When Dennis Derryck and his six business partners purchased a 95-acre farm in the hills of Schoharie County, New York, in 2009, they wanted one thing: food sovereignty for the families of Harlem and the Bronx.
“You can’t just serve people. They can’t just be consumers alone,” Derryck said. “People need to have a say in the types of food available and how it’s grown.”
Food sovereignty means that people have the ability to define and control the type of food available to them, and ensure it’s culturally appropriate and grown through sound ecological and sustainable means. This is especially important in areas, such as low-income communities or communities of color, where access to fresh, affordable, nutritious food can be limited.
Access to good food, while not an end-all solution, is vital to improving community health, especially in neighborhoods afflicted by high morbidity, which is often linked to obesity and diet-related health issues, such as diabetes, and liver and heart disease.
By cultivating relationships in the boroughs of New York City and among farmers upstate, Derryck and his team have bridged the gap between urban communities and growers. It’s from those relationships that the Corbin Hill Food Project has grown.
Starting a new kind of “food hub”
Corbin Hill is a food hub, connecting local farmers and the food they grow to regional communities. Food hubs typically start because small family farms – struggling to sell produce and compete with corporate farms – organize in search of a local market.
But unlike the typical food-hub model, Derryck wasn’t a farmer looking for a buyer. He was a buyer seeking out the farm.
“We had all these wonderful community gardens, rooftop gardens … it taught people things, people began to know where their food comes from, how it’s grown,” he said. “But none of these projects were at a scale that would make an impact on the community.”
After buying the Schoharie Farm, Derryck quickly realized farmers upstate were already growing enough produce – someone just needed to get it into urban households.
One city, many communities, different needs
Corbin Hill has been intentional in its work.
“It’s not about aggregating and getting things to market in general, but it’s specifically about aggregating and getting to those who need it most,” Derryck said. “We knew when we started … that 16 percent of the folks in the [Harlem and South Bronx] communities – which comprised 70,000 people – were making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.”
With this in mind, Derryck and his colleagues sought new ways to ensure boxes full of fruit, vegetables and eggs were reasonably priced for slimmer budgets. They began partnering with community organizations to create tailored boxes, which sell at a price much lower than Corbin Hill’s standard of $28. For example, by working with Harlem Children’s Zone, Corbin Hill is able to get fresh produce to families of Headstart kids – low-income kids whose parents may not always be able to afford such things, especially when sold at standard grocery prices. Through other partnerships, they are also able to offer boxes for seniors are priced at $8 and family-specific boxes, range from $14 to $20.
By varying options for farm shares, Corbin Hill ensures that everyone has access to healthy food – not just those in more affluent areas of the city. Most importantly, Corbin Hill aims to shift power to the consumer.
“No one ever asked the farmer, ‘What could you grow for this community?’ [But] people wanted to know, ‘Can you grow this?’” Derryck said. “That changed the discussion. They were no longer passive consumers being handed things; they were consumers making decisions. They were consumers making requests. They were beginning to take ownership.”
More than healthy food, it’s about affordable food
Since Corbin Hill started, it has expanded far beyond Harlem and the Bronx, and is now serving every borough in New York City.
But even as they grow, Derryck remains focused on ensuring the community maintains control over where food comes from and where it goes. He wants everyone – even those that fall along the fringe, such as the formerly incarcerated who lose access to food stamps – to have a way to eat healthfully.
“We just put in a huge order for 450 men going through rehabilitation … Ninety-nine percent of that population being black or Latino. We’re talking about some real sense of equity and real sense of trying to get things to these individuals who have no access,” Derryck said. “These are the kinds of groups that we are after. This is what equity really means to us.”
Corbin Hill is also about pushing for structural change. Derryck is looking into “alternative resources of sustainable funding,” such as Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) tax credits, similar to what’s used to assist in funding low-income housing.
“While there are numerous ways to fund, for example, affordable housing projects, there are very few options when it comes to funding to feed low-income people,” he said. “[We should be] structurally designing things.”
Derryck wants Corbin Hill to be part of changing that design. Corbin Hill is not just about increasing access to fruits and vegetables, but developing sustainable funding models that truly address how we feed people of every socio-economic background.