Meeting Emergency Food Needs During COVID-19 – An Interview with City Harvest’s Keith Carr

Keith Carr is a Policy and Government Relations Manager at City Harvest, an organization dedicated to helping feed New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity. He works to advance the organization’s hunger and food insecurity policy priorities; keeps abreast of city, state, and federal policies and proposed legislation as well as their implications on City Harvest’s clients and emergency feeding program partners; and develops advocacy strategy around key issues.

City Harvest is NYC’s largest food rescue organization, feeding over 1.5 million people. They work with food donors, community food programs, community residents, local businesses, and other community organizations in high-need neighborhoods across New York City to make it easier for residents to access and prepare nutritious food for themselves and their families.

Last month, Keith moderated a discussion with youth food justice leaders from Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ), Rockaway Youth Task Force, the Department of Education Office of Sustainability YLC, CUNY Food Justice Leadership Fellowship, and Youth Food Advocates about the future of our food system

We interviewed Keith to learn more about the great work that City Harvest does normally and during COVID, his work in food policy and advocacy and how it intersects with TFFJ’s mission and work, as well as his reflections on TFFJ’s youth panel discussion and the importance of developing youth voice.

Joshua Serrano (JS): Let’s start with an overview of City Harvest. What does City Harvest do during normal times, and what has shifted due to COVID-19?

Keith Carr (KC): City Harvest is a food rescue organization serving all five boroughs in NYC. By food rescue, I mean we get food that would otherwise go to waste or go into a landfill and we bring it to a network of 400-plus food pantries or soup kitchens. When City Harvest started in the ‘80s, we would pick up food and bring it to homeless shelters. That went from one station wagon, to a van, to a couple of vans.  Now we have a staff of close to 160 people, a distribution facility in Queens that has 22 trucks, and we move food out to food pantries all around the city.

The COVID crisis caused the closure of more than 90 of the food pantries that we serve. This forced us to pivot and partner with community organizations who organized pop up food distributions to meet the increasing needs in their area. We are also responding to needs in new areas that traditionally had no emergency food crisis. 

Over the last nine years, I’ve seen the need for emergency food increase exponentially. It used to be a big deal to get 30 million pounds of food rescued and delivered. This year, our goal was to rescue and deliver 61 million pounds, but, since COVID hit, it’s now more than 90 million pounds of food.

In 2014, City Harvest along with The Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement, United Way of the New York City and The New York Community Trust conducted a self-sufficiency standard study that show federal poverty guidelines don’t take into account the higher cost of living in NYC and that family of 4 in the Bronx would need a combined income of about $70k to meet all of their needs.

Official poverty statistics show that there are 1.2 million people in New York City who are food-insecure or experiencing some type of poverty, but in reality it’s more like 2.5 million people. One in five children in New York City has experienced some type of food insecurity. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve already seen a 38% increase in food insecurity among people who probably never thought they would be, ever. Out of that 38%, 50% of children in New York City are now experiencing food insecurity due to the COVID crisis. 

What food insecurity really looks like in New York City — and I’ll admit I’ve been food-insecure and didn’t realize it — is choosing between putting food on the table and keeping the gas or the lights on. That is food insecurity. Deciding not to get cable TV so you can afford food, only eating once or twice a day, bringing food home from church on Sundays or that extra food from the office lunch: that’s food insecurity. And it doesn’t matter what age you are. 

JS: Tell us about your policy and advocacy work, and the impact you’re hoping to have on food through those efforts.

KC: Our policy work includes advocating with city, state and federal elected officials for legislation to increase access of healthy food and benefits, i.e., WIC and SNAP, and the passage of the HEROES Act, which would increase SNAP by 15% and also boost the minimum benefit from $16 to $30. We are also advocating for extending Pandemic EBT benefits throughout the summer. Schools are typically feeding huge numbers of students on a daily basis, so when schools closed it was the right thing to do to increase SNAP benefits for families with school children at home. Pandemic EBT was scheduled to end [on June 30], so we’re advocating for that benefit to be continued throughout the summer.

City Harvest is a member of several coalitions and policy workgroups like the New York COVID-19 Food Coalition that [TFFJ] is also a member of. Right now we’re drafting a 10-year food policy plan and making recommendations to the City Council about what food policy priorities should be in the midst and wake of the pandemic. This crisis is really making us dig deep and focus on the way forward, in terms of how we look at food and get food to those that need it.

JS: Can you talk about the intersection between TFFJ and City Harvest’s work?

KC: My personal mission has been finding ways for the community to be part of the solution in alleviating food insecurity. Having urban agriculture programs like yours, whether it’s hydroponic growing or traditional growing, can alleviate hunger and lessen the need for those families to go to food pantries because you’re another outlet. 

Urban agriculture can also support food pantries within their communities. We don’t get many donations of leafy green vegetables, so, imagine if every school in central Brooklyn had a TFFJ hydroponic farm and served as an access point for vegetables and subsidized fresh food boxes. People in those communities could use their SNAP benefits to buy more fresh, local produce and will also have more money in their pocketbooks to make healthier choices in the grocery store.

