I had the pleasure of speaking with Imelda Plascencia, the consulting Health Policy Outreach Manager at Latino Coalition for a Healthy California (LCHC) for the second issue of WhyHunger’s 2017 Nourishing Change Newsletter. The newsletter is broadly framed around sharing information and resources to enrich our conversations and efforts to organize for the right to food. In this May issue, the content focuses on the intersection of hunger and immigration.

We began our conversation talking about WhyHunger’s work. I explained the intent of a newsletter framed around the right to food, and how WhyHunger supports food access organizations shift from a charity model to a food justice model. Imelda had some great thoughts on charity: “Charity work is band-aid care. You’re covering the wound, not changing the circumstances that cause the injury. It’s going to happen again and charity band-aids sustain the violence and lack of access communities are experiencing, instead of transforming them. Social justice and health justice models are the answer, because they provide opportunities to change the conditions of oppression.”

Themes that ran through our conversation include the need for systemic change, and the need for organizations to address the root causes of social justice issues. Organizing and building with people and communities can be difficult for organizations, so it’s necessary to build your team with members of the community. In Imelda’s case, since LCHC is a statewide organization, the strength of their work lies in the relationships they build. As their name indicates, the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California does work with the Latinx community and they also work with non-Latino communities as well because, as Imelda said, “It’s a unique lens and not the only lens.”

At Imelda’s previous position at the Dream Resource Center of the UCLA Labor Center, Imelda developed various programs with and for undocumented communities and really learned the importance of health in social justice and movement building work. Imelda said: “Mental health is so important because we are not only in a physical battle for access and protections; this is very much a psychological battle. We need to believe and remember our individual and collective strength and health allows us to see that.”

Imelda explained that the LCHC’s mission went into high gear because the ACA (Affordable Care Act) doesn’t cover undocumented people so they work with local and state partners to be a state that does. LCHC accomplishes their mission by “building advocacy for high quality, culturally relevant, and linguistically appropriate health care and prevention services; informing the public to make choices that favor better health outcomes; and empowering communities to fully participate in health planning, implementation, evaluation, and advocacy.” Imelda began to engage in health justice which is inclusive of mental health work. By addressing the inequities in quality of health care and the intersections of access to care, access to food and access to water, LCHC recognizes the systemic issues we need to address. As Imelda said: “Being undocumented, you realize your life is full of systemic barriers.” These barriers to opportunities and personal safety make it difficult for many undocumented individuals to move forward in the process of changing their status to documented resident.

Imelda went on to give examples of two clients they had spoken to --both straight males. These clients articulated the weight of the responsibility that is placed on males for the household. They talked about how they see their work as a contribution to their family and not having the option of losing that because “my family is depending on me. My risk is not for me; it’s for my entire family, for our livelihood.” Imelda went on to explain why: “The gender dynamics and those cultural expectations can be limiting to who you really are and what you want to do. The stagnation of not being able to move from where you’re at; the level of comfort and familiarity that comes with being undocumented or a permanent resident and having to come out and to share that lack of citizenship is difficult. Even though it leads to access to institutions there is a hesitance there.”

The reason Imelda shifted from working mainly on immigrant rights to health justice while still supporting immigrant rights and advocacy was because “it’s a mental battle that we’re also fighting and one of the things I always credit Maya Rodriguez, a veteran immigrant youth organizer, with saying is “We are a much stronger movement when we are a healed people.”

Imelda shared how as an undocumented person themselves, they have come in and out of depression and there is a need for health to be foundational to our social justice movement. It is a part of their strength as a people and therefore, Imelda really grounds the work in health. The fear, anxiety, and depression that immigrant communities experience continues to be highlighted in the media and Imelda urges that while yes, there is a lot of heartbreak, devastation and pain, there is also a lot of strength, courage and bravery that should be highlighted. Many undocumented individuals do not know that they’re eligible for services. It takes courage to pursue help so organizations have to be vocal about the assistance they are able to provide to their communities. Focus on keeping people informed and encouraging people to develop a plan, have the number of a lawyer, and organize. This fear and anxiety about immigration status is not new, so we need to reach those individuals and communities that haven’t felt it as heavily as others and maybe haven’t had time to process because they’re constantly working and being exploited.

