From food deserts to community gardens: older adults creating healthier communities
In the late 2000s, with a small grant from Atlantic Philanthropies, The New York Community Trust embarked on a research effort designed to shed light on the potential of the city’s older adults to make neighborhoods and communities stronger. The Trust already had a long history supporting “elder-focused” projects, investing nearly $1.5 million annually to help older adults remain active and to meet the basic needs of those who are vulnerable and dependent. But this project was coming from a different point of view. What if they looked at experienced adults not only as having needs, but as a unique and valuable asset that might be deployed to tackle important community issues?
They convened a panel of advisors and experts—composed primarily of people over age 60—and they commissioned research about the interests, needs and priorities of New York’s older adults. Unlike many of their community foundation peers who embarked on similar studies as part of the national Community Experience Partnership, the Trust approached the question of older adult community participation from a neutral perspective, hoping to activate a powerful resource for making sustainable change, but with few preset ideas about what issues might be tackled. They took a community organizing approach, looking for opportunities that would excite older adults and leverage the unique skills and experiences they offered.
It quickly became clear that the city’s “elderly” population, well over 1 million people strong, was vital, active, and looking for meaningful ways to give back. The traditional notion of volunteerism, however, did not resonate. What motivated many of the city’s older adults—and what was too often missing from opportunities for civic participation—was a desire to help make neighborhoods better places to live.
By 2009, ideas for potential projects began to emerge, and the advisory group developed criteria for picking an issue: in addition to being something about which New York City’s older adults felt passionate, they wanted to tackle a problem that mattered to low-income communities (particularly in light of the 2008 economic downturn), would create tangible change at the neighborhood level, was not stereotypically a “seniors” issue, and would lead to achievable, measurable outcomes.
Although many project ideas were suggested, the issue of access to healthy, affordable food emerged as the top choice for the widest number of experienced adults. The need is easy to understand, and it has been of growing concern to older New Yorkers as well as their younger neighbors.
In New York City, one of every four children lives in a household suffering from hunger. Low-income neighborhoods struggle with disinvestment, unemployment, crime, and limited access to basic needs, including fresh, nutritious, affordable food. These same communities also suffer significant health challenges, many associated with diet. Higher-than average rates for obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease all add billions to society’s annual health care costs. One way or another, food “deserts” are a problem that affects everyone.
In addition, food access was an issue that seemed tailor-made for an initiative driven by older adults, who were among the generation that pioneered urban gardening in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. Older adults are leaders in showing people how to use fresh food, teaching children in schools and adults at farmers markets, food pantries, in their churches, and at other venues. Moreover, in great numbers, older adults are the backbone of food preparation and distribution in shelters and pantries that serve the hungry. The advisory group recognized that these key roles that older adults already filled were ripe for growth at a time when local and national officials alike were calling for community level investment to tackle food deserts. The Healthy Communities Through Healthy Food initiative was born.
- New York Community Trust
- United Neighborhood Houses
- United Community Centers
- Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project
- Isabella Geriatric Center
- Just Food
- Queens Community House
- New York City
- Total population = 8.3 million
- 55+ population = 1.8 million (18%)
RESULTS (FIRST 3 YEARS)
- 126 tons of fresh food brought into low-income food deserts
- 145 food gardens strengthened or established
- 2 farms stands and 2 farmers markets opened
- 3 new Good Food Box programs created
- Local organizing helped bring in a new supermarket that hired 50+ people from the community
- 325+ workshops and cooking demos promoting nutrition and teaching how to grow fresh food, reaching thousands of community residents
- Participants feel better physically (87%) and emotionally (92%)
- $1.8 million raised to support the program