You offer education around nutrition, and you’re getting people to try new things through introducing healthier recipes into their diets, and that’s invaluable. That’s a lot of what we do with our nutrition education programs as well. Just having you as partners is fantastic

JS: After moderating the Youth Leadership Conference what were your key takeaways, and what can we learn from student panelists’ perspectives that were shared?

KC: One thing that’s really missing — particularly in the food security, food insecurity, food justice movement when it comes to food banks — is the youth voice. The traditional face of food insecurity is always the little old lady with a pushcart or the toddler with tears in their eyes, eating an apple. It’s never young adults, and it doesn’t depict how food insecurity impacts teenagers and middle schoolers or the stigma that they may feel for having to wait in line with their grandparents at a food bank to get something to eat. 

I was so impressed with all the young food advocates on the panel and I would love to do it again. They each brought a different perspective from their own personal experience. I really believe that this generation of young people is going to change the world.

JS: Why is youth voice important?

KC: They represent the future. We can’t just be averse to systemic change because this is how we’ve always done it. What worked for us isn’t necessarily going to work for this younger generation because everything is completely different. You have to change, you have to adapt, and their voice is needed to help us change and adapt. 

This generation is completely immersed in the future. You won’t find them saying, things will never change because all they know is change. My generation says, well, I want things to go back to normal, but at least I’m getting by and able to take my vacation. This generation says, I don’t need a vacation; I need things to get fixed, then I’ll go on vacation.

MLK JR. Educational Campus Students Launch the “Teens for Food Justice/Whole Kids Foundation Farm” to Grow Over 10,000 pounds of Produce per Year for School and Community

For Immediate Release March 2, 2020

Teens for Food Justice in partnership with the Whole Kids Foundation showcased their indoor hydroponic farm that is already feeding 2,000+ students to local elected officials and industry leaders.

Manhattan, NY: Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ), in partnership with Whole Kids Foundation, and the inventive and industrious students of Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus opened the doors to their school sustaining hydroponic farm for local elected officials, the media and notable industry members. The students, in conjunction with dedicated staff and community members, have been working to build, grow, and maintain a working and blossoming hydroponic farm on campus that serves the school community.

The young urban farmers experience the meaningful rewards of building a tangible, working solution to food insecurity throughout New York City and in their neighborhood communities. Just last month, students harvested over 700 pounds of fresh produce, such as kale and lettuce, and have been serving them in the school cafeteria during lunch. The successful launch has put them on track to grow over 10,000 pounds of produce for their school and community this year – a true accomplishment and proof that their hard work is making a real difference!

Through this purposeful participation, thanks to generous leadership from Hunter College, and funding from Whole Foods Market, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, and United Way of New York City the students transform the relationship they have with the food they eat, instilling a lifelong understanding of healthy eating habits and sustainability. Additionally, the students are able to use their unique experiences in school to help further develop and master key science and STEM skills needed in a new green sector economy.

The event was hosted by Kevin Froner, Principal of Manhattan Hunter Science High School and featured presentations by MLK, Jr. campus students, Teens for Food Justice CEO and Founder Katherine Soll, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, NYS Senator Brad Hoylman, Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, and representatives from Whole Foods Market/Whole Kids Foundation.

Teens for Food Justice, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to healthy, affordable food through youth-led, community-based solutions, currently operates three high-capacity school-based hydroponic farms in NYC serving seven schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn.  Together, these farms are expected to grow in excess of 30,000 pounds of produce annually that feed students daily at lunch and their local communities on an ongoing basis. 

“Almost six years ago, we were looking for a way to improve food quality for our students.  After meeting with Hunter College President Jennifer Raab and Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center Executive Director Charles Platkin, we came up with a few ideas but the one that had the most promise was the hydroponic farm.  We are very proud that what started as a small project for the students in the Manhattan Hunter Science High School, is now feeding the entire campus and has become a model for others around the city.” – Kevin Froner, Manhattan Hunter Science Principal

“The TFFJ/Whole Kids Farm at MLK is engaging students from all six of the campus’ co-located schools in a comprehensive social justice initiative that is empowering them to change the nature of the food they eat every day, understand the connections between nutrition and health, and speak to how good food access is not the same from community to community and why that inequity must end.  We are so proud to be part of this collaboration of NYC educators, thought leaders, policymakers and youth leaders that have brought TFFJ to MLK and allowed us the opportunity to work with its 2100 students through STEM classes, internships, after school health, nutrition, and advocacy programming and youth-led food distribution projects. With the addition of MLK, TFFJ’s four hydroponic farms can now grow more than 25,000 pounds of food annually for their 14 schools’ cafeterias, their students and their families, and their local food-insecure community members.” – Katherine Soll, Teens for Food Justice,  CEO

“It is in partnership with organizations like Teens for Food Justice that we are able to improve the nutrition and healthy eating habits of millions of students. The MLK farm will provide real-world opportunities for students to apply the concepts they learn in classes like biology and chemistry, and it also creates an indelible understanding of how food grows…and we know from years of experience and stacks of research, that when students understand and participate in growing food – they make healthier choices for a lifetime. Our deepest gratitude to the team at Teens for Food Justice – Katherine’s persistence and innovation has created a unique, effective model to bring students and the community together.”