Imelda went on to say: “When it comes to being supported in ideas and projects that I have, it is helpful to be a part of an organization and it is key to use the privilege and power you have in having access to resources, access to people that are in positions of power and not taking that for granted and strategically work to build together. The difference in privilege being a privilege or a burden is choice. I continuously and proactively choose to use my privilege and that’s a part of creating change.”

We wrapped up our conversation elaborating more on the connection between immigration status and health, whether undocumented or in process of getting paperwork. How health can get worse the longer you’re in the U.S. and the stressors that go along with that. Imelda explained that when it comes to health justice, there are 3 layers:

● Health in a clinical setting, in terms of access and what care is provided
● Health access in terms of access to food and water
● Mental health

All are intertwined. What is taking place in the current political climate is definitely impacting the health of immigrant communities and Imelda shared about hearing stories from their clinic partners about individuals coming in with stomach pains and elsewhere in their body and how when they run tests, they find that there is nothing physically wrong with them. The physical pain is a sign of the inner turmoil happening and the emotional and mental distress being caused by high tension and high levels of stress. Of course, this includes family members such as children being scared to go to school because of the thought that when they come home their parents will no longer be there, having been detained.

Imelda commented that the idea that people are trying to take advantage of the system when they are the scapegoats of economic uncertainty in the United States is ridiculous. Imelda concluded by saying: “To me that shows that we [the immigrant community] are very powerful. I never saw documentation as a means to liberation; it’s a means for basic human rights. It is access to basic needs; access to healthcare, water, food. The work with communities around health is for us as a people, as community members, for our families. The work is to provide people with what they already deserve.”

Hunger and food insecurity affect 1 in 7 Americans today. Those affected by hunger are three times more likely to have diet related health problems like diabetes or hypertension. At WhyHunger, we support grassroots organizations working at the intersections of health and hunger. That’s why we’re excited to share this video highlighting the innovative programs at Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger (BSCAH).

BSCAH hosts an array of projects that tackle the root causes of hunger including a “VeggieRx” program. Through a partnership with the Addabbo Family Health Center, patients with diet related illnesses are given a “prescription” - a free voucher for produce from the farm stand. We visited their Healing Garden in Far Rockaway, NY to learn more about this model and how it can serve as an example to communities around the country.

During our time there, we met and spoke with Sam Josephs, a youth leader in the Green Teens Program, which allows her to serve as a mentor to her peers. Sam emphasizes the importance of growing fresh, organic produce for her community and the positive impact it has on her neighbors’ health: “Here in Rockaway, you don’t have access to the things that you need… When you have a farm, you’re producing your own food, you’re watching out for your own health.” Her testimony speaks to the value of programs like this, and the importance of local, community-controlled food systems in fighting diet related illnesses.

Executive Director Dr. Melony Samuels, who founded the organization in 1998, believes that increased funding and advocacy is needed to strengthen programs such as these that make the critical connections between food, agriculture and health. In turn, it will also support the development of new organizations and community empowerment nationwide. “This is a workable model,” she says. “I know the long-lasting benefit that it will add to the lives of families. It means that a senior citizen can live a little longer. It means that a child might never see diabetes, never be obese, or never have hypertension. It means a lot to me.” It certainly means a lot to the thousands of families served and it means a lot to us too.

Watch this inspiring video to learn more about Sam and BSCAH’s VeggieRx and Green Teens Program, and thank you to Sam & BSCAH for the work that you do and for sharing your story with us!

WhyHunger’s Community Partnerships Manager Suzanne Babb, recently spoke at Wholesome Wave’s Transforming Food Access Summit about the role and limitations of existing nutrition incentive programs to address the unequal access to good, fresh, affordable healthy food and the poor health outcomes that some communities experience as a result.

Here is an excerpt from her remarks:

Let’s start with a provocative question: Is providing access to healthy food enough to address the food insecurity and poor health outcomes that have become so entrenched in certain communities?

We must first ask why do these inequities exist in the first place?  Why do some communities have readily accessible healthy food and what makes it so unaffordable for others?  What can we learn by examining the social determinants of health?  What can we learn by exploring the systems that perpetuate hunger and poverty in our country and what is the relevance to nutrition incentive programs? 

Part of the answer may lie in looking at the environmental factors that influence a person’s health, more commonly known in the public health world as the social determinants of health. Health is affected by individual choices AND community, environment, culture, connectedness and institutional policies and practices.

