Valerie Chong Nigg (VCN): Tell us a little about yourself.
Karla Ignacio (KI): My name is Karla Ignacio, I just graduated from Lehman College as a Sociology Major. I am from the DR. I’ve been studying and working on food justice for about four years now, and I just graduated as a Food Justice Fellow from the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. I am currently working at Swipe Out Hunger as the CUNY Student Food Navigator Manager.
VCN: What is your favorite food and why?
KI: Can I have a tie? First, sweet plantain casserole. In Spanish, we call it “Pastelón de Plátano Maduro.” I love it because we make it for special occasions in my family; we make it for Christmas and birthdays. And it’s the best thing I can make. So if I’m cooking for someone, and I want to impress them, that’s what I make. And the second one is eggplant parmesan, because I love cheese.
VCN: Why did you choose to major in Sociology?
KI: It took me a long time to figure out what I was going to study. Because when I was in the DR, I went to med school. That’s because my parents wanted me to, because you have to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer. And then I went to New York because they told me school was better here, and I lost almost all of my credits. I was in school for almost three years, and I was frustrated because it felt like I had lost all of that time, so I thought, “let’s try nursing, because it’s close, and at least I’ll have some credits.” But I never really liked it. And then once I took a sociology class, I really liked it, but I didn’t see how I could use it practically. When I graduated from Hostos with a degree in Liberal Arts, I decided to major in Sociology at Lehman. I’ve always liked questioning things and figuring out why they happen and how, and I think sociology is a very good way for me to explain and make sense of what’s happening in the world, and the system that I’m interested in, specifically when it comes to food and race.
VCN: Why did you apply for the CUNY Food Justice Leadership Fellowship?
KI: After I left Hostos, I went to Lehman, and I was also working. So after class, I would go to work, and I felt no sense of community in the school, because I was just never there. And that is something that is very important for me. I was talking to one of my mentors, Professor Kathleen Delgado, and she said, “There’s this Fellowship; I think you might like it,” and I applied. I was very excited because it seemed like a good way for me to learn more about food, and it felt practical in addition to intensive learning.
At this time, I was also working at Single Stop and the CUNY Food Security Advocates Project. I’m really shy and I also deal with Impostor Syndrome, so in the past I would just say no to everything. Now I make more of a conscious effort to take advantage of the opportunities that come my way.
VCN: What does food justice mean to you?
KI: Choice. A lot of the time when we think about food, everything is made to feel so normal. Like, “oh yeah, the supermarket is two hundred thousand miles away, and no one here has the money to have a car, but that’s normal, so we’ll just eat at McDonalds.” Who’s going to represent them when it comes to food decisions in their communities? And whether they have a voice in it or not and how much it costs and the laws that are regulating those foods. I think that when people have a choice of what they’re eating and how their food is produced, that’s how you can really achieve food justice. Almost always, we just don’t know what’s happening and we think, “it’s been like this since forever, and it’s fine,” but it’s not. We have a lot of work to do.
VCN: What do you think is the greatest threat to food justice facing NYC today?
KI: I’m going to say this as a non-New Yorker who has been here for, like, two minutes, but I think gentrification is a big one. I remember when I was at Lehman, there was this supermarket, Morton Williams. I had left class and really wanted grapes, so I went there, and I grabbed my little bag of grapes, and I went to pay, and it was so expensive; I was so confused. I just left it at the counter. I don’t know what I ended up eating; I think I grabbed a slice. It just didn’t make sense to me because that’s the only supermarket we have in the area. It was just too expensive for something that was in front of a school.
And also when you look at Harlem and all of the new things popping up- it’s not just that people are being pushed out of their communities, but their food choices are being stolen from them. I just moved to New York City recently, and there are already parts of the city that I go to that look so different from when I first got here. When I think of people that have been here for generations, people who grew up in these places, it must be so frustrating. It’s not just “oh, I can no longer afford to live in this place,” but also the people who have the little carts with food are being pushed out with all these new regulations. It’s just so unfair.
