TEDxPhilly takes on the many different meanings of this year’s theme: The City. Speakers and participants are coming prepared to share ideas and explore the “greatest challenges, innovations, concepts and realities that shape and are shaped by the city and its inhabitants.”
When given the opportunity to preview one of TEDxPhilly’s speakers for the coming event, I found myself cherry picking from an incredible list of local innovators in Philadelphia. The result? A lovely chat with Yael Lehmann, the Executive Director of an organization that has spent two decades developing into an omnipresent resource and connector throughout Philadelphia: The Food Trust .
Philadelphia has been recently recognized for being one of the most progressive ‘food cities’ in America… and for once it has absolutely nothing to do with the cheesesteak. We’re being spotlighted for our city’s changing relationship with urban fresh food access. [The term ‘food access’ refers to the availability of fresh produce. That term may not phase many Geekadelphia readers as a daily notion past “Where should we lunch today?” but, unfortunately, is a more broad, serious issue across America referring to certain communities having limited access to grocery stores for socioeconomic and geographical reasons.]
All of The Food Trust’s their initiatives stem from a tenet to make affordable, healthy food available to everyone, and they achieve this by connecting and collaborating with communities, schools, grocers, farmers and policymakers.
Can you describe The Food Trust and your position?
Yael: Sure. I’m the Executive Director of The Food Trust, and we strive to make healthy food available to everyone. We see that in a number of different ways: we run farmer’s markets through out the city, we teach kids how to eat healthy in schools, we also work to improve the food choices at corner stores and to bring supermarkets and other healthy food retail into neighborhoods.
Since this year’s TEDxPhilly centers around The City and the challenges and opportunities that communities face… in your opinion, in your tenure, what’s been the most innovative response to a challenge that’s resulted in a Food Trust program?
Yael: Well, one thing I love about Philadelphia is that there is a lot of other innovative food work happening here. In fact, a lot of people may not be aware of this, but Philadelphia is considered one of the most progressive food cities in the country right now. There was a recent article in the New York Times by Mark Bittman, and those were his exact words– that we’re the most progressive food city in the country right now. To me, why is that?… The work that we’re doing at The Food Trust is in collaboration with many of other groups, we have a really progressive mayor and health department, and those multiple groups are working together to improve food access, and bring local food into the city, but if I were to pick the most cool thing… well that’d be hard to do (laughs).
One of the remarkable things that’s happened over the last ten years or so is the creation of a program called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), and it’s a program that was started through the leadership under Representative Dwight Evans and administered by a group called The Reinvestment Fund–who I just adore– that’s an innovative, forward-thinking group we’re lucky to have worked with… The FFFI initiative launched in 2004 and there’s already over 90 food-related projects funded in the state of Pennsylvania, and around 20 in the city of Philadelphia. Getting those projects going through out the city is a remarkable achievement, and something other cities around the country are trying to replicate.
That’s actually part of my next question… Many communities have had different responses to food security issues and food deserts– like the rise of urban agriculture, lot farms, mobile farmer’s markets (like buses and trucks). Have any of these initiatives from other cities influenced The Food Trust, or vice versa?
Yael: Oh, definitely. We’re always checking out what other people are doing around the country… Why start from scratch if someone has already found a good solution? An example of that is in New York City’s Health Department launched something called Health Bucks… [In New York,] for folks shopping at farmer’s markets, every $5 they spend they get $2 in what they call “Health Bucks” back– and there’s no cap on it… It gives the consumer 40% more fresh food purchasing back for their dollar. So in Philly, in partnership with the Health Department, we call the program ‘Philly Food Bucks’. It’s been a big hit, and increased our food stamp sales by something around 40%. It started last summer. And the reason we replicated it is because New York also had an incredible success with their similar program.
A lot of urban youth have a disconnect with farms– they are more likely to see food from a box than food from the farm… was this an influence in creating youth educational programs?
Yael: We definitely want to teach kids where food comes from as part of their education not only to know what foods are good for them, but so that they know where food comes from. So we have a “farm to school” program, and we work with another really amazing non-profit organization, Fair Food, and we’re working to improve the food choices at 25 schools right now. All of the food comes from local farms, because we also work with another group, Common Market, as a distributor to bring the food to the schools. We do fun things like taste testings, etc, around one produce from a farm (ex: “Apple Crunch Day”) so they can learn more about it and where it came from, etc.
With growing support for the food community– Michelle Obama’s Initative, Michael Pollan’s books, Mark Bittman’s NYT articles, Jamie Oliver’s TV series about lunches in public school systems, etc., and since the public’s interest shifting toward an understanding of their food (organic, local, etc) in prime time, have you noticed that has affected or benefited your work?
Yael: Yes. So, nationally this [issue] has really taken off and there’s a lot of energy, especially with the First Lady behind it this is really ‘our moment’, you know? The awareness has shifted dramatically. For example, when I first started working with The Food Trust in 2001, the kind of work we were doing here was really hard for people to understand. A lot of people thought we were a food bank… Ten years ago, we would try to start a farmer’s market and we would get a lot of push back from the community on the logistical parts, where as now we have a waiting list for neighborhoods that want farmer’s markets… the shift has been amazing to see. I think that with the first lady behind it– that kind of starpower has had a huge effect.
Obviously, there is a lot of face-to-face interaction for the type of work The Food Trust does. Has there been any piece of technology that’s been developed that’s really helped your work in recent years?
Yael: Definitely: Twitter! Social media is incredible. We launched Night Market last year and did zero advertising in our budget– it was entirely promoted through Twitter. The power of social media getting people getting people out to events and starting conversations in real time is amazing… it’s built a different food community– an online food community.
Also, GIS (Geographic Information System) has been a really important tool for us. For example, when we’re producing reports on food access for several states throughout the country, and all of those reports are GIS-based. We found early on that if you show people that information on a map, that it’s just that much more compelling than text data. GIS has been critical in our work.
Thank you so much for talking to Geekadelphia, Yael! We’re really looking forward to seeing you speak on Tuesday at 2011 TEDxPhilly: The City.
Geekadelphia readers can get a 20% discount for TEDxPhilly tickets by using the promo code ‘FOODTRUST’ when purchasing tickets online.
Tickets are on sale now and available for purchase at tedxphilly.com. Admission includes an entire day of presentations, lunch, refreshments, and a post-event reception.