Here’s a traditional model of the five determinant areas that reflects a number of critical components/key issues that affect health outcomes. In this version, access to healthy food is just one critical component under “Neighborhood and Built Environment” in determining health outcomes. But here’s the thing: This diagram assumes is that these determinants collectively affect each person’s health in the same way, all things being equal.



Now let’s look at different model, from the “Gathering Wisdom” First Nations health conference in Canada.



The difference is that this version recognizes that all things are not equal. It shows that there other factors at play, like systems of oppression that affect women and people of color more persistently that show up in the form of racism, sexism rooted in a history of colonization and social injustice. These systems of oppression create persistent inequities in access, resources and opportunities that impact health. In other words, you have a society where certain communities have more power and privilege than others.

Because this diagram was created by the community that is directly affected by these issues, it shows a fuller and deeper analysis of what needs to be addressed to bring about better health in their community. It also underscores the importance of a culturally- appropriate lens. For example this diagram was created by the First Nations communities and they asked: Does the land where I live have clean water, are there good jobs, health services, safe housing? How does racism, colonization, or local control of resources affect wellness of both the individual and of a nation? What about the intersections between wellness and the justice system, self-determination, child protection, and revitalization of language?

Sometime these concepts can seem theoretical and abstract. But the point is these are all factors that play a role in poor health outcomes and food insecurity. The imbalances of power and privilege and the inequities they create get played out in every space in which we work, live and play, including in our own organizations and programs. And in all of these spaces there is opportunity to shift this dynamic.

Suzanne ended her remarks asking folks to consider additional questions: How can we make nutrition incentive programs more equitable for those who are participating in them? How can we shift the power dynamic? How can we demonstrate and value people as experts in their own experience? How do our programs change or evolve when we use a lens that considers the root causes of poor health in the first place?

On Thursday, March 24, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of the influential hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, passed away after a decades-long struggle with diabetes.

A Tribe Called Quest (or just “Tribe”) broke new ground in hip-hop in the early 1990s with clever, fun, Afrocentric lyrics and a conscious love for culture and community, layered over jazz beats. One of Tribe’s remarkable achievements is expressing the positivity and wisdom of our cultural traditions and our ancestral knowledge without sugarcoating what is often a harsh and difficult reality. And though WhyHunger has never had a formal connection to A Tribe Called Quest, their music in many ways reflects our organization’s values of making a better world and lifting up the voices and the realities of everyday people.

And though Phife was often the sidekick to Q-Tip, the group’s more famous frontman (their third member, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, was the DJ), he was the one whose blunt and honest lyrics grounded the group in real life and everyday struggles.

In fact, I first learned about the problems in our food system from their songs “Ham n’ Eggs,” when Phife celebrates African and Caribbean food culture and raps about healthy eating, and “Award Tour,” when Phife puts his diabetes front and center in his rhymes, immediately removing any stigma: “Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic?/when’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”



Yet, while there have been many articles expressing gratitude and offering memories of Phife and his contributions, there have not been many that really address diabetes, the cause of Phife’s death. Diabetes is a major health crisis: it affects one third of the population and is the seventh leading cause of death. But it is also a major political crisis because it means that our national food policies are failing so many: Phife struggled to manage his diabetes and was literally killed by junk food. As both a long-time A Tribe Called Quest fan and a food justice activist, I wanted to write a piece to talk about this health crisis and offer my own kind of tribute to Phife.

Phife will be one of an estimated 240,000 deaths due, at least in part, to diabetes in the United States this year. 30 million people have diabetes, 90 million Americans have pre-diabetes, and one million more people are diagnosed with diabetes every year. Diabetes disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities: Black, Latino, and Native American communities are about twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes (the kind caused by malnutrition and obesity) than are non-Hispanic whites; and low-income communities are more than twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes as communities with median incomes above the poverty line.

While we often think of nutrition and health in terms of personal choices and lifestyles, the diabetes crisis represents systemic malnutrition on a national scale, meaning that we need to think about systems. Our food system is structured so that healthier food is often the most expensive while the most affordable food is also the most highly-processed, unhealthy, and addictive. Moreover, healthy food often isn’t even available – there just aren’t any grocery stores or restaurants that have healthy options – in many low-income communities and communities of color.

