Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Conversation with City Harvest

When making a list of the world’s most overwhelming problems hunger is pretty close to the top. And when I created the idea of What You Can Do, I honestly wasn’t sure there was anything you could do to fight hunger in one minute.

But as this project has been about separating the possible from the impossible, I was set to find out. In the course of my research I came across the world’s first food rescue organization: City Harvest. And its origins are inspiring.
In the early 1980’s a group of average people were troubled by the fact that many New Yorkers didn’t have enough to eat. When they saw restaurants throwing away perfectly good food they began recruiting friends and borrowing cars to transport this food to where it was needed most. And from those small first steps City Harvest has gone on to deliver 200 million pounds of food to a network of over 600 community food programs throughout New York City in the past 25 years.

So yes, it’s possible.

We have been lucky enough to work with City Harvest for our week on Hunger. I reached out to Heather Wallace to ask her some pressing questions about hunger in New York City and the fight to end it. Please find the interview below.

How has City Harvest helped to fight hunger in NYC?

This year, City Harvest will collect over 25 million pounds of excess food from all segments of the food industry, including restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms. This food is then delivered free of charge to nearly 600 community food programs throughout New York City using a fleet of trucks and bikes as well as volunteers on foot. Each week,
City Harvest helps over 260,000 hungry New Yorkers find their next meal.

City Harvest also addresses hunger’s underlying causes by supporting affordable access to nutritious food in low-income communities, educating individuals, families, and communities in the prevention of diet-related diseases, channeling a greater amount of local farm food into high-need areas, and enhancing the ability of our agency partners to feed hungry men, women, and children.

Has the need or the profile of person who requires City Harvest's services changed over the years?

Yes! The agencies we serve have reported increases in the people they serve, especially since the economy collapsed in September 2008. Counter to what most people might think about hunger, most people who access emergency food in NYC have jobs and homes. Many simply make too much to qualify for public benefits like food stamps but too little to pay all their living expenses and feed themselves and their families. For example, if a family of three makes more than $24,000 they no longer qualify for food stamps. As anyone who lives in NYC knows, it’s nearly impossible for a single person to live on $24,000/year. When you have a family you are most likely being forced to look for assistance to put food on the table.

Do you think that the current economy has added to this?

Yes! Our agency network has reported seeing an increase of 15% or more in the number of people accessing emergency food during the past year. Many of these are people who never needed help before but who have been pushed to food lines due to extended unemployment and reliance on seasonal or low-paying jobs. The largest increases have been in the number of children and seniors seeking help.

How has working at City Harvest changed your perspective in your own life?

I’m much more aware of how much people in NYC struggle to make it. Most of the people we serve have jobs and homes and just can’t make ends meet. These are hardworking, regular people and you can’t tell just by looking at someone if they’ve just come from lunch at a soup kitchen or if the groceries they are carrying came from a food pantry. For many of them the food we deliver is their only option.

What are the goals and hopes for City Harvest in the future?

Of course we hope for a city where there is no hunger. Where anyone in need is able to find food and where there are services in place that not only provide emergency food to those that need it today, but also provide the support they need to eventually become self-sufficient so they no longer need to stand on line for food.

Is there anything you would like the average person to know about either City Harvest or the fight against hunger?

I want people to know that hunger in NYC isn’t just the homeless person they see on the street; that they would be surprised to see who the people on line for emergency food at city agencies really are. It could be you or I or the receptionist at their office or the guy in the mailroom or the person behind the counter who sells them coffee every morning. It’s easy to get involved and help and it doesn’t take that much to make a real difference. At City Harvest we can provide 4 pounds of food for just a dollar – good food that would be thrown in the garbage will go to feed those in need. We also have lot of volunteer opportunities for those people who have special skills or extra time to give.

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