Jamiee Rondeau, Whole Kids Foundation, President & Executive Director

“In Manhattan, at least 39,000 children experience food insecurity. Hydroponic farming in our schools is a fun, innovative way to tackle the challenge of food insecurity while teaching students about biology and nutrition. Because of Teens for Food Justice’s vital work in the community, I was able to help secure $20,000 in funding for them in last year’s state budget and now look forward to watching this organization grow and thrive. I’m grateful to the Whole Kids Foundation and the students and administration at Martin Luther King Jr. Educational campus for their important work, which is helping to feed 2,000 students.” – State Senator Brad Hoylman

“The hydroponic farm started by Manhattan Hunter Science High School—with the wonderful support from Teens for Food Justice and the Whole Kids Foundation—provides so many learning opportunities for students, including the framework for discussions on nutrition and healthy eating, economics, and business partnerships. It also plants the seed—pun intended—for futures in entrepreneurship. With the potential to change the course of students’ lives, experiential learning like this is a critical priority for education, including at all the schools that are part of Hunter College.”

Jennifer J. Raab, Hunter College President

“I am beyond delighted that the hydroponic farm at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Campus is already producing hundreds of pounds of food for surrounding communities, and I am proud to have helped support this incredible project. School-based farms and gardens offer a wonderful opportunity for young people to explore environmental science, develop a life-long passion for growing and cultivation, and examine food-related issues across society. Special thanks to Teens for Food Justice and the staff, teachers, and students at the MLK, Jr. campus for all their hard work and dedication.” – Council Member Helen Rosenthal, District 6, Manhattan

“I’m proud my office contributed funding to build this facility. Urban farming is intrinsically educational in explaining to ‘city kids’ where their food comes from and the science of nutrition. But Urban Farming also has the potential to alleviate food insecurity and help develop the ‘green’ economy for the future. Congratulations to Teens for Food Justice and the Whole Kids Foundation for bringing this project to completion!” – Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer

TFFJ Launches new Collaboration with American Heart Association

TFFJ is launching a new collaboration with the American Heart Association for a Comprehensive “Healthy Kids Meal Youth Advocacy” Campaign.

It’s a new year and TFFJ’s urban farming and nutrition education programming is back up and running at the Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn and DeWitt Clinton High School, Bronx. This semester, the focus is on empowering young people to assess the availability of healthy meal and drink options in restaurant menus in their neighborhoods and educate their peers, communities, and policymakers about the need for healthier options, and create a plan for mobilizing their communities as advocates for this change.

We are excited to announce that TFFJ is launching a new collaboration with the American Heart Association for a comprehensive “Healthy Kids Meal Youth Advocacy” campaign at The Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx where TFFJ currently operates youth-led hydroponic farms. TFFJ will also engage students from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Campus in Manhattan and Brownsville Collaborative Middle School in Brooklyn, where TFFJ farms will open this Fall.

TFFJ’s Advocacy Campaign Coordinator will lead this effort and build out existing TFFJ curricula through which teens survey the local foodscape, assess healthy food options in their neighborhoods, learn about food deserts and food swamps, scrutinize fast food marketing tactics, and explore the importance of counter-marketing. Additionally, through the campaign, students from all four schools will come together for two high-impact leadership conferences. Here, these young leaders will share ideas and strategies for leading their own community-based outreach campaigns focussed on advocating for healthier kids’ meal options.

 

FARM FACTS:

 

  • At DeWitt Clinton, students are pressing forward with completion of the brand new Sun Club/Teens for Food Justice Farm, and are working to integrate their farm into the campus community. 80 DeWitt Clinton students are actively enrolled in curricular day STEM programming in the farm along with 20 students from the co-located Bronx Collaborative High School.
  • This spring, students will begin harvesting leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil and more; supplying their cafeteria with this fresh, hyper-local produce on a daily basis and will join TFFJ for after-school programming.
  • To ensure that produce from TFFJ farms is distributed directly to community members that need it most, TFFJ partners with community-based organizations to get fresh hyper-local, student-grown produce to the neighborhood. At DeWitt Clinton, that means supplying the school-based food pantry run by Good Shepherd Services and working with local partners to establish a school-based farm market later this year.

Stay tuned! We’ll be highlighting the advocacy efforts of our students throughout the semester including our two youth conferences, media campaigns, and community events, all culminating with our annual Unity in the Community celebrations.

We are certainly looking forward to an exciting year!

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