By now you are likely well familiar with the current state of affairs – the COVID-19 outbreak is influencing living conditions, such as income and financial security, stable housing, and food security, especially for vulnerable populations. We spoke with some of New York City’s community food organizations that are leading a robust and resilient response to the current COVID-19 crisis – ensuring that access to food efforts continue and increase during these troubling times. Our questions and their answers are below. Many thanks to our responding partners:
- Jerome Nathanial, Associate Director of Policy and Government Relations at City Harvest
- Kasumi Quinlan, Community Manager at Lemontree Foods Inc.
- Dennis Derryck, President and Founder at Corbin Hill Food Project
- Qiana Mickie, Special Projects Consultant at Just Food
CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute: The world grappling with COVID-19 looks very different than it did a few weeks ago. How IS YOUR organization adapting ITS programS to continue to support New Yorkers and our food system at this time?
Jerome Nathanial (City Harvest): City Harvest has responded to COVID-19 by making a number of adjustments for the safety of our staff and the communities we serve. City Harvest is an essential service, and we know that it is most critical that we continue to meet the needs of our communities during these trying times. You can visit our website to see how we are responding live: https://www.cityharvest.org/covid-19-update-2/
Kasumi Quinlan (Lemontree): At Lemontree, we’ve shifted our focus to supporting existing food infrastructure in the city. As a relatively young organization, we’ve decided to dedicate our resources to historic emergency food nonprofits with a proven track record, like City Harvest. We’ve created In It Together NYC, a platform to connect volunteers to the organizations that need them most. Volunteering is more crucial than ever, and it’s how we’ll have the biggest impact. Volunteering or simply spreading the word is something we can all do today and make a real difference.
Dennis Derryck (Corbin Hill): Our adaptation has had to be at many levels. First 12 of our 19 distribution sites have closed. There is the real concern on all sides around safety. Corbin Hill has always prioritized hospitals and clinics as major distribution sites since they are the institutions that Blacks and Latinx visit more often than any other institution in their community. Many of our other distribution sites chose to rethink if they should continue as a distribution site. A few see this crisis as reason to remain open and to double their orders. The loss of 60 percent of our revenue over the last two weeks requires us to focus on survival. Our second adaptation has centered on our grab and go model that speaks to the many dimensions of safety. As our distribution sites gain confidence in this model, we are hoping that many will reopen their sites. The demand that these sites be reopened has come from many food insecure students. Our third area of adaptation centers on being responsive to the increased need in our communities. The response must address the economic realities for Black and Latinx. Farm Share must be offered to these new Shareholders at no cost. These are individuals impacted by their loss of jobs and who lack liquid assets. The liquid wealth assets are $400 for 30% and 20 % for Black and Latinx college graduates respectively and true for 60% and 50% of high school graduates. In the absence of liquid assets (wealth) this group also disproportionately lacks access to the basic safety nets from health to unemployment insurance. We would like to expand this Farm Share to meet the needs of 600 new Shareholders in the coming weeks should we receive funding.
Qiana Mickie (Just Food): Just Food was able to pivot more quickly to adapt to the changing community needs with minimal project disruptions and have tried to be more responsive to our ongoing projects and partners during these unprecedented times because we shifted to remote and community-based operations over a year ago. Given the impact COVID-19 will have on our food systems, we see our work in developing community-driven solutions and using food as a driver of economic, environmental, and racial equity as even more critical.
CUNY UFPI: What weaknesses of our food system have become apparent or been exacerbated by COVID-19?
KQ (Lemontree): The places that will be hit the hardest are neighborhoods that already have limited access to fresh, quality food. In a typical month, millions of New Yorkers go to bed hungry–and it’s about to get much worse. While the more fortunate have stocked their pantries & ordered everything else online, some New Yorkers haven’t had that option. Many of us don’t have the resources to make bulk purchases, visit several stores to find everything we need, or have groceries delivered. More than anything, COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the uneven distribution of wealth across the city and how it affects what’s on the dinner table.
DD (Corbin Hill): This is not the first disaster our Black and Latinx communities have had to address and it will not be the last. Lessons should have been learned from 911 and Sandy. It is unfortunate that we scramble each time to find ways of reaching those in need, all lacking liquid assets. We should have learned what it takes to build community-based systems, the importance of community solidarity and the role of community ownership and decision-making in addressing disasters. Instead we would rather speak after the fact about community resiliency, a trait we know that Blacks in particular have had for the past 400 years. The political and financial capital for responding to community disasters centers on the very same organizations that seldom look like us. Yet the intellectual capital has always existed within our communities to address these challenges: Micro hubs around food, (See Ray Figueroa’s testimony at City Council hearings ten years ago) and health and climate change (See reports by WEACT Northern Manhattan Climate Change completed 3 years ago). The larger organizations are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Our communities remain just consumers before and at the end of this crisis our community wealth will be minus zero. The loss of individual wealth among Black and Latinx, already non-existing, will be greater after this disaster itself.
QM (Just Food): The purposeful inequities within our food system have long been apparent from the theft of land from Indigenous peoples, to our nation’s economies built on slavery, to the current struggles of labor and fight for dignity of farm and restaurant workers. Even with telltale signs of the degradation of soil, significantly low number of farmers of color- in particular Black farmers- and high national food insecurity – there remains barriers to developing and implementing equitable food/farm policy that supports regenerative agriculture practices, addresses land theft, stolen generational wealth or authentically engages the most impacted in our society.
