Real Farm Bill Stories: Lower Eastside Girls Club
by Suzanne Babb
October 3, 2011
The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFPCGP) has existed since 1996 as a program to fight food insecurity through developing community food projects that help promote the self-sufficiency of low-income communities. Community Food Projects are designed to increase food security in communities by bringing the whole food system together to assess strengths, establish linkages, and create systems that improve the self-reliance of community members over their food needs. The program is designed to meet the needs of low-income individuals by increasing their access to fresher, more nutritious food, increase the self-reliance of communities in providing for their own food needs, and promote comprehensive responses to local food, farm, and nutrition issues.
I sat down with Jennifer Sugg, CSA manager, and Apolonia Euvin, member of the Lower Eastside Girls Club and part of the CSA team, to talk about how they have used the Community Food Project (CFP) grant and the impact it has had on their community.
Q: What are the mission and goals of the Lower East Side Girls Club and how does the Community Food Project fit into your mission?
Jennifer: Our mission is to create ethical, environmental and entrepreneurial leaders and all of our programs try to combine those three aims. We do a lot of leadership work, arts work and environmental programs and they all tie together. .. We… have the bake shop and the fair trade gift shop so obviously accessing local food ties into the food for our bake shop and educating girls about the importance of eating healthy and locally and how farms are entrepreneurs and are ethical and how supporting local agriculture is an ethical practice that helps and support the environment. So I think it ties in with all of the aims of our Girls Club so it makes sense.
Q: Why did you apply for a Community Food Project?
Jennifer: The Lower East Girls Club has been involved in food justice issues in the community since 2002. We started a farmer’s market on Avenue D in 2002 for a few years. Then we transitioned to the CSA model. We have gotten the Community Food Project (grant) three times. CFP is a good source of funding and it is based on a subject we are interested in: getting healthy food to our community, educating our girls about nutrition, supporting local farms and local agriculture. These three reasons are why it makes sense to apply for this funding.
Q: What is the food landscape of the Lower East Side? How easy or difficult is it to access healthy foods?
Apolonia: The Girls Club has taught us how to use the food we get from the CSA… . I’ve learned… how it is better to get food locally instead of bringing food from far away.
Jennifer: We also provide meals for our girls everyday so eating healthy becomes something they have become used to. They don’t have a choice.
Apolonia: You get used to it. You ease into it the more you are here. And it’s better for you and it’s not like it tastes nasty or anything. It goes hand in hand.
Q: And the Girls Club shows you how to prepare food?
Apolonia: Uh, huh. Even when it comes to cleaning (produce).
Q: Have you been able to influence your family?
Apolonia: Yes, I have actually it was quite easy, surprisingly.
Jennifer: Your mom took it up?
Apolonia: Yeah, we’re using the vegetables.
Jennifer: And we always hand out extra shares at the CSA, so I’m always sending girls home with extra produce. And we had cooking classes that we did all summer at Astor Center, which is a commercial kitchen, and we take what we get here and create big family meals for the members of the club and their families. So the girls are also learning how to cook properly.
Q: How did you connect with the farmers in your CSA?
Jennifer: We connected with Bob Lewis (of the NY Department of Agriculture and Markets and a member of the Food Systems Network NYC Leadership Committee). He helped start the program that works with immigrants that do farming in New York which was probably back in 2003 when this was initially starting. When we had our farmer’s market the first two years, we worked with a farmer in Long Island. Then we got connected with Angel Family Farm (who are part of the New Farmer Development Project at Grow NYC). Their daughter became a member of the Girls Club and her mother is actually a farmer. They have land out in Goshen, NY now. That’s our veggie farmer and they cover the whole range. Their daughter still works with us and now she helps manage her family’s farm, which is great. The fruit farmer is Breezy Hill Orchards, which…(has)… been our partner since the beginning because Executive Director, Lyn Pentecost has known Elizabeth Ryan of Breezy Hill since the 70’s so that connection has always been there. We’ve always taken the girls apple picking there, so that partnership was there since before the farmers’ market.
Q: Was it important for you to have women farmers? Was it intentional?
Jennifer: I think our first veggie farmer was male, and I think it doesn’t have to be female, because men can be allies. The fact that we have two female farmers is awesome and we’d really like to continue with that.
