TEDxManhattan Challenge

Congratulations to Good Food for Oxford Schools for winning the TEDxManhattan Challenge!  Sunny Young will talk about this program, which combines efforts in the cafeteria, classroom, and community to transform the way Mississippians eat, starting with the youngest generations,  live from the TEDxManhattan stage on March 1.  Read more about her project – and the four other finalists – below.

TEDxManhattan Challenge Finalists:

1. Good Food for Oxford Schools
2. Urban Hydrofarmers
3. The New Roots Fresh Stop Project
4. Shore Soup Project
5. Food Is Medicine

Good Food for Oxford Schools, Oxford, MS
Sunny Young, Project Coordinator, Oxford School District

The Project:
Good Food for Oxford Schools (GFOS) is the first school food improvement campaign of its kind in the state of Mississippi. What started as a farm to school project has expanded to incorporate comprehensive school food reforms as well as extension programs into the classroom and community. In only seven months the program has reaped success within the Oxford School District: 60 percent of all school menu items are now cooked from scratch; eight student-initiated gardens have been planted and are currently being sustained in Oxford public schools; and Food Clubs have begun at schools to gather feedback and engage students in their own health by learning to cook.  GFOS intends to make local farm product a part of an everyday menu, to put money back into our local farm economy, to boost the reputation of vegetables by making them “cool,” and to gather the Oxford community around this healthy cause. And it’s working. We now have kids begging their parents to put vegetables in the cart at the grocery store, and bullies working alongside the bullied in our gardens. Overall, our goal is to become an example for ALL public schools in Mississippi and to create lasting, habitual change for Mississippi families.

Combining efforts in the cafeteria, classroom, and community, GFOS is transforming the way Mississippians eat, starting with our youngest generations. Our unique approach is broad and all-inclusive including playing in gardens and cooking together in the classroom. We are also breaking down embedded racial and socio-economic barriers, while eating delicious food together. Our annual Gospel Choir Showcase held on the historic Oxford Square served as an African-American hosted event with a central nutrition message held in an otherwise white-dominated space.  All the program’s efforts include constant feedback and contribution from: cafeteria staff, local farmers, town doctors, school families, parents and families, and of course, the students. By working together towards positive change, Good Food for Oxford Schools is making lasting change for community health in the state most often ranked highest in childhood obesity. Our plan is a lofty one, but to see change happen slowly but surely, like 8 year old Samaria reaching for kale chips instead of hot Cheetos, we know we can get there.

Urban Hydrofarmers, Chestnut Hill, MA
Mike Barnett, Professor, Boston College

The Project:
Our work is more than just about food. Our mission is much larger and has 3 core purposes. First, we seek to create a socially-just food system that will give under-served youth access to critical knowledge about how food production and consumption can contribute to a fairer society. Second, we want to produce a knowledgeable citizenry regarding healthy food that will make wise choices about food consumption, reduce obesity rates, and extend the life span. Third, we are keen to create the next generation of scientists through learning the science of growing food using hydroponics and aquaponics.

In its essence, our work is about creating opportunities for young people from low-income communities to learn about growing food, learning science, becoming interested in learning more about healthy eating. We believe that much more than just a change in diet or school curriculum is required to change the food system. We believe a corresponding educational revolution around food is also needed. We want to engage youth to learn how to grow food and through the growing process support them in realizing how science is relevant to their life. To do this, youth need opportunities to learn about the joys and the science of growing food.

Our work began just over two years ago. It targets youth aged from upper-elementary school through high school and is designed to solve to two critical problems. The first problem is that most urban youth perceive school science as boring, irrelevant, and certainly not for them. The second problem is that most urban youth have little knowledge of where their food comes from and have little opportunity to learn how to grow their own food.

One of the many reasons for this situation is that the growing season for many low-income minority youth coincide with summer vacation, when many low-income youth need to work full time to help support their families. Thus, our approach has been to build a holistic program that integrates hydroponics into a variety of educational settings, including after-school environments, classrooms during school year, and a summer program for youth from urban schools.

We have been learning that once youth have the opportunity to grow healthy food, learn about how and why it grows, and then get to take their produce home and eat it with their families their interest in both eating healthy and learning more about science increases dramatically. We are thrilled to participate in this transformative experience and eager to share it with other youths, their teachers, and their families.

We have a number of partners working with us on our project:

Our primary partner is the STEM Garden Institute, who is working closely with our partner school districts and city leaders to expand the program.

