Interview with Liz Accles – Executive Director, Community Food Advocates
Liz Accles has spent her career in pursuit of social and economic justice and currently oversees the work of Community Food Advocates, whose focuses on expanding and improving child nutrition programs to support children’s health and learning capacity, and increasing access to nutritious food for all New Yorkers, especially the two million living in poverty.
What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate?
What drives me and my approach to food advocacy at its core is economic justice and the principle that the government, through income and food support programs, has a primary and unmatched role in addressing the structural economic inequities that lead to poverty, hunger and the inability of low income people to afford high quality food.
Community Food Advocates focuses on breakfast and lunch programs in NYC. What are some of the key obstacles you see in the current programs, and how can they be improved?
For the school lunch program there are several obstacles that prevent children from participating. Close to one third of income eligible students don’t participate. The primary barrier is the poverty stigma that has plagued the program for decades because students are divided into categories based on their families’ income for federal reimbursement purposes. Making school lunch free for all students, regardless of household income is the most successful, immediate and far reaching solution.
The primary barrier to the school breakfast program is that school breakfast is mostly served before the school day begins. This present scheduling issue for parents and students and also puts a spotlight on students who arrive early because they need the breakfast. Incorporating breakfast into the school day, after the bell will address this issue.
Can you explain the Lunch 4 Learning Campaign? Is the program successful? How are you evaluating /measuring success and impact? What are some of your key findings?
The Lunch 4 Learning Campaign is a broad coalition comprising170 organizational and elected partners calling for free school lunch for all New York City public school students. Campaign members include parent organizations, student groups, educators, educational justice organizations, pediatricians, unions, anti-hunger and youth groups.
We were instrumental in raising the profile of universal free school lunch and making it a priority issue as it impacts the educational performance and health of NYC’s 1.1 million public school students. As a result of our efforts, universal free school lunch was rolled out in middle schools this past September.
The results have been very exciting. From September 2014- February 2015 we have seen more than a 9 percent increase in participation, meaning an additional 10,000 (15,000 in February) middle school students eating school lunch each day. (See this month’s Universal Free School Lunch by the Numbers)
We are working to ensure this successful program is expanded to all students in the upcoming school year.
Focusing locally, what do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?
The greatest challenge for food policy in New York City is the extraordinary cost of living compounded with the alarmingly high poverty rates.
The greatest opportunity is our progressive Mayor and City Council, and Public Advocate and other elected officials and the strong and growing food movement in NYC.
Can you talk about the very specific benefits of universal school meals for NYC residents?
Hunger is not a barrier that should get in the way of students learning. Universal free school lunch means more students eat school lunch. Seventy five percent of NYC public school children have family income making them eligible for free or reduced priced lunch. That means their family income is below $36,000 per year for a family of 3. Families are struggling to make ends meet.
Despite this 250,000 out of 780,000 income eligible students don’t participate.
Universal free school lunch can have far reaching anti-hunger, educational and health benefits for children. For parents, it can substantially help stretch family budgets. If a child eats school lunch that is 20 meals per month a parent does not have to worry about providing.
What are some of the specific strategies you and your organization used to garner such support for your initiative?
For more information on the campaign, visit lunch4learningnyc.org. Campaign activities include the Lunch 4 Learning Selfie Campaign, launched by two campaign partners Eco Station:NY and the Bushwick Campus Youth Food Policy Council: students, parents/guardians, teachers, advocates and NYC residents who feel that universal free school lunch is important can download a template, write down why they think universal free school lunch is important, snap a picture with their statement and tweet it directly at the mayor (@billdeblasio) with the hashtag #lunch4learning. Campaign partners also present testimony at City Council hearings and engage frequently with elected officials to educate, inform and garner support for universal free school lunch. You can read about recent press conferences and other news updates here, and we invite you all to join us for a youth led press conference on the steps of City Hall on June 23rd at 4pm.
What is the one food policy change at the federal level that would have the greatest impact on health?
One federal change that would have a great impact on health is overhauling the outmoded and inadequate method for calculating the level of SNAP benefits a household receives.
Food Policy Book or website your reading: Free for All by Jan Poppendieck
Current Location: New York City
Education: Bachelor’s Degree from Brooklyn College, Graduate studies at CUNY Grad school
Favorite Food: chocolate