When communities don’t have access to nutritious, affordable food, it is extremely difficult to be healthy and extremely easy to develop diseases like diabetes. Phife’s situation was actually different - he inherited the much rarer Type 1 diabetes instead of developing Type 2 diabetes – but he also inherited a city (New York City) whose food system is very much structured by racism and classism, like most of the country.

One major reason that the food system remains so structurally oppressive is that agribusiness companies and their lobbyists have heavily influenced our national food policy to ensure that they can continue to profit from their processed food products. In part, these companies get away with selling such unhealthy food because they sell it to people who are already marginalized and oppressed in US society and have little political power to fight back.

In Beats, Rhymes, and Life, a recent documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, Phife confessed that he was “addicted to sugar.” As a rapper and lyricist, Phife knows the meaning of words, so when he likens junk food to an addictive drug, we should pay attention. In fact, journalists have uncovered how the largest agri-foods companies use chemicals to manipulate our taste buds and use the latest advertising and marketing to manipulate our brains into buying their product.

And these same companies have used lots of money and extensive lobbying to make sure our federal government supports them.

NYU professor Marion Nestle recently wrote about how drastically agribusiness lobbying and political influence impacts the food we eat:

“If you were to create a meal that matched where the government historically aimed its subsidies, you’d get a lecture from your doctor; more than three-quarters of your plate would be taken up by a massive corn fritter (80 percent of benefits go to corn, grains and soy oil). You’d have a Dixie cup of milk (dairy gets 3 percent), a hamburger the size of a half dollar (livestock: 2 percent), two peas (fruits and vegetables: 0.45 percent) and an after-dinner cigarette (tobacco: 2 percent). Oh, and a really big linen napkin (cotton: 13 percent) to dab your lips.”

With federal food priorities like this, is it any surprise that we have what some call “food apartheid,” and that whether you are nourished and healthy is determined primarily by your race, your class, and where you live?

As a rapper, Phife was known and beloved for being honest and blunt, so it is only right to be honest and blunt about the ills of our food system after his death. His death and his struggle with diabetes urges us to do something about this enormous crisis in the food system.

And, not so surprisingly, even his lyrics offer a pretty clear guide about the kinds of food a national food policy should support:

“Asparagus tips look yummy, yummy, yummy/
Candied yams inside my tummy/
A collage of good eats, some snacks or nice treats/
Apple sauce and some nice red beets/
This is what we snack on when we're questin'/
No second guessin'.”

hhblogphotoWhyHunger’s latest resource guide A Path Forward: Innovations at the Intersections of Hunger & Health  profiles three dynamic organizations God’s Love We DeliverCapital Roots and Elijah’s Promise who understand the connection between hunger and health and are working to improve the health of their communities in innovative ways. Each organization offers an example of how fresh, healthy, nourishing food can have  a profound effect on the health of low-income people suffering from acute and chronic illnesses, and from poverty itself. Featured are: 

God’s Love We Deliver in New York City works squarely at the intersections of hunger and health, delivering 1.4 million nutritious meals annually to people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other life-altering illnesses. 

Capital Roots in Troy, New York prescribes healthy food through its Veggie Rx program. Doctors at the local health care center provide weekly coupons for free produce to patients at high risk of diabetes and hypertension.

Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, New Jersey believes food changes lives, especially those lives most affected by poverty. The organization provides nutritious, sustainably-sourced food to people in need. 

“This whole concept of “charity” has to stop. I don’t want scraps. If I can’t give you good food, then there’s no point in doing it all.” –Chef Pearl Thompson, Elijah’s Promise  

Learn about their work, progress and the importance of using nutritious food to serve the community by reading and downloading the full guide in its entirety. 

SAPNAThis spotlight is a feature on WhyHunger’s digital storytelling website, Community Voices, that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: SAPNA, the Bronx, NY. Story by David Hanson.

The apartment's small kitchen steams with the flavorful scent of cumin, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, clove, cinnamon and garlic. Slender pieces of chicken simmer in a yellow curry. On a platter, a handful of bright green, fiery-hot chili peppers sit atop fresh-sliced tomatoes and onions. A bowl of steamed rice waits to the side. Rubyna (Ruby) Begum and Rahima Akhter work their culinary magic, dressed in traditional salwar kameez dresses, both just as colorful as the brilliant meal being prepared. It's almost noon and the two women are in the office of SAPNA, a non profit established in 2008 to develop, implement and evaluate community-led programs that support South Asian women in the Bronx's Westchester Square and Parkchester neighborhoods. Today, Ruby and Rahima will demonstrate a typical cooking partnership that is a core program of SAPNA's approach to addressing the social and health-related needs for many of the Bronx's South Asian women.

