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.

Empowering Teens Feeding Communities Building a Healthy Sustainable Future