher is worth $10, and people receive anywhere from $40 to $200, depending on the number of people in their family and at the discretion of the CBO. It is an extremely efficient way to give people agency over their food. The vouchers have grown to be the major part of what we do.

FPC: How do you hope Meals for Good will grow and evolve in the future, both short- and long-term?

CN: I am hoping that other jurisdictions follow suit, and I’m happy to help them get started. Vouchers are highly redeemed and easy to use. Already, we’ve grown from a small pilot in East Harlem to four projects (including a food is medicine study) in three different boroughs. And several groups from across the country have contacted me about providing vouchers in their jurisdictions. As we grow, and our data mounts, I think you can expect to see vouchers across the country. Like SNAP, vouchers are an easy way to help people get the food they need while also giving them the independence and dignity to choose the foods they want.

Grew up in: NYC

City or town you call home: Harlem, but really, I’m in every borough.

Job title: Executive Director/ Founder

Background and education: Started out in architecture but completed school with a nutrition degree. 

One word you would use to describe our food system: Messy.

Food policy hero: Oh man, this is hard – there are so many! Currently, I’d say Kate MacKenzie, because she’s shown incredible grit and fight and imagination in providing more food – and better quality food – for those in NYC who are most vulnerable and food insecure. 

Your breakfast this morning: Homemade sourdough toast and cheese (and coffee).

Favorite food: Have to say chocolate, but also cantaloupe.

Favorite last meal on Earth: A variety of tastes, like going to a cocktail party, because it’s impossible for me to pick just one.

Favorite food hangout: East Harlem Bottling Co., because every time someone orders the vegetarian burger (which is delicious), Meals for Good gets 50 cents. They are the only restaurant who still does this. They believe in the work and in giving back to the community.

Food policy social media must follow: @mealsforgood (of course) and @skyhighfarmhudsonvalley on Instagram

Related Articles

Subscribe To Weekly NYC Food Policy Watch Newsletter
Subscribe to our weekly email newsletter today to receive updates on the latest news, reports and event information
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.