In 1980 Liz Neumark founded Great Performances as a waitress-staffing agency for women in the arts. Over the decades, Great Performances has transformed into one of the country’s foremost catering companies serving cultural and historic institutions across NYC including BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), the Brooklyn Museum, Apollo Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Plaza Hotel, Wave Hill, and dozens of other locations. In 2019 Liz relocated Great Performances to Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, tripling the company’s footprint while bringing countless jobs and economic development to the borough.
As a leader in the industry, Liz is dedicated to tackling food-related issues and engages in a number of initiatives including food rescue, anti-hunger initiatives, healthy food access, and local agriculture. In 2006, she established Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY, and founded The Sylvia Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing children’s health issues. She sits on the boards of GrowNYC, The Fund for Public Housing, The Sylvia Center, and Open House NY, and is Board Vice President of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. She’s been named one of New York’s Most Powerful Women by Crain’s New York and was featured on the NYC Media TV show Her Big Idea, which features profiles of NYC women entrepreneurs. In 2020, she served on the NYC Fair Recovery Task Force.
Food Policy Center: Welcome, Liz! We are so grateful for your time today. Please tell me about your background and what sparked your interest in food, nutrition, and health.
Liz Neumark: I studied urban studies and political science at Barnard and have always been interested in the confluence of industry, urban policy, and social activism while trying to make the world a better place.
FPC: How did Great Performances evolve from a waitstaff agency for women in the arts to a prominent catering company? Could you discuss how Great Performances, Katchkie Farm, and The Sylvia Center are interconnected?
LN: We started a waitress service for women in the arts to provide a handful of friends (and me) with flexible work schedules while we pursued artistic careers. It morphed into providing food and catering when clients who booked our staff asked if we could also bring the food. Had I succeeded in reaching my original goals, I would now be a photographer, not a hospitality professional!
Over the years, my original passion for social justice came to fruition through the lens of food. Access to healthy food is no different from access to education, housing, or jobs. We take our three meals a day for granted. Being in the food industry made me even more sensitive to the selective abundance in our society. Building a connection to agriculture with the creation of Katchkie Farm stemmed from my hunger to connect with the basic building blocks of food, which is agriculture. The Sylvia Center was a combination of personal goals, to honor the memory of my young daughter Sylvia, who wanted to be a helpful human, and to further the expression of food justice for Great Performances, which was so intertwined with feeding the most privileged New Yorkers. Now we could do both.
FPC: You clearly have a passion for local food! What do you think needs to happen in order to increase local food production, distribution, and consumption in New York? What types of policies need to be enacted or enforced to support local growers?
LN: That is a very complex question, so let’s break it down into small bites. Local food production will increase with incentives and the support of local and state governments, as well as externalizing the true costs of our industrial food policy. Distribution will naturally follow. We can see a robust market for local products which will only grow with more supply. A great example to watch in 2024 will be the wholesale HUB of GrowNYC, which was made possible by funding from the city and state, as well as consumer demand, and will provide local produce to a wide range of New Yorkers and non-profit institutions who purchase food.
Another successful policy is the current Nourish New York program from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. It is a lifeline to farms as well as recipients.
FPC: The Sylvia Center focuses on providing kids with healthy cooking and nutrition education. What do you think is the most important eating habit to instill in children at a young age? What are the biggest challenges to doing this? What are the benefits of working with children (as opposed to adults) on these issues?
LN: I don’t know that we can instill specific habits as much as create an environment where children are exposed to a range of options, preferably healthy, and engaged in the kitchen with caregivers or family or friends preparing meals.
The biggest challenge to nurturing kitchen environments is time, expense, and access to ingredients.
There’s really nothing as magical as being in the kitchen with a child – it’s an opportunity to talk about food but also about art, politics, math (yuck!), science and life. I love to quote Miss Frizzle [from The Magic School Bus children’s book series]: “Get messy, make mistakes.” Kids love that (permission to fail and learn), and the results are spectacular.
FPC: You have also played an active role in hunger relief and food security initiatives. What do you see as the primary causes of hunger and the lack of healthy food access here in New York? What do you think policymakers could do differently to have the most impact on food insecurity? What can the general public do?
LN: Hunger is a systemic economic problem. There’s no reason why in a city like New York, in the richest country in the world, anyone should be hungry. There’s lots that should be done. We should make sure our elderly are fed three healthy meals a day. We should make sure all our children have access to three healthy meals a day. These two groups are part of an extensive network, so we know we can reach them.
The ability to afford (healthy) food is also a function of very complex economic conditions including minimum wage and benefit costs/restrictions, housing costs, job opportunities, and a host of complex circumstances that contribute to underemployment and poverty.
There are small steps people can take, from supporting anti-hunger organizations and not wasting food to working on bigger fixes that change the economic gap in our country. VOTE and vote with your fork as well.
FPC: Is there anything else you would like to add?
LN: The students who are coming through The Sylvia Center amaze me. They understand the complexities of the environment they’re operating in. Their creativity, optimism, and engagement inspire me. On top of all these issues they are also grappling with climate change and a crazy political situation. I hope we can all give them the support they need to make a difference and be the generation that changes the world.
Grew up in: Manhattan
City or town you call home: I still sleep in Manhattan but have moved my business to the Bronx. I love the Bronx!
Job title: CEO & Founder
Background and education: Barnard College
One word you would use to describe our food system: Salvageable
Food policy hero: Kate MacKenzie
Your breakfast this morning: Fruit, yogurt, and decaf.
Favorite food: tomatoes.
Favorite last meal on Earth: a perfectly crisp hotdog with mustard and sauerkraut (I’m a vegetarian but what the heck – it’s my last meal)
Favorite food hangout: Great Performances Kitchen
Food policy social media must follow: Sylvia Center (https://twitter.com/SylviaCenter)