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How Can We Improve Food Access in NYC?

Farmers' markets are often just blocks from food barren neighborhoods.
Farmers' markets are often just blocks from food barren neighborhoods.
Hannah Palmer Egan

On Saturday, March 1, the 2014 TEDxManhattan: Changing the Way We Eat conference will descend on New York City, bringing together a panel of food experts who will speak on a number of eye-opening topics, from the history of food culture to sustainability efforts to eating crickets as a protein source. Viewing parties are planned around the country, and the aim, as always, is to spread ideas and ignite interest in these topics.

In anticipation of the event, we spoke with Baruch College professor Regina Bernard-Carreno about her upcoming TEDx presentation on food and race in New York City.

What will you be presenting on March 1? For my presentation, I'll be taking the audience and viewers through a journey hunting for food. I'm a native New Yorker from Hell's Kitchen. About 17 years ago I moved to Queens, to a part that doesn't have much food access. I'm trying to introduce viewers to a term that deviates from food deserts. Where I live now is food barren. There's an enormous amount of choice but most of it is pretty bad -- [the neighborhood is] filled with things that you probably shouldn't be eating. The argument I make is that all these neighborhoods look the same racially and all the same food exists in all of them.

I was born and raised in Hell's Kitchen, and we didn't have food issues ever. I come from a Guyanese family, so growing up in that tradition, we didn't encounter access issues; everything was made from scratch. Having moved to Queens and becoming a mom and trying how to keep my kids healthy triggered my interest in this issue. I would never give my kids processed food. I started to shift my course instruction from just about race to race, class, and access to food, also looking at other structural issues within those neighborhoods.

Do you think your interest in food systems came about primarily as a personal interest or because you find that many structural issues in low income neighborhoods all revolve around food? I think the two things happened at the same time. I'm not just trying to get fresh fruits or vegetables to these areas but really trying to reeducate a population on how to think about access and what that means. A lot of people have lost their voice and will to fight. I've taken my students on a journey for the last four years looking at how food interacts with race and class -- we've done some farming, visited food pantries. We have a lot of different avenues to think about food in our local setting.

 

How Can We Improve Food Access in NYC?

Do your students have personal experience with food barren environments? Many students come in with a set of preconceived notions of what they think we'll be talking about. As I start to introduce the topic and then take them out into the neighborhoods, that's when it starts to click. I teach a lot of affluent students but also students from impoverished backgrounds. The conversations are very diverse.

Evaluating these issues is part of the solution, but are you also working on implementing any programs to start making a change? We're now thinking about forming a different version of the CSA. It's still in its infancy stage. With these kinds of programs, there's no one size fits all. The current CSA programs are generally for a middle class structure and don't fit the needs of poor people. We want to consider race, class, homelessness, and food.

What we've been doing for the last few years is street distribution. I try to provide my students with all the texts for class so they can use that money on other projects. We make food bags but also create little booklets telling people how to access food in the city if they need it. We head out once or twice a week to distribute these booklets in the evening.

Are you looking to the new mayor to make changes or do you think food issues need to be addressed area by area? It has to be done neighborhood by neighborhood. People need to regain their own activist centered life and understand what it takes to demand change. There are some organizations that come in to distribute food, but unless we employ the people we're advocating for, it's not coming from the grassroots. We're not looking to the government just yet.

Do you think that residents who grow up in these areas are currently motivated for food change? People in these particular areas, at least in the general sense, have accepted that certain things don't exist. The farmers' market is twenty blocks away from clear poverty. And that's part of my personal grief. With blacks and Latinos, part of their heritage has been eating off the land, but now those communities are so disconnected from that.

Do you think that celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson -- who runs a food education program through Red Rooster in Harlem -- are actually helping? I happen to like Marcus Samuelsson very much. I think the disconnect comes from local community chefs who have been cooking this food for God knows how long and watching the TV and seeing a celebrity chef remake the dish and make it popular. That to me creates a feeling of anxiety. For example, I was watching some chef on TV who said, "This curry is off," and I looked at my husband and said, "How does he know that?" Unless the people we are really advocating for are at the table, there will always be a disconnect.

Check out the TEDxManhattan website for more information on the program, including a full schedule of presentations. You can catch this event via live stream on March 1.

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