The Salvation Army’s Kroc Center has 150 youth each year enrolled in its after-school programs in Boston and Chelsea. For the past two years we have been working with their staff to implement a hydroponic-based science program where youth grow their own food year-round. Students in the program either take this food home to their families or it is served as part of the Salvation Army’s “feed the hungry” program.

Groundwork Lawrence is working with 400 youth in their after-school programs, growing food and selling it at local farmers markets.

The College-Bound program at Boston College operates a year-long program where 60 high school youth from Boston Public Schools have been designing and building hydroponic systems. These youth learn to manage and operate a greenhouse equipped with both aquaponic and vertical hydroponic systems (that the youth built). The youth sell their produce at farmers’ markets and manage the profits to sustain their business.

Center for Urban Resilience and Sustainability (CURes) in Los Angeles has adopted our hydroponic program and is working with schools throughout the Los Angeles area where youth are growing food in their schoolyards using vertical towers. CURes is currently working with ten high schools and approximately 2000 high-school aged youth in some of the lowest income areas in Los Angeles.

One of our largest impacts is through our work with school districts. Our team has been working with teachers in schools across the nation and installing hydroponic systems in classrooms where youth can learn the science of growing food through hydroponics. To date we are working with 15 school districts and by the end of 2013 we will be working with 40 schools in low-income areas in the states of Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and California. We currently are impacting 3000 youth and by May of 2014 we will be impacting approximately 10,000 youth with our hydroponic program. Having hydroponic systems in the back of classrooms starts important conversations about what is growing among the entire population of a school and also gets kids excited about learning how to do it for themselves.

During the past two years in our college-bound program we have had 40 high-school youth graduate. We have a 100% college attendance rate with over 65% of those youth choosing to major in a scientific field (the national average for youth of color is 6%). We are the only program in the nation to have had three of our youth receive the highly competitive and prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship during the past three years. This Gates Scholarship completely covers all college expenses for youth studying a scientific discipline.

We are currently negotiating to lease 5000 square foot greenhouse that will enable us to harvest up to 3000 plants per week. We are in the pilot phase with only 600 plants growing in the greenhouse with plans to increase around 6000. If all goes as planned one of our goals is to set up a (Community Supported Agriculture) CSA for the lowest income areas in the Boston area.

The New Roots Fresh Stop Project, Louisville, KY
Karyn Moskowitz, Executive Director, New Roots

The Project:
Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville recently issued a “Call to Action,” following the Greater Louisville Project’s Report on health disparities. One of their key findings is that low-income Louisvillians live 13 years less than their more affluent counterparts. One of the core reasons is lack of access to fresh food.

The mission of New Roots is to connect families to farms with affordable fresh food, share knowledge about home cooking and inspire community leaders to help people transform their lives. Our vision is that every family in Louisville have the ability to access fresh food in their neighborhoods, integrate cooking from scratch into their daily routines, reduce diet-related illnesses, and enjoy long, healthy lives. We work towards our mission and vision through the Fresh Stop model.

Three friends who were living in Louisville neighborhoods without any grocery stores or farmers’ markets founded new Roots in 2009. After four years of careful community organizing, a shoestring budget and a mostly volunteer-powered staff of leaders, we have grown to connect over 800 families with 25 Kentuckiana farmers at four Fresh Stops.

The community drives the Fresh Stops, where families in low-income neighborhoods pool their money and SNAP benefits to purchase fresh produce in bulk from local farmers on a sliding scale. Each family receives a “share” of seasonal produce, which feeds 2-4 people for a full cost of $25, a discounted rate of $12 for SNAP beneficiaries, and $6 for mothers on WIC.

Each family pays one week in advance so that the farmers, who are reluctant to risk selling at a market in a low-income neighborhood, are guaranteed payment and face no risk. Every family gets the same “share” of the local farms’ bounties and the families who pay the higher end of the sliding scale know they are subsidizing their lower income neighbors.

Fresh Stops meet once a week, twice a month or once a month, depending on the Stop, and are operated at churches and schools by neighborhood resident volunteers. Volunteers are recruited and trained as community leaders through a process involving food justice classes and neighbor-to-neighbor mentoring.

Post-surveys conducted at the Fresh Stops in 2012 report that over 85 percent of participants ate more fruits and vegetables as a result of the Fresh Stop and nearly 100 percent would recommend the Fresh Stop to their family and friends. It is our goal to broaden our work to more food desert neighborhoods to meet the need for increased access to fresh foods and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.

