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This Foundation Set Out to Expand Access to Healthy Food in New York City. How Did It Go?

February 8, 2019 - By Caitlin Reilly of Inside Philanthropy

A new report examining a now completed five-year, $15 million project to improve access to healthy food within New York City communities found the program succeeded in bringing healthy options into neighborhoods that were previously food deserts.

The initiative came out of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, which is broadly concerned with equity in New York, a city with increasingly stark income inequality where zip code can determine a person’s education level, healthcare and food choices. Expanding access to healthy food is one of several areas in which the fund works to level the playing field for disadvantaged New Yorkers.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors recently wrapped up a year-long evaluation of the now completed project. Some of the evaluation was done by third parties and other parts were done internally. The firm works with donors to help them give strategically and thoughtfully. The partners have worked with the Illumination Fund since 2008.

“Food sounds like a simple topic, but access to healthy food and healthy choices is remarkably complex because it’s bound up in long-term, deeply rooted issues of economic opportunity, community resilience, equity, and infrastructure,” said Melissa Berman, the firm’s CEO and president.

Berman said that the Illumination Fund’s initiative achieved progress on several fronts: “Health care providers increasingly link food insecurity and health; community development corporations identify healthy food as an essential ingredient in neighborhood revitalization; and food has emerged as an economic opportunity for residents.”

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors found the Illumination Fund’s initiative improved or added 58 farmers markets, farm shares, gardens and healthy bodegas to previously overlooked neighborhoods. Through those avenues and pantries, the program distributed nearly 1.5 million pounds of healthy food during the five-year initiative.

In addition, about 4,300 families were pre-screened, referred to or approved to receive federal assistance to buy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Evaluators also found the initiative reached more than 45,000 residents, achieving the fund’s aim of engaging community members with this work.

To create jobs related to healthy foods, the Illumination Fund supported the New York City Housing Authority’s urban farm project. The farms, which are attached to public housing sites, are part of the city’s Building Healthy Communities program, which works with partners to improve food access, physical activity and other drivers of health disparities in specific neighborhoods.

In addition to providing residents with fresh fruits and vegetables, the urban farms doubled as a workforce training program for young adults living in public housing. The residents, who were members of the Green City Force Urban Farm Corps, built and operated the farms. Participating in the corps set young people up to find jobs or head to college. In the last cohort, 96 percent of residents did just that within a month of finishing the program.

Another aim of the initiative was to foster cross-sector collaboration that would outlast the grants’ duration. Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors found that more than 100 organizations formed relationships with others over the course of the grants, including anti-hunger organizations, academic institutions, city government agencies, neighborhood organizations and healthcare providers.

Read the full article in Insider Philanthropy here.

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