Shawn and Nitiya harvesting tomatoes
Courtesy of Brooklyn Rescue Mission

In New York City, a range of efforts are taking place to ensure that New Yorkers have access to fresh, healthy affordable foods and safe places to be physically active. These efforts are not the result of one organization alone; rather they are the result of many organizations and individuals working tirelessly on this issue and finding ways to come together to support one another's work.

One way in which food and activity advocates are coming together is through the New York City Food and Fitness Partnership, a collaborative effort funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Partnerships is working "to engage communities in making the healthy choice the easy choice by creating equitable access to healthy, quality, affordable foods and opportunities for active living, starting in the neighborhoods of highest need." The coalition has been working tirelessly over the last two years to develop a comprehensive and long-term plan for making changes to food and activity environments, particularly in high-need communities. From this process, three priorities have arisen: increasing access to healthy food in communities, improving school food, and increasing opportunities for active living.

Early Successes

Although the Food and Fitness Partnership is just now starting to look at implementation, New Yorkers are already benefiting from increased access to healthy food thanks to a confluence of advocacy efforts and support from local decision-makers. These efforts to increase access to healthy food are much needed, particularly in underserved areas of New York. For instance, residents of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood have few options when it comes to buying healthy, affordable food. Reverend Robert Jackson of the Brooklyn Rescue Mission, a community-based organization located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, points out the lack of neighborhood supermarkets and notes that "the ones that are located in the neighborhood don't have a regular rotation of fresh produce. Bodegas (small stores) carry mostly snack food and alcohol. People who are trying to prepare healthy meals have limited options."

Bed Stuy Farm, Courtesy of Brooklyn Rescue Mission

Reverends Robert and Devanie Jackson of the Brooklyn Rescue Mission knew that things would only change if they worked to change them. Brooklyn Rescue Mission originally opened its doors as a food pantry, providing food to low-income residents. But the Reverends saw that residents still lacked access to fresh, healthy affordable produce. They knew that they had to find the "ways and means to create a more sustainable food system" and launched an urban farm in Eastern Brooklyn and helped to start the neighborhood's first successful farmers' market where produce from the urban farm is sold and other farmers come to sell their bounty.

Recent public policy is complementing the work happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant by increasing access to grocery stores—the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Food Stores program provides zoning and financial incentives for the establishment of neighborhood grocery stores in underserved areas of the city. And advocates are also ensuring that residents have safe places to be physically active. For instance, the Safer Streets and Sidewalks Campaign initiated by Community Pride, a program of Harlem Children's Zone, galvanized neighbors around traffic calming improvements at key intersections and destinations in Harlem. As a result of their work, Harlem received one mid-block crossing, two speed bumps and several curb extensions at a few of the most dangerous intersections along Lenox Boulevard in Harlem. With the mid-block crossing in particular, seniors are now able to move more safely between the senior center to the playground and hospital on the other side of the street. These efforts, along with other changes including the creation of public plazas in neighborhoods that lack open space and bike-friendly legislation, are making it easier for residents to play and be active.

What works

Engaging community residents. Reverends Devanie and Robert Jackson of Brooklyn Rescue Mission witnessed firsthand how lack of access to healthy foods was impacting community residents in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Staffing an emergency food pantry, much of the food they provided to poor families was canned and processed and residents lacked options for obtaining fresh and healthy food. So the Jacksons started a garden to grow healthy food that in seven years has become a thriving and abundant 5000 square foot urban farm. Residents help to farm the land and the farm provides residents with fresh fruits and vegetables and serves as a community gathering space and an outdoor classroom to teach young people about the importance of nutrition and healthy eating. In 2008 , Brooklyn Rescue Mission and their partners worked with Parks and Recreation to establish a farmers' market so that they could begin to sell their products to residents in the area. Brooklyn Rescue Mission strategically identified the park as the appropriate location due to accessibility and its proximity to housing. "We have hundreds of seniors in our community, many of whom are now shopping at the farmers' market," says Reverend Devanie Jackson. By staying true to the needs of residents, these changes are not just helping people to eat healthier, but are also having a broader impact on the community. Says Reverend Devanie Jackson, "Block by block, our work has changed the community outlook and how the community sees itself." The urban farm doesn't just produce food; it also plays a major role in beautifying the community. By making the park a bustling destination for residents to do their weekly shopping, the farmers market makes the park a safer place to recreate.

Mary Alice helping with the harvest
Courtesy of Brooklyn Rescue Mission

Understanding residents' needs. Increasing access to healthy food is not the only issue gaining traction in New York. Transportation Alternatives, a New York City-based advocacy group, is working to ensure that the other piece of the puzzle—access to safe places to be physically active—is also addressed. Transportation Alternatives, along with their partners, are ensuring that New Yorkers have access to opportunities for walking and biking and to public transit. For instance, when the Economic Development Corporation of New York City planned to redevelop waterfront property on the Harlem River into a park, Transportation Alternatives (T.A.) worked with a range of stakeholders as part of the Harlem River Park Taskforce to ensure that residents would utilize the open space. T.A., with the Taskforce committed to ensuring that development plans for the Harlem River Park addressed community concerns and conducted a survey of residents living close to the park. Through the survey, it was discovered that nearby residents had trouble accessing the park—the park is separated from the rest of the community by an eight-lane expressway. To even walk to the pedestrian park entrance, people had to cross dangerous intersections with speeding cars and not enough time to cross the street. If they made it across the street, residents had to cross a ramp over a big freeway which they felt did not provide enough protection and was not well-maintained. When advocates raised these community concerns with the city, they were able to get the city to commit to redesigning the intersections so as to prioritize safe access to the parks. "What we found," says Shin-pei Tsay, Deputy Director for Transportation Alternatives, "it that is wasn't just about creating a new park. As more parks are created, there needs to be consideration around making sure people can access them." Theses improvements to encourage walking will be implemented by October 2010.