While we are very proud of our work with the Fresh Stops and hope that our statistics paint a picture of an oasis in a food desert, it doesn’t really bring this project to life, and the profound effect the Project has had on almost everyone it touches.

For starters, let me explain that when we started our food justice classes in the Shawnee Neighborhood of Louisville (a 98% African American, low-income neighborhood) in 2011, people in their 60s told us that nowhere previously had anyone asked them to tell their personal food stories and history, and to simply sit around and talk about food. Nowhere in their circles had it ever been mentioned that food apartheid has existed in Louisville since at least the 50s. It was simply not spoken about.

So let me paint a picture of a Fresh Stop. Where else can you really go, in West Louisville, to see literally mountains of Technicolor local organic produce, piled on church tables? Watch a 9-year-old football player eat his first plate of succotash and ask for seconds, while his mother, who just informed us that her kids would not touch vegetables, looks on incredulously? Where a CEO of a major local corporation stands behind a hill of corn with a VISTA AmeriCorps volunteer and a mom from around the corner and ask a single mother of three to make sure to take her eggplant, ask her how she likes to cook it, and offer that your recipe of roasting eggplant will really bring out the flavor?

Where two fourth generation African American farmers walk through the door, after having delivered 132 lbs of sweet potatoes and slicer tomatoes, to a standing ovation from kids from the Urban League who had come in to help out and taste the food?

I could tell you about all of the chefs who volunteered their time, from Meghan Levins of Taco Punk, who won over the Shawnee Fresh Stop shareholders recently with her potato latkes with red onion jelly to personal chef Kelly Lehman who wowed the kids at the Wellington Elementary School Fresh Stop with kale/zucchini Thai noodles.

I could tell you about Jennifer Hardy, mom of 5th grader Summer Gripps from the Wellington Fresh Stop, who stays up at night calling other moms to remind them to purchase their shares, and who told me recently that the Fresh Stops have literally saved her life, her diabetes in check, her weight down. Or her daughter Summer, who was also at risk of diabetes herself, but is now not only asking for more fruits and vegetables to eat, but recently spoke at a local conference in front of 120 adults about how the taste of the local produce drives her to keep eating better.

Or our farmers, like farmer Larry Ayres, of Ayres Family Orchards, whose Gala apples have literally set the taste buds of Louisville’s food deserts on fire this summer, where homes are right now filled with the scent of apple butter, homemade apple sauce, dried apple rings, Kentucky Bibb Lettuce and apple slices salad, and countless other apple goodies.

But really, the story that I would most like to tell and leave you with, are the stories of our Fresh Stop leaders, like Ms. Mary Montgomery, who spend all their free time working together to create a food system that until recently, had just about completely bypassed them. These are the people that we hear people talk about so often, saying, “they just need to be educated” or “even if we put salads in our fast food restaurants, they only want to eat the fried high calorie food.”

This issue is very complex, I will grant you that. But I have learned this: One, that everyone has a food story to tell. People living in underinvested neighborhoods, what we typically refer to as “food deserts,” are not waiting for us to “educate them.”

They know.

They know that their food stories have been buried under lives of stress, often working two jobs to make ends meet, with no time for cooking from scratch. That our neighborhoods are filled with cheap high calorie meals, that isn’t really food, but rather substances that are truly addictive and very hard to get away from once you start, especially soda. That we have been advertised to death, literally, and been led to believe that if we eat these substances, we will “have it our way,” or that, “I’m lovin’ it.”

This is why at New Roots we focus on creating community and reclaiming food stories. And when you walk in a Fresh Stop, you feel that. There is a buzz going on in the room around food. The food literally glows, and creates that feeling inside you that you simply have to eat it because it is so beautiful, and indeed tastes real, not like the Styrofoam sitting in most of our grocery stores.

When we know our farmers, and spend even just one season with them, we understand how hard it is for them to grow this food for us, and again, we have an incentive to eat it.

When we pay $12 ahead of time, out of our SNAP or food stamp budget, when we spend our volunteer hours calling farmers, collecting money, setting up tables, ordering pint containers, creating recipes and newsletters, and the list goes on, which are the jobs that are necessary to pull off a Fresh Stop every week or every other week, or every month, depending on the Stop, as most of our neighborhood leaders do, we know we had better not waste our investment.

