How Can We Improve Food Access in NYC?

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

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