SAPNARahima came to the US only a few years ago. It was a completely foreign landscape and language. For her first two years, Rahima never wanted to take the subway alone, only with her husband. Finding work was even more of a challenge. Ruby has been in the US for almost two decades. She remembers arriving here as a young bride, her husband having immigrated by visa a few years before she arrived via the diversity visa lottery extended to Bangladesh until recently. She didn't know the language either. Meeting people and establishing community, especially one with a shared language and experience, seemed impossible in the vast urban landscape of the Bronx.

Thousands of immigrants arrive to the US each year. They come to flee oppression or poverty in their homelands or for the promise of opportunity through education. The idea of America as a refuge that offers hope, freedom and a new beginning has seduced immigrants for more than 500 years. But often the reality feels like landing with your family and a few bags onto a distant planet. As soon as the feet hit the ground in the new home, day-to-day life becomes a challenging reality.

Many immigrant arrivals like Ruby and Rahima move into apartments in an urban environment filled with indecipherable signs, unrecognizable foods and a transportation system that she or he isn't yet qualified for (driving) or can't navigate (public transport). In many cases with South Asian women like Ruby and Rahima, the husband dives into a feverish job search, hopefully landing something, but likely a position that offers low pay and long hours, sometimes with a distant commute adding to the time away from home. The kids get swept into the public school current. And the women are often left at home with their social network and support system on the other side of the globe.

In many South Asian cities or villages, households live as joint families, meaning a mother and father sharing a home or group of homes with their grown children plus their spouses and children. Often, the women work in the home, sharing responsibilities with mothers, aunts, sisters, or cousins. It's a tight-knit community. If not in joint family settings, most South Asian women interact throughout the day with neighbors, many of whom are family members living under different roofs. When a woman immigrates, it is most often with only her husband and children. She leaves behind the rich tapestry of community that existed in and immediately surrounded her home. The immigrant's sudden immersion into a disorienting environment and language coupled with an utter lack of community support can be a debilitating combination.

SAPNAFor many South Asian women, cooking is one of their strengths and a touchstone to the comfort of home. But it can be a pitfall, as well. Back home the most accessible food items were fish, legumes and vegetables, all very healthy, lean staples. Meat was rare, often pricey, and considered a luxury. Here, because America subsidizes the meat industry, it's a much more accessible, affordable option, despite its ecological and health costs. For women like Ruby and Rahima, it can be easy to rely on their new country's cheap, filling meat products, not to mention the myriad of processed junk food options loudly displayed in supermarkets and corner stores. A shift toward unhealthy eating habits like increased meat and processed foods can lead to chronic diet-related illness like diabetes and heart disease, which compound the mental health strains. The link between mental health and diet is a tight one and it can often feed on itself: isolation begets depression begets unhealthy eating begets obesity, possibly disease, which worsens the depression and entrenches the isolation.

Read the full profile at Community Voices, a WhyHunger digital storytelling site showcasing voices of leaders and communities across the country on the front lines of food justice.


In May, The Nourish Network for the Right to Food held the Hunger and Health Gathering at Rutgers University that gave eight different organizations the opportunity to build relationships and create space for shared learning. Staff attended from The Campaign Against Hunger in Brooklyn, NY; Center for Food Action in Englewood, NJ; Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, NJ; God’s Love We Deliver in New York, NY, MEND in Essex County, NJ; SAPNA in Bronx, NY; Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Bloomington, IN; and WhyHunger in New York, NY. WhyHunger is working to build a community of practice to explore the intersections of hunger and health among food access organizations that are addressing food insecurity and poor health outcomes in their communities and this gathering was an important building block.







As individuals got to know each other, they were able to delve into topics and discuss the big structural issues that perpetuate hunger, such as living wage and the corporate influence on the emergency food system.  In small workshops, topics ranged from advocacy and coalition building to the lack of comprehensive health literacy that addresses the differing cultural perceptions about nutrition and body image. A deeper understanding was developed throughout the day and participants articulated their shared belief that to end hunger we have to end poverty.