As Doctor Caldwell Esselstyn, AKA Bill Clinton’s doctor said recently when asked what it is like battling the status quo, replied, “If everybody else was doing it, I’d be trying to learn to windsurf. What makes it a challenge is the only people against us are the processed food industry, the people who make drugs like statins, the people who make stents, and do bypasses and other doctors. The odds are pretty well stacked, but that’s what makes it fun. We’ll fall back on the outcomes and beat ‘em in the trenches.”

The New Roots Fresh Stop Project is a people’s movement, operating in the trenches in this modern day battle for our lives and the lives of our future leaders. This year, we are stepping up our game, and implementing Kentucky’s first Veggie Rx Project, where we will provide incentives to families at risk of obesity to purchase shares and connect with health care providers who understand the power of local food in transforming people’s health. We hope to spread the word about our success with the rest of the country.

Shore Soup Project, Far Rockaway, NY

Robyn Hillman-Harrigan, Executive Director, Rockaway Rescue Alliance

The Project:
The Shore Soup Project was founded as a community-based organization by residents of the Rockaways as a direct response to the needs of the community in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Shore Soup Project worked steadfastly during the months after Sandy with a network of over 400 volunteers from across the New York region to prepare, cook, and deliver over 50,000 hot, fresh meals to Rockaway residents.

As the emergency conditions in Rockaway subsided, Shore Soup Project saw a continuing need to increase long-term access to healthy food in the community. During the summer of 2013, Shore Soup Project launched and operated a Kickstarter-funded, pay-as-you-can food truck in pursuit of this mission. Under the innovative pay-as-you-can model, residents and visitors could enjoy the healthy, organic foods offered on our truck no matter what their ability to pay.

We are now working to build an urban agriculture infrastructure for the community, which will integrate with our free meal delivery service for homebound residents, and our planned pay-as-you-can restaurant and community center. We are building a new 1.6 acre community garden called Shore Farm in Rockaway, and also expanding our meal delivery program. Our goal is to create a community center and kitchen called SHORE, which will host nutrition workshops and operate under the pay-as-you-can model.

Currently, the staff of Shore Soup Project consists of one Executive Director, a Development and Communications Officer, and two Americorps members.

The Rockaways have traditionally been marginalized from the rest of New York City and suffered from a lack of access to healthy food even before Hurricane Sandy devastated the community. The hurricane exacerbated this problem, shuttering many supermarkets. Only two have since reopened forcing many residents to purchase heavily processed, low-quality food from local bodegas and corner groceries.

In the months after Hurricane Sandy, our project’s work led directly to a meaningful and positive impact on those who received our healthy, freshly made soups. We heard the complaint all too often that other food given to residents at the time was too high in sodium, and nearly unpalatable.

Over the summer of 2013, we were able to serve an average of 200 meals a day from our pay-as-you-can food truck. We were glad to be able to provide this service to our community.

Currently, we are delivering an average of 150-200 healthy, organic soups to homebound residents of the Rockaways each week, and are planning to expand our weekly capacity as we re-enter the colder months. We also serve the community who are members of our current community garden, providing gardening supplies and beds for their use and teaching them about organic gardening practices.

Food Is Medicine, Jamaica Plain, MA
David Waters, Community Servings

The Project:
Community Servings believes food is not the cause of some of our worst healthcare challenges; instead it is the solution. Each day, Community Servings is fighting to shape the perception among Americans that “Food is Medicine,” especially in the context of managing critical and chronic illnesses in low income communities. Food insecurity and poor diet have a direct impact on escalating health care costs and alarming rates of re-hospitalization. Prescribe a medically tailored meal alongside your pill box and you have the hopes of improving recovery rates, stabilizing costs and keeping patients in their home instead of a hospital or nursing home.

For a wide range of conditions – cancer, heart failure, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and many others – the difference between a very costly hospital or advanced nursing facility stay very often comes down to the ability of people to properly feed themselves (and sometimes their families).

Community Servings is a Massachusetts-based organization that provides home delivered meals to the critically ill who are unable to provide themselves with proper meals. The organization was founded during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when nutrition and food were considered the only form of medicine for those diagnosed with the disease. Now, in an age when diet related illnesses are at record level highs, Community Servings’ mission has expanded to 35 different types of life-threatening illnesses including cancer, renal failure, kidney disease and diabetes. For those who are critically ill, especially those without a lot of resources, food plays an important role in healing. Over the past 23 years Community Servings has led the charge in delivering over 5.1 million free meals, with ninety-two percent of the clients living in poverty.

