From Air Jordans to Food Justice

It was a snowy day in April 2002.  I was an eleven-year-old kid from East New York, Brooklyn, and I was running to catch up to the bus to take me to my first internship.  It was a typical story: a kid not really knowing what he was getting into or becoming a part of.

Sarity Daftary (far right), Phillip Scott (middle) and I at the 2005 RIC conference

But I knew how fortunate I was to be picked.  East New York Farms! recruited at various middle schools in the neighborhood.   Applications went out every year and fewer than half of them turned into internships.  Pressure. My brother had been in the program the year before: more pressure – a lot of pressure for an eleven-year-old who just wanted a pair of Air Jordan’s.  Some people dream of winning the Olympics or becoming President, but my goal of immediate material satisfaction from a pair of Jordan’s was the reason I needed to make that bus.

The first day was simple.  There was the acclamation, the paperwork, contact information, and the “Hello, we are your supervisors” speech.  Before that, I had thought of work as miserable and unbearable – and everything else TV told me it was.  But we played ice-breakers and they worked.  It didn’t feel like a work day.

I won’t say it never felt like work, but I stayed with the program, and as it grew, so did I.  We produced fresh fruits and vegetables in a half-acre garden by the elevated 3 train. My neighborhood was (and still is) dominated by family-owned bodegas, Chinese food restaurants, and other fast food chains. These mom and pop stores are dietary staples here.  Many of the foods they sell are full of sugar and sodium. This is what people living here eat, because it’s what’s here, and healthy alternatives are expensive – or not even available. So the garden became a gem, in this community known more in the media for its poverty and dangerous reputation. We stood out and people noticed.

I became inspired to work to better the lives of my people.  Statistics are always negative for people like me, or at least that is how I’ve always felt. High-blood pressure and diabetes run in my family.  The problem was not that growing up we did not have access to food – but the food we had access to was killing us.  So changing the way my low-income neighborhood ate became my new motivation.

New interns came in every year, but ENY Farms! expanded and continually made new roles for their youth.  I do not know how they continue coming up with new ideas but I keep coming back.  Now I’m in college, and I’m interning for WhyHunger through the ENY Farms! externship program.  Helping the community is a process that shouldn’t stop when you are young. People, like vegetables, grow into who they become.  They can either be nourished and grow big and strong or they can wither away in a world against them.

Before you write me off as another healthy food nut reforming our food system, understand that there are people who not only have trouble finding money for food, but also don’t have the time and capacity to eat in a way that benefits their health.  They have to take whatever scraps they have and bum a quick meal. As they grow older, they are gripped with serious health complications. And it hits home for me because those people are my neighbors.

Maybe I owe it to Michael Jordan for inspiring me to work for this cause.   My name is Roy Frias and I am the product of the ENY Farms! program. This summer, I’m proud to introduce you to other young people such as myself—the Real Food Fellows from Live Real . We all have similar stories but two people are never alike.  Live Real, in essence, wants you to do something that might be unheard of: better your community and the food you eat.

I’m going to interview a team of unique individuals about their backgrounds and how they plan to make an impact. To get a first glance at them, check this out here.

Roy Frias