Photo courtesy of Transportation Alternatives

Making the case across government agencies. This effort also highlighted for Transportation Alternatives the need for interagency collaboration. Although issues pertaining to Harlem River Park would normally require leadership from the Parks and Recreation Department, the Department of Transportation also became an important collaborator in their efforts to ensure that residents could walk safely to and from the park. When working to engage other agencies and stakeholders, Transportation Alternatives noted that the health message is not the only one to resonate with decision-makers. In addition to public health, issues like community safety and the economic impact also help make the case. This need is greatly aided by PlaNYC, a strategy document and long term vision for a sustainable city released in 2007 by Mayor Bloomberg. Many city agencies viewed PlaNYC as a mandate from the mayor and it smoothed efforts for interagency collaboration. Further, it supported advocates' priorities by making the link between advocates' physical activity priorities and the goals and benchmarks put forth in the plan. This is one way to ensure physical activity remains part of the vision for a sustainable New York City.

To further support the gains from PlaNYC, the City released the Active Design Guidelines in December 2009. The manual will provide design practitioners and policy makers an outline of practical ways and means for building and urban design to encourage and support more physical activity. The resulting guidelines was not the work of one city agency alone, rather five city agencies—Department of Health, Department of Design and Construction, Department of City Planning, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Buildings—worked together to create meaningful design guidelines for the City.

Considering new partners. The City Planning Commission's recent approval of the FRESH Food Stores Program received huge support from advocates from many different sectors and disciplines who all played a role in advocating for this critical policy change. The FRESH Food Stores Program permits developers to construct larger building than existing zoning ordinarily allows to accommodate new grocery stores and provide tax abatements and exemptions for stores in underserved areas. While having a grocery store in close proximity can have tremendous health benefits for community residents, the benefits extend beyond health. Supporters of this policy were also reaching out to decision-makers emphasizing the economic benefits of this initiative including increased sales tax revenue for the city and new jobs in low-income communities. One group of supporters was a local union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 1500. UFCW helped organize around this issue and raise awareness among decision-makers and the public about how FRESH Food Stores Program would both increase jobs and promote health for residents. Labor unions were able to bring a different perspective to this issue—emphasizing the importance of living wage jobs—and had the resources to organize in ways the health community could not. Having many voices advocating for this issue was critical to garnering support from decision-makers.

Says Kate Mackenzie, co-convener of the New York Food and Fitness Partnership, "The fact that so many [elected officials] are even talking about [access to healthy foods] is a measure of success." Kate has seen borough presidents, elected leaders in each of New York City's five boroughs, and city council members emphasizing the need for well-paying jobs and green jobs. Elected officials are making the link between critical issues such as access to jobs, climate change, and, food access. And elected officials aren't just talking about the links between these issues—they are taking action. In December 2009, the city council announced a new FoodWorks initiative which will analyze the local food system and identify food system strategies that create jobs, improve health, and protect the environment.

Addressing issues of race and privilege

One of the Food and Fitness collaborative's greatest challenge is also its greatest asset. In coalition meetings and discussions between partners, members are having engaged conversations about race and privilege, and addressing how inequities in power and privilege impact food access. Says Reverend Robert Jackson, ‘People of color are getting less education and fewer opportunities are open to them. We take this very seriously." These conversations can be difficult and can make people uncomfortable. It can be hard, says Reverend Robert Jackson "for people with privilege to recognize that they may need to give up some of that privilege to those that don't have privilege." Even though this is challenging, we are dealing with the fact that this is hard to do." The Food and Fitness Partnership is working with professionals who specialize in working with groups to maximize the positive elements of diversity and are helping the collaborative to identify the process and the systems that create inequities and not the individuals sitting around the table. According to Reverend Robert Jackson, "It's not an individual battle between the parties involved but with the systems. We acknowledge that and work together to overcome it."

New Yorkers are now beginning to see the fruits of this labor. In February 2010, the New York City Industrial Development Agency helped put the FRESH program into action when it approved the first two tax incentives packages for two new supermarkets in the Bronx. While so much activity is already taking place to ensure New Yorkers are able to eat healthy and move more, this is just the beginning.

For more information visit the New York City Food and Fitness Partnership website at

Acknowledgements: Prevention Institute would like to acknowledge the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for their funding to support the development of this profile.

We would also like to thank the co-conveners of the New York City Food and Fitness Partnership—Reverend Devanie and Reverend Robert Jackson of Brooklyn Rescue Mission, Kate Mackenzie of City Harvest, and Shin-pei Tsay of Transportation Alternatives—who gave generously of their time to describe their efforts with the New York City Food and Fitness Partnership.