H&H_2On the final day of the gathering, Elijah’s Promise organized a site visit that demonstrated how a holistic health centered approach to food insecurity is a critical step in transforming the emergency food system from one based in charity to one that is about social justice. From their work in their community garden, market, culinary school, pay-what-you-can café and the soup kitchen which offers health meals in a café style restaurant, Elijah’s Promise shows how addressing food insecurity requires addressing the whole person, understanding the quality of the food you serve and the importance of advocating healthy practices. By the end of the gathering, through the shared learning based in relationship building that these organizations were able to experience together, there was a clear call to action for continued conversation, partnership and collective action to build the movement for food justice.





Yasmeen from Detroit, Michigan, called the National Hunger Hotline because she was worried about her family. Her husband had lost his job a year ago and his unemployment was quickly running out. Yasmeen worked part time at a store, but she never got enough hours to make the money she needed to take care of her family. Because of the limited income, Yasmeen and her husband were having problems feeding the family. Some days they only had enough food for one meal, and every day she had to decide whether to feed her children breakfast or dinner.

To make the situation worse, Yasmeen and her husband were having health problems, and even the cheapest insurance was difficult to obtain with the little money coming in. Without insurance, they had to pay full price for prescriptions. The couple was faced with the decision of having to pay for the medicine or feed the family.

The National Hunger Hotline advocate gave her several numbers to apply for  government food assistance, including SNAP (formerly food stamps) and TEFAP, as well as the number for Medicaid and SCHIP, two forms of government insurance plans that may help her afford her medicine without forgoing food for her family. Finally, the advocate connected her with two food pantries in her hometown where she was able to pick up some food that day.

The National Hunger Hotline 1-866-3 HUNGRY and 1-877-8 HAMBRE  (1-866-348-6479 and 1-877-842-6273) refers people in need of emergency food assistance to food pantries, government programs, and model grassroots organizations that work to improve access to healthy, nutritious food, and build self-reliance. Help is available on Monday through Friday from 9am-6pm EST. Hablamos español. The Hotline is funded in part by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

This article originally appeared in our monthly e-newsletter, the Clearinghouse Connection, which facilitates the exchange of information, resources and ideas among emergency food providers. Click here to subscribe.

With the recent publication of “Slowing Down Fast Food,” an excellent policy guide sponsored by the big-business watchdog Corporate Accountability International, the old revolutionary maxim “Think global, act local” has never been truer.

Sadly, as the report lays out, with 2010 revenues of over $180 billion, and an ever-increasing presence especially in low-income neighborhoods, the fast food industry also seems to have never been stronger, and the future here in the land of diet-related diseases never more desolate.

But the report's authors, research associate Monica Gagnon (a former WhyHunger VISTA volunteer!) and Professor Nicholas Freudenberg, both of CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, examine innovative uses of local policy that can change the landscape. While in the midst of an ongoing Congressional fight over the food and farm bill, it seems unlikely that change will come at the federal level, a simpler recipe, made of all local ingredients, may finally provide the tools necessary to engage in a fair fight against fast food giants.

Gagnon and Freudenberg propose a set of four simple local policy approaches focused on kids and communities – the main targets of the fast food industry – and provide case studies for each, demonstrating how successful such ideas have already been, and could be again.

“Slowing Down Fast Food” is a call to mobilize local communities and institutions, guide them in a practical, simple path towards transforming ideas into actions, and effectively reverse the impact fast food industry has on our health.

Second Harvest warehouse

Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County located in Watsonville, CA was founded in 1972 and is the second oldest food bank in the country as well as a co-founder of the national association of food banks that is now called Feeding America. Yet, this medium-sized regional food bank which serves more than 52,000 people each month, no longer refers to its collection of programs and services as food banking. Instead they proudly talk about their core purpose these days as “nutrition banking.” In an emergency feeding system that seems anachronistic and short-sighted in its emphasis on “pounds in and pounds out,” 54% of Second Harvest of Santa Cruz County’s total volume is comprised of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and half of that is sourced locally.