JN (City Harvest): When we talk about the food system, it is important to recognize that it is a full cycle that not only includes food production but also food access. Although every part of that food system is being challenged by the current pandemic, anti-hunger organizations are best positioned to speak to the food access component. From a food security perspective, we have always known that a significant number of New Yorkers struggle to put food on the table due to a number of financial barriers as well as systems that do not adequately meet everyone’s needs. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, we knew that 1.2 million New Yorkers were food insecure, that poverty rates were significantly higher for households with children, and that 2.5 million working aged New Yorkers were below the self-sufficiency standard. Although many of these families are working households, they are still barely a paycheck away from severe financial duress. These same families are faced with the challenge of balancing the rising cost of food with rent, child care, transportation costs, medical expenses and other costs that are often perceived as less elastic than our grocery bills. When we combine that preexisting reality for New Yorkers with the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are faced with a situation that amplifies hunger for those who have already been experiencing it and pulls more families into food insecurity. In particular, workers in the food service and hospitality industry are being disproportionately affected by the current circumstances. We anticipate higher unemployment rates and an inevitable growing need for budget relief through services such as food banks. What this pandemic, and the natural disasters that have come before it, continue to exacerbate in our food system isn’t a shortage of food on the production side. Rather, it increases the fragility of adequate income to comfortably access a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle in our city. It tells us that despite our progress and efficiencies in anti-hunger feeding programs such as SNAP and School Meals, there is always more that needs to be done to ensure that some of the most financially vulnerable populations, currently eligible for feeding programs or not, are supported.
CUNY UFPI: Can you suggest one policy change that could be made at the local, regional, or national scale that could strengthen the food system for the future?
DD (Corbin Hill): We must begin to reconceptualize a community food distribution system that is decentralized, where there are resources to create and implement community-based micro hubs, both for food and health, and where decision-making, ownership and distribution is community driven. The larger organizations with their political and financial capital need to support such efforts and become partners with our communities. As currently exist they too often decide winners and losers based on their limited knowledge of communities. Sandy demonstrated why many in public housing and in certain boroughs were underserved or never served.
QM (Just Food):Today, it could take the form of the passage of a comprehensive economic stimulus bill that provides resources to strengthen local food value chains between urban and rural small-mid scale sustainable farmers/ producers, and fisherfolk, workers in the field to restaurants, and consumers. The bill should also direct funds to meet the increased need of safety net programs like SNAP, FMNP, and stimulate the solidarity economies of CSAs, farmers markets, and other alternative models of food distribution.
JN (City Harvest): The challenges that are posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted polices that are very much in reach in our current system. There are aspects of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (HR 6201) and the CARE act (S 3548) that offer temporary hunger relief approaches that food banks have advocated for on a consistent basis. These acts align with the spirit of advocacy efforts that have come before them by: ensuring that children have consistent access to nutritious meals, supporting the local economy by expanding SNAP eligibility to all families with a child that is eligible for free or reduced-price school meals; waiving many of the administrative barriers for schools to offer innovation in food distribution; and ensuring that those who are most vulnerable to economic downturns have additional supports as they try to find gainful employment. This last point is particularly important as we consider the context of the time limits on SNAP that would have been imposed by the ABAWD rule on April 1, had it not been for a court decision and HR 6201. These relief packages are temporary in nature. However, their enactment tells us that these kinds of policies, that are so very needed on a consistent basis, are possible and within our reach. It is very easy to fall into the trap of constantly brainstorming possibilities, but we need to remind ourselves that some of the more imminent improvements in our food system rest in policies that have already been laid before us.
CUNY UFPI: In this difficult time, what is giving you hope? have you observed any strengths of our food system emerge, do you see opportunities in the aftermath of this for system growth?
QM (Just Food): What is giving me hope is seeing the early signs of spring, hearing new ideas to strengthen our food value chain with partners, and the creative community like musicians, healers, and artists sharing their gifts to keep us dancing, calm, and whole. The oldest living participatory democracy on our planet remains the Great League of Peace which is from the peoples of the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations. Much of the US constitution and government structure was informed by the Haudenosaunee. I am more affirmed than ever that food and farm policy needs to be rooted in the resilient, indigenous agricultural practices and brilliance of equitable dissemination of resources found in Black, Brown, and Indigenous cultures.
JN (City Harvest): The outpouring of support from New Yorkers and beyond has been amazing. Not only are people eager to help, but they are also calling just to check in on how we are doing. We are also seeing people get very innovative about what they donate, how they partner with other organizations, or how they distribute food in the community. For instance, City Harvest partnered with City Meals on Wheels 2 weeks ago to help move food more quickly to seniors. When we face these types of situations, we are reminded of the goodness of our neighbors.
DD (Corbin Hill): I do not translate the future in terms of growth unless measured by community ownership in the decision-making process and permanent community structures created to respond to our communities needs now and for future disasters. I am hopeful that we could measure the future in the manner in which our institutions can reframe their approach to include our communities, not simply as one of community-engagement, but as a process in which communities are the decision-makers. This would demonstrate a shift in power and in which racial equity and sovereignty are intentionally valued. I am also hopeful that there will be a moral commitment from each of us as we move forward.
KQ (Lemontree): We have been blown away by the grassroots community response to this crisis. Hundreds of people have already signed up for In It Together–it’s clear that New York is here to help. Every neighborhood in the city is stepping up to see how they can help, whether by forming mutual aid networks or stocking a fridge with fresh food & putting it on the sidewalk for free. We’ve seen ramped up efforts around local farming and emergency food, both of which show promise for sustainable growth. Overall, we have seen so much energy & passion all across the city, and it’s stirring to witness how much people care about each other. NYC is truly #inittogether.
To learn more about efforts on the ground, please reach out to
- Jerome at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kasumi at email@example.com
- Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Qiana at email@example.com
Interview by Katy Tomaino Fraser, Director of Evaluation, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute