On March 28, the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute hosted a forum on the topic of “Fifty Years of Food Activism in New York City: Lessons for City and State Food Politics and Policy.”  Guest panelists were Liz Accles, Executive Director of Community Food Advocates;  Johanna Fernandes, Associate Professor of History at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and the author of The Young Lords: A Radical History;  Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of the Workers Justice Project, which organizes low-wage workers, including food workers, in New York City and beyond; and  Iyeshima Harris-Ouedraogo, the Policy Manager at Equity Advocates, a coalition of dozens of organizations working on legislation policy budgets at the New York City State and National Level. Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and Senior Faculty Fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute served as moderator. This report, edited for brevity and clarity, presents some highlights of the discussion. An unedited video of the session is available here

Nicholas Freudenberg (NF):  Our session today is about food activism in New York. Since at least the late 1960s, a variety of organizations in New York have been fighting to end hunger;  increase access to healthy, affordable food; improve the conditions of food workers;  reduce the adverse environmental consequences of food;  tackle food apartheid, a system that offers more and less healthy food options for people of different races and classes;  improve school food, and other goals. Today, as we’re many months away from the New York City Mayoral elections in 2025 and State elections in 2026,  we hope to take a step back to think longer term about how we can together work to influence food policy here in New York City and in New York State. We also hope to identify some of the lessons food justice activists in New York City have learned that can inform our future strategies.  

The questions we’re asking today are:

  1. What has food activism in New York City since the late sixties and early seventies accomplished? What have we learned about what works and what doesn’t work to change policy and practices?
  2. What are the issues, the framing, the strategies, the coalitions, and alliances that have been more effective and less effective? 
  3. How can we use our collective networks, our  connections to communities and to people in power to advance food justice?

Johanna, can you get us started by telling us about the Young Lords and how they contributed to food activism in New York City? 

Johanna Fernández (JF): So, who are the Young Lords? They were the Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panther Party, a self-proclaimed revolutionary organization of the 1960s. They were led by working-class Puerto Rican youth who were radicalized by the civil rights, Black power, and women’s movements, the gay and lesbian liberation movement, and by the Vietnam War.

They were the children of Puerto Rican migrants who in the post-World War II period were massively displaced from the island of Puerto Rico. They settled in the cities experiencing public disinvestment alongside Black American migrants from the South. The Young Lords’ project was  to build a revolutionary organization, but they also wanted to build movements like the other ones that were being organized in the sixties. 

What did they do about issues of food scarcity? Like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords organized breakfast programs for school-aged children living in poor neighborhoods. Many had not been fed breakfast in the morning before school, and hunger was a barrier to their learning in school, which probably has an impact on exams and the statistics around children of color, and their grades in school. The  Free Breakfast program sought to expose the incapacity of municipal governments to tend to the needs of ordinary people. It was motivated by the desire to meet a basic need. But it was also framed around a critique of life under capitalism and capitalism’s inability and unwillingness to address human needs like hunger.

The Young Lords and the Black Panthers called these survival programs, which also included a clothing program, health programs to test people in the community for lead poisoning and tuberculosis,  and sickle cell anemia. These survival programs were supposed to meet the needs of the community but also as a critique. They were also influenced by the War on Poverty programs that were established by the Federal Government in the 1960s to address poverty, and to implement the mandate for the “maximum feasible participation” of poor people in these programs. Another purpose of course was to take young people out of the streets and into these almost self-help charitable programs to get kids out of the streets and avoid the riots.

NF: Thanks, Johanna. Let’s now turn to Ligia. In your view, what are some of the most important successes in organizing low-wage, immigrant, and precarious food workers in New York City in the last 10 or 20 years?

Ligia Guallpa (LG): Historically, food has been an essential part of our community survival, not only as part of making sure that our families have access to food but also food has been a way how people have survived economically and provided for their families.  Over the decades,  we have seen an evolution in terms of how workers produce our food, cook our food, and now deliver our food.  Today, many of these workers are organizing to demand better working protections. 

In the past, the people who produced our food did not have protection. For example, Black workers who had been enslaved and farm workers were excluded from basic labor protections. But now people who produce our food are organizing to fight to earn dignified wages and to be able to feed their families with dignity. 

In recent decades, we have also seen workers in many sectors of the  food industry demand better working conditions for workers. These workers are organized to make sure that their essential  work is  valued, protected,  and dignified. And over the decade, I think what we have seen historical wins for:

  • Farm workers have expanded their rights to unionize, 
  • Workers in the fast food industry have won new minimum wage increases, 
  • Workers in app delivery industry have also won wage increases, reduced their dependence on tips , and gained fair scheduling protections, and 
  • Street food vendors have resisted being criminalized for selling food in neighborhoods that are food deserts.   

Overall, these victories have built power for previously excluded low-wage food workers. We need to continue to organize this movement of food system workers to transform our economy and win better working conditions for everybody in the economy. The  Workers Justice Project continues to be part of this incredible movement and to fight with incredible partners that include worker centers,  community  groups, and labor unions. 

NF: Thank you so much, Ligia. It’s so exciting to hear these successes of the various streams of the food movement because a lot in our day-to-day we emphasize our frustrations. To turn to another stream of food activism, Liz,  can you tell us about the successes of the work that seeks to improve school food, to put institutional food and food procurement issues on the city’s agenda? What do you think has been accomplished in the last several years?

Liz Accles (LA):  I started as executive director of Community Food Advocates in 2013. One of the things that impressed me most was the Mayoral Food Forum that year, the first time Mayoral candidates met to discuss food policy. Instead of the previous frequently siloed approach to their work, folks concerned about food justice and food policy were coming together to organize and push mayoral candidates on food issues. That was a milestone.

We started our work on securing universal free school meals in New York City in 2013. We thought this would be an easy win, because it would bring  more Federal money to the city, more kids to eat lunch in school, and eliminate some of the structural barriers to participation. But we found quite a bit of resistance from the Administration.

After we won free universal school lunch in all New York City schools in 2017, more students are participating in the program and  more money is coming into the city from the Federal Government. Our Lunch for Learning Campaign was also a launch pad that enabled us to talk with thousands of people in schools,  communities, labor unions and city government. We also learned that there was more work to be done to build on our success. In those conversations, some of the bold ideas that came up were improving cafeteria environments, preparing more appealing food,  and offering halal and kosher meals.  A million children attend public schools in New York City. Many are food insecure and yet there is an infrastructure in every community. Strengthening the city’s school food program was an effective way to make sure kids are eating meals in school and feel good about it.

The government has a primary role in addressing this because of the scale of programs that are needed to be able to reach everyone who is eligible. So, in the coming budget session we hope to secure funding for modernized cafeterias for all high schools and middle schools in New York City. We build on universal free school meals by doing that. Today halal and kosher meals are available in about 90 schools cafeterias. In addition, we are one of the co-leads of the New York City and New York State good food purchasing work This uses the power of municipal food procurement to bring healthier food to New York City’s vulnerable populations. New York City government agencies serve about 230 million meals annually. The Good Food Purchasing Programs uses that power to better the local and regional food economy. 

These new initiatives show how we went from a very school food-focused  approach to  expanding our work to food systems. It engages all these different pieces around labor, local economies, and environmental sustainability. So that’s how we approach this work. At this moment, we need to continue building a collective force to keep these issues front and center.

NF: One of the things that has most impressed me about Community Food Advocates’ work, Liz, is that you’ve been able to bring in this wide set of constituencies into the school food battles. What have you learned about how to widen the coalitions that are working on your issue of school food?

LA: The way I describe our approach is that we build creative strategic coalitions. When we  started working for universal Free School meals in New York City, our partners were mostly anti-hunger groups, a few anti-hunger groups focusing on it. I recognized that to win we needed to go beyond this. We must get other folks who care about this issue that have a broader reach and bring different voices with different insights and expertise to the table. So we reached out to  public school parents, the public school students who are most directly impacted by school food. We engaged with District Council 37, the union that represents cafeteria workers in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers,  and the principals’ union. We included academics and researchers who bring other analyses to the table as well as pediatricians. We sought to include anyone who has a voice and an interest. We wanted to make sure that folks who are the most directly impacted by policy change have a real voice at the table and can fully participate in the policy-making process. 

NF: Thanks, Liz. Iyeshima,  you and Equity Advocates have the benefits of working with dozens of organizations engaged in different streams of food work. How have you used this opportunity to influence how the city and state respond to the food consequences and the equity consequences of the pandemic? How have you advocated for the more equitable allocation of  city and state budgets for food and other social programs? 

Iyeshima Harris-Ouedraogo (IHO): Equity Advocates aims to address root causes of food inequity  through policy and system changes. We collaborate with New York-based groups and enhance their civic engagement through advocacy, training, policy, education, and coalition building.

and our efforts have rallied about 75 partners to push for food justice, and environmental justice. Our coalition includes anti-hunger groups, urban agriculture advocates, youth development groups, cooperatives, and mutual aid organizations. Our alliance was birthed out of Covid. So, during the pandemic a lot of food justice organizations struggled to figure out what we should be doing? What resources do we need and how do we get them? 

We wanted to provide a hub for folks to come together and to share on-the-ground experiences and how policy decisions regarding funding trickled down and impacted the people that most need  assistance.  Since the pandemic, the main priority for food activists in New York City is to ensure that individuals have access to food. And when we speak about access to food, we’re not speaking only about food stores but rather the entire food chain. We’re talking about the workers. We’re talking  about the quality of the produce that people are receiving. We know that people on SNAP cannot purchase hot meals or certain types of produce, so we discussed how to lift those regulations so that people have easier access  and wider choices in the food that they want to eat.

So, after our group came together, we assessed what we had learned and how we could iron out the kinks within the system. And we’re able to listen to all parts of the food movement, not just one voice and one centered voice. And to also assess how these changes, whether it’s policy or funding, will impact the entire food chain especially when it comes to SNAP. New York  has many people who rely on SNAP, so we wanted to make sure that people are really receiving the food that they want and need, and that they have the choice in selecting what they’re eating. So we wanted to make sure that the city and  the state lifted burdensome SNAP restrictions. Some of our victories in lifting these restrictions were important successes in the pandemic period , and we need to push that forward. We’re looking forward to continuing the pandemic-related  successes in New York City.

NF: Thanks, Iyeshima. Listening to the four of you, I have heard at least three cross-cutting lessons.  First, you emphasized the importance of listening to multiple voices. Second, you noted the value of looking at the food system as a whole and its connections to larger political and economic structures.  Third,  you identified the importance of learning from successes. As we think, about the 2025 city elections and the 2026 State elections, how can we apply these lessons to shape the policy agenda for the next decade? From your vantage point, what are some of the priorities for these upcoming election cycles? How can we build a stronger movement for the food justice movement in New York? Iyeshima, can you get us started? 

IHO: Equity Advocates contributed to the 10-Year Food Policy Plan that the mayor put together called Food for NYC. We help to educate and mobilize our partners to inform this plan. About 35% of the initiatives proposed by Equity Advocates  are now part of the city’s plan.  In the coming months, we really want to push the city to make sure that we hold the city accountable for moving this plan forrad.  Another priority is to push for SNAP minimum benefits, a bill which we got introduced in the Assembly in the Senate. This calls for increasing the SNAP  minimum benefit to $50 per month. So those are 2 priorities, where we believe that the city and state could move forward when it comes to food equity and strengthening our food system.

NF: Great thanks. Liz,  how do you think the food movement can use these next 2 elections to advance those longer-term goals?

LA: One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that if the government has the will to make investments and take bold actions, we  can have an impact on food access and a better food system for everyone. So, I think, you know if we’re looking out 5 years from here. We have made a lot of progress with school food. In the coming years,  we will keep driving to make sure all school cafeterias are modernized,  and we will make big, bold budget asks to bring about the administrative changes that can make good food purchasing work. We are  still in the infancy of good food purchasing in New York City. We’re still learning a lot.  In the next few years, we seek  to maximize the impact of good food purchasing in all five  value categories, with the overarching goals of achieving racial equity in all aspects of that work as well as supply chain transparency. We are also at the beginning of work on supermarket access work that we hope to kick off the ground in a big way soon. So, we need to keep building. You know, these things take time, and focus and creativity. In addition, we want to reduce the exploitation of workers in every aspect of the food chain. Certainly, we need to tackle climate change and the environmental impact of our food system.  We need to stay focused, concrete, and nimble at the same time and keep the work moving forward and building towards what we want.

NF: Great , thanks, Liz. I also want to add an idea to that longer-term agenda — the goal of expanding the public sector in our food economy. Here at City University of New York, we need to use public programs and dollars to eliminate food insecurity among our students, a costly burden to these students and their families and the city.  We can also bring that approach to community-based organizations, jails, senior citizen centers, so that those public institutions become a source of food for vulnerable populations so that they aren’t as reliant on the market, especially in this period of high food inflation. 

LA: And we cannot forget that the rising cost of housing is pushing many people into food insecurity and hunger, making it a key issue for food activists.

NF: Ligia, in thinking about labor, the last few years have been both the best of times and the worst of times. I have never seen stronger support, particularly among young people, for labor unions and labor organizing. At the same time, at the political level and nationally we are witnessing strong opposition to unions and the right to organize, especially from the Republicans and the right-wing as well as many big corporations.  What do you think are the best opportunities to move things forward and to overcome the opposition to the rights of workers, food workers and others to organize?

LG: We are facing a critical moment in our history. Some politicians are taking an anti-union aggressive approach in many States, especially in the South. It’s been a hostile environment, not only for unions but for all workers. But in the past few years, we have seen a huge rise in organizing and unionizing, especially among the young generation. What’s more exciting is that more workers across the country are rising up in response to these attacks from corporations. More companies are looking to transform work to gig work so they can avoid minimum wage law protections. Some are lowering wages, making it hard for workers to work with dignity and feed their families. And in the last years, we have seen incredible organizing by labor unions and worker centers. In New York, we witnessed incredible organizing against Amazon, one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world. Who would have thought a major  labor victory would take place on Staten Island? And Starbucks, right, a young generation of workers really likes taking on and unionizing coffee shops.  

Los Deliveristas Unidos, the organization of food delivery workers that the Workers Justice Project supports is not a union yet, right, but are acting like a union. The fact that they got a minimum wage increase without being a union and that they got to set labor standards for an industry that didn’t previously exist for the first time in this country  and this city, which speaks about the value of worker organizing that’s happening across the country.

What needs to happen, I think, is that  more unions and worker organizations need to align across movements. We need to build a strategy to shift and transform these workplaces. Together we need to build a new organizing model that adapts to the new reality of new workplaces. And we adapt and use technology to build powerful organizing strategies and powerful organizing movements. 

In this economy, big corporations are using technology to advance their anti-union and anti-organized worker agendas. They also use technology to transform workplaces. So, what I hope to see are labor and worker centers coming more together to understand that when we organize a non-union site or transform new industries, we’re transforming the workplaces, not only for those in those workplaces but for everybody in the economy.

NF: Great. Thank you, Ligia. What strikes me is that your organizing and the campaigns of other labor groups has put New York City at the forefront of this work. New York City has long been the incubator of the labor movement, and we need to be thinking about how to build on that tradition.  Johanna, to close our session, can you tell us what you think today’s activists can learn from the Young Lords about food activism and organizing and more broadly, about promoting social justice.

JF: First, to remind us, it was the activism of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers that put the issue of hunger and hunger among children in the public sphere. As I was listening to the other presenters, I was asking what does history bring to bear on this conversation? 

The labor leaders of the 1930s taught us that there is no democracy in America without economic freedom, no democracy in America without food stability. So this is a challenge for a new labor movement that’s emerging among young people. As Ligia said, linking the issue of hunger to the worker organizing and the strikes that are being planned today presents a vital opportunity.  Hunger is the best-kept secret in American society. What are statistics? One in 10 New Yorkers goes hungry.  Forty million Americans are hungry today. And the statistics are horrific by race and ethnicity. While 9% of white households are hungry,  22% of Black households are hungry, and 18% of Latino households are hungry. Nik, your work has shown that 40% of our students at CUNY are hungry or food insecure. This is interpreted and experienced by the individuals who are suffering this travesty as shame. The Young lords and the Black Panthers identified the root causes of hunger. 