No one can deny that the Central Coast with its Mediterranean climate and rich soils is a grower’s paradise, but proximity to farms producing fresh fruits and vegetables year-round is only part of the equation. As Willy Elliott-McCrea, Second Harvest’s Executive Director since 1988, schooled us: Education and the creative drive to get it done are as important. “First,” he told us, “we brought nutrition education to ourselves – our staff and volunteers. We need everyone who is a part of the food bank to be a part of the choir.”  Once the staff and volunteers (many of whom are food bank clients) bought into the link between diet and disease and connected it to their own lifestyles, Second Harvest grew the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables they were distributing by two-thirds in just seven years. They also eliminated soda and energy drinks from their available food items. Touring their warehouse -- nearly finished after a decade of construction and fundraising and complete with loading docks, a huge walk-in refrigerator, a composting center and a regional hotline -- the evidence of the shift to nutrition banking was indisputable. Crates of strawberries fresh from the field; bushels of raw, whole carrots; boxes of organic baby greens; onions with traces of soil still on the skins were as abundant as the palettes of canned foods and boxes of cereal stacked alongside them.


Willy is an impressive figure at taller than 6 feet. His reputation preceded him. His colleagues gave us an earful right up until the moment we met him – just enough to make us simultaneously thrilled and nervous to meet him: Just wait ‘til you meet Willy; Willy can get any politician in the county to show up and make a commitment; you need to get a new program started -- enlist Willy; Willy’s a visionary; you want to know what’s happening in this county, talk to Willy, and on and on. This mover and shaker, however, came in like a lamb and, though he never roared, left us with a sense that the world was going to be okay and that the only way to walk through it with all of its injustice is full-on with a smile, head winds and all.

No less impressive is the team that Willy has assembled. They are all community organizers by training and passion, whether they’re coordinating the fleet of trucks and drivers, enlisting parents from the migrant and seasonal laborer community to become nutrition educators, starting a garden, or designing creative fundraising programs such as Grind Out Hunger with Santa Cruz county’s ubiquitous skateboarding community. Some of the staff work cross-departmentally – an intentional organizational design. Brooke Parker, who started as an Americorps volunteers with the food bank, is now the Chief Operations and Programs Officer. She plays a pivotal role in the logistics of food acquisition and distribution at the same time that she is helping to design and oversee the many creative community-based programs that the food bank runs. Brooke is from Watsonville, studied community development and community organizing, and as a result views all of her job responsibilities – from administrative, human resources, and program development – through the lens of community empowerment. “Food banks,” Willy remarked, “are fundamentally community-based organizations. And community organizing is a core value of Second Harvest.” So much so that under Willy’s leadership, Second Harvest of Santa Cruz county changed their mission to emphasize the importance of advocacy and community development: They aim to “end hunger and malnutrition by educating and involving the community.”


Joel Campos, the food bank’s Outreach and Advocacy Manager, is a charismatic member of the community whose parents used to bring him to the food bank when he was little to volunteer and take food home for the family. He talks about how impressed he was by the boxes and boxes of stacked-up food as a little boy. To his child’s eye the warehouse was a huge fort. And, as he says: “I like big things so I came back to work here.” But he doesn’t just like big things, as we quickly learned, he also does big things in the community. It’s not unusual, we learned from his colleagues, that Joel turns out a crowd of 100+ parents during the week at nearby housing projects, schools, churches and even hospitals for an evening of fun learning about the importance of diet and health (that’s right – these parents report that learning with Joel about cholesterol, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and diet is fun), at the same time that he’s organizing and training them to lead their fellow parents in their own community-based nutrition groups. His method is pure popular education. He teaches by not teaching – he creates a space and facilitates a dialogue where the parents learn from each other. The parents know, he says, that the processed and salt-laden food that is consumed in their communities is what is making their children diabetic from an early age, their spouses obese, and their friends suffer from heart disease. They’re living the reality every day. He doesn’t have to tell them. What Second Harvest’s programs do for these parents is bring them together, support them in their own leadership development and provide them with the tools and the farm-fresh food to help each other change their diets. Joel said: “We don’t give out free food.” The parents in the Passion for Produce or the Food for Children programs have to commit to learning from their peer groups by coming to classes and the expectation is made clear that they will take the fruits and vegetables home, prepare a meal and sit down at the table with their families. And, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of parent participants in the food bank’s outreach programs, it’s an action they feel proud to commit to.

Second Harvest is collaborating with the Central Coast School Food Alliance (CCSFA)and WhyHunger to address childhood hunger through the lens of school food reform. Working together with school food service directors, educators, sustainable farms and businesses, and legislators in a tri-county region, the CCSFA is creating a community action plan to ensure universal access to nutritious locally prepared school food. Read more about the team here.

Photo Credits:  Brooke Smith

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