"Food security" is a concept that has only recently become a part of popular conversation, but for Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of the Philadelphia-based Food Trust
, the fight for national food security has been a long-time mission.
Even if she never saw herself doing it.
Originally from San Francisco, Lehmann had always been interested in public health and social justice issues. She remembers there were a few different things that had a big impact on her at a young age, the biggest being the AIDS crisis that hit San Francisco right when she graduated high school.
"I was watching and seeing all the people impacted by it – at one of the restaurants I worked at, half the staff died of AIDS. It was this very intense time, but it was amazing to watch people come together, whether it was people helping their friends by bringing them food or getting together in the streets advocating for policy change, starting from scratch and hitting it from all sides at the community level, the individual level, and the policy level. That really influenced my decision to go into public health."
She left San Francisco for the East Coast, figuring she would go for a few years and then come back. She didn’t. "My mom is still kind of pissed!" she laughs.
But all the better for Philadelphia and for the Food Trust, which she has helped grow from a tiny space with just a handful of employees to a staff of 130, primarily located in Philadelphia in a place that "even has a phone system and an HR person," but also two located in the Bay Area and one in Boston.
When she got to Philadelphia she applied for a job at a farmers market on a whim. She met Duane Perry, the founder of the Food Trust, and was "completely taken and inspired by him." She didn't know a lot about food access at the time, she says, and little did she know she would still be at the agency 15 years later.
"All my previous jobs had been as a research assistant, looking at data sets and creating reports," she says. "I wasn't like, I am a leader
. I didn't see myself as Executive Director. But in 2005 Perry came to me and said he was retiring quite unexpectedly, and after I stopped sobbing he asked if I would consider applying."
Ten years later, the Food Trust is a national leader in food access and social justice initiatives, and the approach they take to food access and healthy lifestyles is a comprehensive one.
The organization's flagship program is their farmers market operation. They run 30 farmers markets throughout Philadelphia that range in size from just one to 40 different vendors, working with a total of 200 local farmers. They care about food access as well as supporting local farms and promoting locally grown foods.
The Food Trust had its earliest beginnings at the Reading Terminal Market
, now hailed as being among the best food halls in the country. Perry previously ran the Reading Market and was the organizer for all the merchants there. He was there at a time when the market was falling apart and galvanized people to save it. He formed Reading Terminal Farmers Market Trust in 1992, and that was the beginning of the Food Trust. To this day, the Reading is still the largest redeemer of food stamps in the state.
The Food Trust's mission is focused on low income and people most in need, so all but two of their farmers markets are in low-income neighborhoods. A program called Philly Food Bucks allows $2 back for every $5 spent with food stamps at the market, increasing a person's buying power by 40%. They run cooking demonstrations using ingredients available at the market that day and give out additional Food Bucks at the end.
"What I love about our work with the Food Trust is coming at public health from a social justice perspective," Lehmann says.
The Food Trust's mission is to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food, and information to make healthy decisions.
"In low-income areas in Philadelphia and all across the country food options can be very dismal," she explains. "There's so much more awareness now. There used to be a point that I had to spend a lot of time explaining the work we do and justifying it, and now, in the last five years, there is a huge awareness around it."
She credits First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move!
initiative for a lot of that, but one could also surmise that much of this increased awareness came out of the rise of "foodie culture" – as twee as it can often be, it has also had a monumental impact on the national awareness of the things we eat and where they come from.
The Food Trust works to ensure that good, healthy food is available to people and is also affordable. In order to better achieve this goal, there are also education components to what they do, as well as incentives for people to buy healthy items in grocery stores, corner stores, and farmers markets. The organization advocates for food stamps, works with hundreds of area corner stores to stock healthier foods without having to sacrifice profits, and has a research team dedicated to public policy work.
"I love how all those different things inform the other," Lehmann says. "We're trying to research what the impacts of our programs are, which informs our programming and public policy. We work with Policy Link on the Healthy Food Financing Initiative
, which has made it possible for community development banks to apply for funding to do a whole variety of healthy food projects throughout the country, like food hubs and urban markets – a huge range of cool projects from a federal level program."
Thanks to the Food Trust, the city of Philadelphia is known for its success in childhood obesity prevention efforts
. Through a randomized control trial they have been able to demonstrate their ability to reduce the number of overweight kids by 50 percent through their programs. But, Lehmann says, it’s important to point out that they are not
in the business of weight loss. "All of our work at Food Trust is on the prevention side," she says. "We're not clinicians. We're working with people to help them eat better before they get overweight in the first place. Diet-related diseases like diabetes are off the charts in Philadelphia, and a lot of the kids consider them to be inevitable. This is not about weight, but about health."
The rates of childhood obesity have actually decreased in the city and, more significantly, they have decreased in children of color, a typically higher-risk population for obesity. "There is usually a big racial disparity," Lehmann explains. "I really believe it's this comprehensive approach, hitting it form many different angles – improving access to nutritional food and education – is what brought on this change."
"When the childhood obesity stats came out there was a lot of interest in trying to find solutions and find people who had success," she continues. "Eight to 10 years ago when those stats exploded, that was when national organizations began to approach us. Today we work all over the country. We're doing the same thing we do in Philadelphia, just all over the place."
Their youth outreach is a significant portion of the work they do. Food Trust staff goes out to schools, community centers, churches, and food pantries, reaching about 50,000 kids every year. "The approach that we take is to be less lecturing and more interaction to make it more fun," says Lehmann. "It's more a celebration of food, and food as a vehicle to bring people together, rather than making people feel bad about what they're eating on a daily basis."
15 years ago, Lehmann might not have envisioned herself where she is today, but as the head of one of the most demonstrably successful food justice advocacy organizations in the country, it's safe to say she is exactly where she is supposed to be.
Urban Innovation Exchange is presented in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, click here and follow @UIXCities.