VCN: Tell us a little about yourself. What is your favorite food and why?
AC: My name is Alec Chi. I’m from Houston, Texas, and my family is from Taiwan and Japan. I like cooking, farming, swimming, and skateboarding. My favorite food is stinky tofu which is fermented tofu that can be cooked in a stew or deep fried, and it’s usually sold as a street food. The bacteria that it’s fermented with is passed down from generation to generation, and you have to get the brew perfectly balanced to have the right aroma and taste. And, yeah, I guess it’s stinky; people have said that it smells like the sewer, but because I started eating it as a young child, I just associate the smell with that time and with the nice taste. When I smell it on the street, I go, “Oh, there’s a stinky tofu cart somewhere!” and my brother and I will go find it.
VCN: What CUNY school do you go to and what’s your major? Why did you choose that major?
AC: I go to Brooklyn College and study nutrition. When I declared my major, I thought I wanted to be a nutritionist. I was really into whole foods, plant-based diets, and diet as medicine, and I wanted to help improve people’s relationship with food through cooking and eating a wholesome diet. But then I realized that even if I told people what foods would help them, they wouldn’t be able to purchase or grow those foods. So right now, I don’t think I’m going to become a dietitian, but it’s good to have that knowledge and foundation.
VCN: Why did you apply for the CUNY Food Justice Leadership Fellowship?
AC: It really just came out of nowhere. I was working as a research assistant for a nutrition professor, Dr. Melissa Fuster, and she referred me to the Fellowship. It seemed like the answer to me not being as interested in becoming a nutritionist anymore and wanting to broaden my perspective.
VCN: What does food justice mean to you?
AC: Appropriate and healthful foods as a human right. Everyone needs food to live, and I don’t know why we have to suffer to obtain it. Food sovereignty and food democracy are really important to me, as well- having the choice and the autonomy over how you sustain your life, your family, and your community. And this includes land ownership and economic independence.
VCN: What do you think is the greatest threat to food justice facing NYC today?
AC: Maybe gentrification. I’ve heard some people from low-income communities say they like gentrification because it’s bringing in a better variety of healthy foods. And that’s great, but there are also consequences, like unaffordable housing and the displacement of people who have lived there who still deserve healthy food. There’s also an issue of the city wanting to make money off of land through private development and taking it away from the people, like this lot in Flatbush. That land could be community green space, or even a garden or a farm.
VCN: What would your ideal version of the food landscape of NYC be?
AC: Seizing the means of production and breaking away from the capitalist structure is the ideal, but more immediately, I’d love to see more green spaces, free food production, and higher enrollment in public benefits. I just want everyone to be full of the food that they love and able to eat what they want whenever they want.
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?
AC: I’ve learned that there’s hope. I’ve learned a lot about the inner workings of the food system in New York City and how different people and organizations are approaching the issues within that system. There are so many opportunities to collaborate and connect, and there are ultimately things we can do to fight against inequity. I feel very impassioned and motivated. The Fellowship has encouraged me to have a louder voice and take initiative. It’s given me the tools to feel more capable of having these discussions, of listening to different perspectives and understanding the diversity of people’s lived experiences on a deeper level.
VCN: Which Fellowship session was your favorite?
AC: The most memorable one, the one with the most impact for me has been predatory marketing and countermarketing, because now I can’t unsee it as I’m walking around the city. And I point out predatory marketing to my friends, so they can’t unsee it anymore either.
VCN: How has your relationship with the other Fellows and program staff contributed to this experience for you?
AC: That’s probably been the main thing for me. Everyone is awesome, and I feel so blessed. I think of the people that I meet as the fuel to this work and this movement. It’s been so nice to be with people who have the same kind of love and fire in their hearts and bellies.
VCN: Tell us about your internship placement related to the Fellowship and what you’re working on.
AC: I’m with East New York Farms, which is connected to UCC- United Community Centers. They have a long history; their first farmers market was started by one woman who put a door on top of two chairs and just had things she grew in her garden. I’m their Volunteer Coordinator, so I’ve been communicating with the different community gardens and organizations in the area who want to volunteer. I schedule and organize all of our volunteers and follow up with them about their experience, trying to build a steady stream of volunteers. I also help with the farmers markets, volunteer recruitment, and support work on the farm. It’s funny, on the internship proposal I had to write for the Fellowship, it asks about how the internship serves your overall career goals, but being in this internship really has met all of my career goals.
VCN: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
AC: Hopefully I’ll be doing very similar work to what I’m doing with the internship. I love doing outreach and meeting people on the farm, getting our hands in the soil. I can also see myself facilitating a farmers market with a lot of local vendors and getting to know them and building those relationships.
By Valerie Chong Nigg
Alec humbly requests that readers take the time to sign this petition urging the city not to develop the African burial ground on Bedford and Church into private housing. Instead, the goal is to put the lot back into the hands of the people to develop into public greenspace.
Additionally, if you are interested in volunteering for East New York Farms, you can sign up here.