The root causes of hunger are low wages and  prohibitive housing costs, making it hard for many households to feed and house their families. So this is an issue that must be put to the public square. The Young Lords and the Black Panthers used militant resistance to dramatize the crisis of hunger in American society. They forced a public conversation about the problem. After the Young Lords occupied a church in East Harlem, the then Governor Nelson Rockefeller was forced to respond, and promised to feed 35,000 more children in the public schools. As a concession to the activism of the young lords and others. So activism, militancy and disruption of public life changed history because it forced a conversation that had been underground into the public square.

NF: Thank you so much for framing and giving us both a historical background and putting it in the context of now. As a person who got my start in activism in the 1960s, I remember we said that people have a right to make decisions about their own lives and communities. That includes the right to decide what food is available, what housing, what health care,  and  what kind of jobs.  Together we need to figure out how to bring that conversation to the present and future. I look forward to continuing this conversation over the next few years. Thank you all so much.



Johanna Fernández teaches 20th-Century U.S. History and the history of social movements in the Department of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York. Dr. Fernández is author of a history of the Young Lords titled, The Young Lords: A Radical History (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). In her capacity as an historian Professor Fernández filed a lawsuit against the NYPD in 2014, for its failure to release to her surveillance records of the Young Lords. In June 2016, her suit led to the recovery of the “lost” Handschu files, the largest repository of police surveillance records of New York activists, dating back to 1905. In 2015, the exhibition project she co-curated ,¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York was cited by the New York Times as one of the Top 10, Best In Art of that year. Fernández has received numerous awards, including the Fulbright Scholars grant to the Middle East and the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship of the Scholars-in-Residence program at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. Professor Fernández is the editor of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal (City Lights, 2015). With Mumia Abu-Jamal she co-edited a special issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy, titled The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor (Routledge, 2014).  She is the writer and producer of the film, Justice on Trial: the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (Big Noise Films, 2010).

Liz Accles brings a 30-year career in pursuit of social and economic justice to her role as the Executive Director of Community Food Advocates, with advocacy leadership at the city, state, and national levels. Liz was educated in NYC public schools and is a graduate of Brooklyn College. She lives with her wife and two dogs in Maplewood, NJ.

Iyeshima Harris-Ouedraogo’s journey into food justice began over a decade ago, drawing strength from her farming community as she navigated cultural assimilation from Jamaica. Her work spans teaching food justice, advocating for free school lunches, and empowering youth through leadership roles in adult spaces. As the Policy Manager for Equity Advocates, she leads on policy goals, campaign strategies, and educational workshops, emphasizing youth organizing. Her prior roles include impactful positions at East New York Farms! and co-founding the Youth Empowerment Pipeline, all reflecting her commitment to nurturing future leaders in food justice. Additionally, Iyeshima’s involvement with various boards and task forces, including BK ROT and the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, showcases her dedication to environmental education and food sovereignty, underscored by her recognition as one of the EE 30 Under 30 leaders. With a foundation in Political Science & Sociology and ongoing studies in Public Administration, she aims to merge her passion for food justice with policy expertise to highlight the significance of food in everyday lives.

Ligia M. Guallpa, the daughter of a former day laborer and garment worker, is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Workers Justice Project (WJP), a community-based building, workers’ rights organization that is winning better working conditions for low-wage immigrant workers. At WJP, Ms. Guallpa has spearheaded efforts to ensure safe and dignified jobs for NYC’s 2,000-day laborers, construction workers, and domestic workers. Through her leadership, WJP played a key role in the creation of two Brooklyn-based worker centers, a new union, Laborers’ Local 10 and alternative economic models to transform the culture of exploitation by enforcing higher wages and safety standards for construction and domestic workers who live and work in New York City. Ms. Guallpa’s work has been covered on Univision and in publications like The Nation, New York Daily News, and The New York Times.