Billy Bromage of the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE) submitted the following report on a neighborhood meeting he was involved in:
On Tuesday evening, 45 people from the West River neighborhood gathered in the cafeteria at Barnard School for the monthly meeting of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation. A lively conversation about food in the neighborhood and citywide was the focus of most of the agenda, through a community outreach effort of the New Haven Food Policy Council (NHFPC). West River residents, many of whom are involved in various aspects of the neighborhood’s food environment, were joined by elected officials Alderwoman Tyisha Walker and state Senator Toni Harp. They discussed school food, community gardens, cooking classes, and involving youth in food projects, as part of a conversation facilitated by Tagan Engel, the Community Food Systems Coordinator at CitySeed and chairwoman of the NHFPC, together with the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE).
The conversation was part of an outreach plan, to gather community feedback on the proposed New Haven Food Action Plan and help the NHFPC set priorities in response to community needs. Similar conversations have been happening in neighborhoods across New Haven since late August, and will continue through the first week of October, in advance of the Food Summit being hosted by the Food Policy Council on Oct. 12 at city hall. At the Food Summit, city and community leaders will join forces to examine the Food Action Plan and tackle solutions to food issues in the city together. Voices of people gathered in the community conversations will be central in those discussions. Will Allen, McArthur “genius” fellow and urban agriculture visionary will be participating in the Summit while he is in town for the New Haven Land Trust 30th anniversary benefit dinner on the same night.
The conversation in West River began with an overview of the Food Policy Council, and the Food Action Plan, which has been developed over the past two years to give clear strategies for food system development and change in New Haven. As neighbors listened to the overview, Nayshka Gonzalez passed around a bowl of fresh Connecticut-grown plums. The group reviewed some of the issues addressed in the Food Action Plan such as: increasing access to healthy food for all people, improving our local food economy and expanding education about healthy food. Everyone was asked to “vote” on four specific issues that were most important to them such as: cooking classes, food for seniors, healthy food in corner stores, school food, and school gardens. Residents wrote their choices on colorful post-it notes which they attached to a large poster with food issue categories. The written comments will be tallied and displayed at the Food Summit on Oct. 12.
A discussion about some of the areas people “voted” on followed. Naomi Kelly, who volunteers in a school in New Haven, expressed her concern about the quality of food in school cafeterias, and that many kids are unhappy with some of the food. Engel replied that this has been an issue raised in other community conversations, and that school lunch has been improving over the past few years, but that there is still more progress to be made. She encouraged Mrs. Kelly to get involved in a working group through the NHFPC to help address the issue. Natasha Smith added that kids often grab onto messages at school about healthy eating, and bring them into their homes.
Shanti Madison, a neighborhood resident who is a senior at Hamden High School, made the point that school gardens “would be really helpful”. Tagan mentioned that Common Ground High School in New Haven is leading a coalition of partners with the goal of getting community gardens at all New Haven public schools.
Neighborhood resident and community activist Paula Panzarella mentioned a friend who is a vegan chef who brought a group of kids to the Elm City Market to shop for fresh vegetables, and taught them all how to cook it. Her friend has done it several times, and many of the kids are now interested in cooking healthy recipes. Other people mentioned the importance of teaching kids and young people how to cook healthy.
Tagan asked the group how the neighborhood has changed since the Little Red Hen community garden got going this summer. Shanti Madison said that “if not for the garden, I would not have gotten involved in my community.” Stacy Spell, the president of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation and the lead organizer of the garden, emphasized how important Shanti’s contribution has been to getting young people involved with the project. Merrie Harrison reported that she is “brand new to the neighborhood”, and the garden is the first place she has connected with neighbors. Virginia Spell called the garden a “great place to showcase our neighborhood”. She mentioned that it has brought Yale and Southern students to the neighborhood to volunteer, and has connected many people in the neighborhood with a “healthy diet”.
Alderwoman Walker added a summary of the conversation by saying, “I’m excited about the Food Policy Plan. When we start affecting policy, that’s when we make the big changes.”
As the meeting wrapped up, the poster that contained all of the collected comments was a collage of color, residents’ comments, and hope for positive change in the food system. The room was full of conversations among neighbors about some of our successes in changing our food environment, and some of our hopes for future accomplishments. The feedback gathered at the meeting will add important weight to the comments collected in other neighborhoods around the city, and will help to guide conversations at the Food Summit on October 12th, as well as the future work of the Food Policy Council and its partners.