Q: How many members are there in the CSA?
Jennifer: Around 40 members. It’s not huge but it’s only our second year and a lot of people in our community, especially in the surrounding blocks, support it. The CSA is a decent size and it’s been growing, so we are sure we’ll get more. We don’t want it to get too big because we want it to be something that we can accommodate without overwhelming the Girls Club. We want to keep it manageable.
Q: What kind of impact do you think you have had on the neighborhood?
Jennifer: We’re providing easy access to fresh local food. We make it easy for people.
Apolonia: Some people think that it’s so hard to get organic and fresh stuff. They think it’s hard and expensive and they don’t know.
Jennifer: People walk by and stop by and see what we’re doing, even if they aren’t members… (they) support the idea. I think you can never have too many CSAs in a community. And the fact that we get to give a lot of our food to our girls and use it in our kitchen so we are… reaching all aspects and all corners of the neighborhood, which is one of our goals.
Q: What about the economic opportunities that have come out of this CFP?
Jennifer: Using the fresh fruits and veggies to create jams, jellies, chutneys and salsa, The Farm Girl products. Over the holidays we make a lot of apple pies that we sell. Last year, we sold a lot and we used part of the money to give to Added Value (community farm) in Brooklyn. This year we are going to use the money to support Angel Family Farms, one of our farms that got affected by Hurricane Irene. We always try to use our businesses to assist others.
The CFP also helps provide entrepreneurial training for the girls. We visit our farms and they learn where their vegetables come from and how to process them and I think it’s all a part of job training. That they know what these foods are and they can recognize them. Hands -on training, skills training. We had a great event last Monday when we sold a lot of our products at a fall farm festival. We sold a lot of our chutney and salsas. People just love them.
We also do job training-culinary training and basic job skills like sales training. All the girls working at the CSA get paid. That’s a big part of working with our teenage girls is that most of them need an income. So even if you can provide… (just) a small income working with fresh food its better than working at McDonalds. So we are always trying to find ways to give our girls some kind of employment or stipend related to food issue and the CFP grant helps us with that tremendously. And its one thing to have a CSA it’s another to have the girls help prepare the bags for the CSA.
Q: How about the sustainability of the food project?
Jennifer: The CSA is an easy thing to make sustainable because we know how to do it and we can recruit more members next year and continue with that and also look for ways to expand it. We are moving into a new facility next year which will really give us the opportunity to do things like family cooking classes where we can have family in there preparing there meals for the week like in the suburbs. So it’s not just about the CSA but reaching more of families that we are working with.
Q: Does this rely on the Community Food Project?
Jennifer: The Girls Club is so small we are always piecing together so many things. I think the Community Food Project grant helps to sustain all of this great work and hopefully we will be able to get it again because it is a stable source of federal money (and) we don’t necessarily have access to it (funds) in any other way. There really aren’t those types of big grants anywhere. We are always piecing together tiny grants. We have great ideas of what we want to do working with our families and how to expand our work. Our new building, using that new kitchen space, to process and use the foods to create our Farm Girl products and to do great things with local food but obviously if we don’t get any money, we’ll see, we have ideas.
Q: Without CFP would you be able to continue your work around food?
Jennifer: Probably the CSA but you can’t be as creative when you are strapped for money… The people are buying shares from the farmers so we are facilitating that and acting as the middle man. Then obviously what we can do with the food and how we use it towards the educational piece is obviously limited to what resources we have access to.
Q: Apolonia, what have you learned by working with the CSA?
Apolonia: I’ve learned a lot. Without this, I wouldn’t have known a lot of things and had the opportunities that I’ve had. I love that I was actually able to be a part of it and learning where food comes from and why this type of food is better. A lot of people don’t know what’s in their food and they don’t know how it’s hurtful to them and their bodies. It’s always good to know especially… how to make your own food because I know if you gave me a bunch of fresh food like this before, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. So having the cooking classes has been so helpful. And getting ready for college, I’m ready; I can cook on my own. I can get affordable stuff and use it.
Suzanne Babb is a proponent of affordable, healthy for all. She is a recent MPH graduate from Columbia University and a FSNYC volunteer.
This article is part of the Real Farm Bill Stories Series.