As one of the few organizations of our kind in the United States, we support our primary mission of feeding the sick through our innovative roster of community based programs. These programs fulfill a critical need in our communities, from using local donated produce and fish to feed the sick to providing ex-offenders with a means to re-enter the workforce. All of our programming involves looking at ways that food can have a significant, positive impact in our communities.

We believe we can strengthen our primary mission by engaging disenfranchised populations who need a second chance to succeed. In collaboration with the Massachusetts Parole Board and Bunker Hill Community College, we run our Step Forward Program, welcoming recent parolees into our kitchen as volunteers. One of the first programs of its type in the nation, Step Forward offers ex-offenders the opportunity to gain valuable food service skills and experience while providing Community Servings with volunteer power. After completing Step Forward, participants are given the option to take part in our Food Service Job-Training Program, a 12-week food service job-training program focused on those with barriers to employment. The program teaches basic cooking skills, life skills, food sanitation and provides job placement support. Most importantly, trainees build their self-confidence as they work alongside our staff, helping us achieve our primary mission of preparing and delivering meals to the critically ill.

Through our innovative Meals for Many Social Enterprise Program, we sell healthy, nutritious, and affordable meals to nonprofits, schools, and agencies. This social enterprise allows us to subsidize our food delivery program.

Additionally, our Local Foods Program enables us to support and collaborate with local farmers, fishermen and food producers. During the summer months, we receive 14 tons of donated produce from local farmers and we also partner with local fisheries to utilize fish that would otherwise be thrown away because it is unable to be sold at market. Just this past month, 800 pounds of zucchini was delivered to our kitchen, presenting a challenge for our chef to utilize this free produce in a creative way in the thousands of meals that were created that week. Moreover, we market local produce and fish to our neighbors in exchange for donated surplus food from our venders, helping us achieve our primary mission.

Finally, our Nutrition Education and Counseling Program supplements our food delivery program by providing healthy eating courses focused on cooking, shopping, and good nutrition, as well as a series of monthly community workshops. We also offer home visits to teach people how to counter the toxic side effects of their medical treatments and cope with other diet-related issues.

Community Servings delivers 395,000 free, home-style meals annually to 1,300 people who are too sick to cook for themselves or their families. Currently caring for clients with 35 different life-threatening illnesses, our service includes a customized, nutritionally-packed lunch, dinner, and snack for sick clients, their caregivers and dependent children, 95% of whom live at or below the poverty level. Our geographic service area includes 215 square miles across eastern Massachusetts. As the only program of its kind in New England, we offer 25 different medically-appropriate menus each week, including a Children’s Menu. In addition, the programs supporting our main mission also have a positive impact the community.

This year, we will serve more than 300 individuals and family members through our Nutrition Education and Counseling Program. Our self-empowering Food Service Job-Training Program will engage 40 trainees and with a 75% post-training job placement rate, many participants will receive permanent jobs with benefits. Through our innovative Meals for Many Social Enterprise Program, we currently prepare over 600 meals per day for local schools and nonprofits. Our Local Foods Program benefits both our sick clients and Jamaica Plain residents, addressing the “food desert” in the urban neighborhood in which we are located. Numerous ex-offenders qualify for vouchers to take courses at Bunker Hill Community College, apply for our Teaching Kitchen job-training program, or move directly into employment after participating in our Step Forward Program. Finally, we have been an advocate for state food and nutrition services as part of the Essential Health Benefits package through the federal Affordable Care Act. Ultimately, we would like to see programs like ours serving the community in all regions of the United States.

In fiscal year 2012, Community Servings experienced a dramatic 13 percent increase in demand for home-delivered, medically tailored meals for the critically ill. .  That’s up from an average annual three percent increase – representing a more than six-fold growth in demand for services. Additionally, the number of clients Community Servings is helping grew by 17 percent in the last year. On average, the organization experiences one percent annual growth in the number of clients it serves. There is a growing awareness of this gap and the important role that home-delivered, medically-tailored meals can play – not only in improving patient health, but to help in the fight to control rising healthcare costs by keeping patients out of the hospital and in their homes.  The increased demand for our services is a reflection of this recognition by health providers across the state.

TEDxManhattan Challenge Judges:

Mary Cleaver, The Cleaver Co.
Scott Cullen, GRACE Communications Foundation
Diane Hatz, Change Food
Melissa Kogut, Chefs Collaborative
Judith LaBelle, Glynwood
Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank
Stephen Reily, Seed Capital Kentucky
Pam Weisz, Change Food
Tama Matsuoka Wong, Meadows and More