Produce Giveaway Program In West Harlem Is Changing Lives, One Meal At A Time

A use of government money everyone can get behind.

Finding fresh produce in a big city is never easy, but for residents of West Harlem things just got a lot simpler, thanks to The Fortune Society.

The not-for-profit organization is best known for offering services like housing, addiction treatment and job training to formerly incarcerated men and women. But every Wednesday at 3pm, it also puts together fresh produce giveaways right inside their West Harlem location, at 140th street and Riverside in New York City. 

Their program, which is open to any resident of the neighborhood who walks in, aims to overcome the number one obstacle to residents of a community eating healthy food: money. 

"People in these communities know how to eat and many come from a diverse cultural background, a lot of times the only obstacle is money," Jamie McBeth, The Fortune Society's manager of food and nutrition, told A Plus. "It's a myth that poor people don't want to eat fruits and veggies or that people from certain ethnicities don't want to eat healthy."

In the upper Manhattan community, food insecurity is as high as 27 percent. Every week, using donated food from several local farm partnerships with GrowNYC, Brooklyn Grange Farm, and Corbin Hills Farm, The Fortune Society is able to give out one bag of fresh produce, typically weighing between two and four pounds and sometimes including eggs, to up to 300 residents of West Harlem.  

The value of people in the neighborhood getting fresh produce can't be understated. Areas like the South Bronx, West Harlem, and Inwood have correlating city-high rates of poverty and obesity. They are also toward the top of the list of neighborhoods in which residents have a long distance to travel in order to find fresh produce. 

Volunteers prepare fresh produce bags.

Photo: The Fortune Society
Photo: The Fortune Society

But at Fortune's fresh produce giveaway, which handed out almost 19,000 pounds of produce to nearly 5,000 West Harlem residents between 2014-2015, there is more than just free food. There is also a chef on-site, who does live demos about a recipe you can whip up with the ingredients inside your bag. Sometimes, the cooking classes include nutritional information about healthy portions, not skipping meals, and how to maintain a balanced diet.

"I thought I was eating pretty healthy before I went to the class, and then I thought 'I'm not eating healthy enough!'" Jackie Fife, a 69-year-old woman and lifelong resident of West Harlem, said with a laugh. "If you go downtown, they get much better produce than we do. So we're spending a lot of money up here and the food is going to spoil anyway."

For residents like Fife, the Fortune Society's bag giveaway is a perfect solution. Not only does it provide free food, but it's fresher produce than they would get if they went and bought it at the local grocery store. 

"The way I look at it is at the end of the day it's a public health effort," McBeth said. "I think it'll show up, and if we were to study this epidemiologically I think we would see that the people getting fruits and vegetables on a regular basis would have lower risks of obesity and disease like diabetes."

The program, which is funded by the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP), reflects a certain kind of need. 12 percent of New Yorkers — or approximately 2 million people — do not always have the finances to meet their basic nutritional needs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

"NYS Dept. of Health (DOH) Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP) funding is essential to improving the levels of food-insecurity in NYC," The Fortune Society's Associate Vice President of Development and Communications, Jill Poklemba, told A Plus. "Government grants such as HPNAP are a good use of government funds because they lead to better health, which in turn leads to better life outcomes."

A sample recipe:

Photo: Isaac Saul
Photo: Isaac Saul

Being exposed to these kinds of nutrition or cooking classes and getting access to the fresh produce does more than just feed a family for a week, it changes people's lifestyles. As one community member put it, "I would eat fast food three or four days a week, putting our health on the back burner. Now, our entire outlook on healthy eating has changed. Every day, we prepare and cook healthy meals together, making sure to include fresh fruit and vegetables into all of them."

Want to learn more about The Fortune Society? You can check out their website here.