VCN: Tell us a little about yourself. What is your favorite food and why?

CY: My name is Christal, I’m a Junior at John Jay, and I’m the Food Justice Fellow at Swipe Out Hunger currently. I’m a big believer in growth and taking whatever’s thrown at me to create something positive. I just learned how to play Ode to Joy by Beethoven on the piano which actually only takes five fingers, but it just sounds more impressive than saying that I can play London Bridges. I can also play that, though, so if you need two songs, I got you. When not a piano novice, I manage a Muay Thai and boxing gym, where I’m also at a “London Bridges” level, but it’s super fun and empowering.

I have so many favorite foods, but for today, I think I’ll go with tang yuan, which is a Chinese dish of glutinous rice balls, filled with peanuts and sugar or black sesame paste. It has a very springy texture, and it’s served warm in a light but decadent rock sugar and ginger syrup. Usually, I’ll dice up some sweet potatoes in there or even stir in an egg, wonton soup style. It’s a really big comfort food.

VCN: What’s your major, and why did you choose that major?

CY: My major is Human Services and Community Justice. I chose Human Services because you can work directly with people to help them create change in their lives. There are many ways to affect people’s lives and work within communities, but I saw social work and human services as a more direct influence, as opposed to things like policy, where it takes a bit more time to make change.

VCN: Why did you apply for the CUNY Food Justice Leadership Fellowship?

CY: Wow, that was a long time ago…

VCN: I know, think back a year.

CY: Over a year! I’ve always been hyper-conscious of food. My family has had a lot of health and financial difficulties, so I had to learn to monitor money and nutrition from a really early age. What first came to mind when I learned about the CUNY Food Justice Leadership Fellowship was people struggling with homelessness. Housing, food, and safety are basic human rights, and I think that the Fellowship opened up a larger conversation and created a space for me to have those conversations and connect those topics.

VCN: What does food justice mean to you?

CY: I’m trying to avoid the “textbook definition.” I think I’ll say that food justice is when food isn’t a poison, not necessarily just to an individual’s health but also to our larger environment. Food justice is about conscious production and conscious consumption every step of the way.

VCN: What do you think is the greatest threat to food justice facing NYC today?

CY: I think the greatest threat to everything and everybody right now is the pandemic. With a once-in-a-century, life-changing pandemic, there are so many aftereffects to consider: financial, physical, mental. All these different factors- mental health, physical health, employment- are linked to food justice. When you’re lacking employment, you’re more likely to face higher rates of food insecurity. If you’re struggling with your mental or physical health, then it’s more difficult to maintain employment. It’s a domino effect and a brutal cycle.

VCN: What is your ideal vision of the food landscape of NYC in 5 years?

CY: I want to live in a utopian society where everybody holds hands and grows their own vegetables, but that’s not a real answer. I think my ideal vision for NYC’s food landscape would be all communities having equitable access to nutritious food. I’d also like to see more awareness of nutrition and health, because there’s a lot of misinformation around what being healthy means. In diet culture, there’s a big fixation on losing weight and avoiding carbs, rather than an awareness of things like the dangers of sodium and how it’s linked to really serious, preventable health problems.

On a policy level, I’m obsessed with the Good Food Purchasing Program, because it’s one, single, concrete thing that we could do that would change the lives of so many kids.

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?

CY: A better question would be, “What haven’t I learned from the Fellowship?” It’s equipped me with the knowledge and confidence to back the existing advocacy and social work skills that I had before. I learned how to evaluate the way our food systems function and how we can speak up to create change and do better by our communities. The Fellowship has also connected me to the world of food justice in a way that I didn’t expect. It was really helpful to have a formal introduction to so many different organizations and learn about real things that real people are doing. For example, I got my original position with Swipe Out Hunger as a CUNY Student Food Navigator because of one of those introductions.

VCN: Which Fellowship session was your favorite?

CY: I know everyone’s been saying predatory marketing, but I think it was so impactful because predatory marketing is something we see in our day to day lives. And it was fun to develop counter marketing campaigns and throw a little shade at these covertly dangerous companies like McDonald’s or Takis. I also really enjoyed learning about the Good Food Purchasing Program and Farms at NYCHA. Those stood out to me because we were learning about real programs that were happening and involving the community in initiatives that directly benefit them.

VCN: How has your relationship with the other Fellows and program staff contributed to this experience for you?

CY: I think the cohort model and the peer mentorship really encouraged us to feel more engaged than a typical classroom setting often does. We share resources with each other too. I’ve had two Fellows tell me that they were accepted to leadership/job opportunities that I sent along, which is wild! As they say, when one of us wins, all of us win!

Not only are we learning and making friends, but we’re making connections between the different aspects of food justice that everyone’s interested in. Everyone brings something different to the table, and it really shows how we need all our skills and voices to create change.

VCN: Tell us about your internship placement related to the Fellowship and what you’re working on.

CY: I was matched with Swipe Out Hunger, which is a national nonprofit that works to battle hunger on college campuses. As I mentioned, I started as a CUNY Student Food Navigator for about half a year prior to my internship placement, so I had already formed connections with my colleagues and had a clear understanding of the organization’s mission and values. Now I’m interning in the programming department and exploring how Swipe Out Hunger can better support college food pantries. I’ve been really interested in learning more about programming and how things actually get done behind the scenes. We’re talking to colleges nationally, learning about what supports already exist and what their pain points are, and we’re exploring how we can create more of a sense of community to help them and fill in the gaps.

VCN: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

CY: This is such a broad answer, but I would like to do work that’s for and with the community. I’m still figuring out what that means to me and where I fit into this greater change. In the past, I focused on social work and direct services, but I’ve found that my passions and skill set would be most useful on the macro or mezzo level.

I like to be involved in solutions that work proactively with people as opposed to reactively. To watch people learn and grow is a privilege, and I hope I can support that. I’m currently curious about Youth, Workforce, and Program Development, so I’m excited to explore my interests through my internship placement and grow from there.

By Valerie Chong Nigg