VCN: What is your ideal vision of the food landscape of NYC in 5 years?
KI: Abundant community farms, because we have a lot of vacant lots that could be repurposed, where people in the community could go and grow their own food, and they could recognize the vegetables and then they eat them. I used to work at an afterschool program, and a lot of the students didn’t know what a papaya was or had never seen cauliflower. So for them to grow their own food and to recognize it and know that they deserve to have access to these things, I think that would be great. Also making the process for people to access resources easier, because even to apply for SNAP is just a nightmare; it’s not accessible at all. And also hydroponic towers! I love hydroponic towers. And rooftop farms!
VCN: What have you learned from being in the Fellowship? How has it influenced you in your work as a food justice advocate and leader?
KI: I think the main thing is to be able to see food as not just food. More of a holistic understanding of how all of these things come together to create our food system, because it’s not just something that happened at random, it has to do with race and immigration status and all these different things. The Fellowship has helped me understand food better and advocate in different ways. Before I used to work with students or volunteer at the soup kitchen, and now I can recognize more ways in which I can be helpful. Through the Fellowship, I learned about great opportunities like my job right now, where I work directly with CUNY students and I help them enroll in SNAP. It’s really great, and it’s helping me not only as a person- because now I can advocate for myself, too, and for other people- but it’s also helping me in my career, too.
VCN: Which Fellowship session was your favorite?
KI: I really liked the session on food marketing, where we got to create our own countermarketing projects. If you don’t pay attention, sometimes it just seems so normal, just something else that’s part of the city in the background. For instance, if you’re at the bus stop waiting for the bus, and you don’t even know why you’re craving chicken wings, but it’s because there’s a giant flyer right next to you that you don’t even notice.
VCN: How has your relationship with the other Fellows and program staff contributed to this experience for you?
KI: It’s interesting because, like I said, I can be a little shy or wary, but everyone is so great and I feel like even though I’m in my shy little bubble, everyone was really nice and encouraging. It’s very inspiring to be with other people who are interested in the same things and also in school. It was a great environment. And then at the graduation when I was hearing everyone talking about their internship projects, I was so excited; I felt like a proud parent.
VCN: Where do you see yourself in five years?
KI: Hopefully I’ll have my PhD- maybe not in five years…I told myself that I’d start after this semester ends, but right now I’m enjoying taking naps… but I really want to have my PhD in Sociology. Maybe doing research or teaching; I really want to be a professor. And maybe I’ll be able to hang out with my friends and go out like before. Maybe there won’t be a pandemic.
VCN: How have the events of the past year affected your career?
KI: Before the pandemic, I had been more interested in farming work, because I had only done farming work in aeroponic towers and a little bit here and there in the DR, because my mom plants vegetables. But I wanted to do a bigger project, but I couldn’t. I also had to come back to the DR for personal reasons. It feels weird to say, but I think the pandemic kind of allowed me to continue to do my work, because I had to come to the DR to help my mom. With the pandemic, everything became accessible, and people were allowed to work from home. I feel like those mechanisms should have been in place before, because people have different abilities and needs, and sometimes those people are pushed out. Now that I can work from home, I’ve been able to continue to work, and I finished school. If I hadn’t graduated, I would’ve lost everything. I hope that these systems stay in place after the pandemic.
VCN: Anything else you’d like to add?
KI: Well if I could plug the program that I’m working on right now. I would like to encourage faculty and staff to share the resources that are available with the Swipe Out Hunger CUNY Student Food Navigator Program, so that students can take advantage of the new eligibility guidelines. Students, take advantage of this program, because these benefits are something that you pay for and something that you deserve. Even if you don’t think you want to apply for SNAP, the navigators help you with any resources that you need, like childcare and other public benefits.
By Valerie Chong Nigg, Program Assistant for Youth & Community Development, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute