…This process and our food justice projects are ongoing and evolving so we need to be sure we have the right people who can shepherd them along over many years through leadership transitions and staff turnover. That is easier said than done.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kara Whelan.

Kara Whelan is a leader in land conservation and an environmental justice advocate. Whelan is the Vice president of the Westchester Land Trust in NY. She works locally and regionally to build capacity for projects that promote land preservation and regenerative agriculture as methods for strengthening community wellness and resilience.

The organization has protected thousands of acres of land, preserved natural habitats, and secured open space for generations to come. As an advocate for food security and environmental justice, Kara is developing a program that aims to support solutions to food, economic and environmental inequities in Westchester’s urban communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

The restorative power of nature is something I’ve benefited from since I was young and have always wanted to ensure others have the opportunity to experience. During high school, college, and graduate school I was fortunate to study and explore landscapes that fueled this interest of mine — ensuring everyone has access to green spaces. Travel took me to the Pacific Northwest, Boundary Waters, and coastal islands off New England, but my main career goal was always to return home (which is about an hour north of NYC) and devote my professional career to protecting land here.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I have so many interesting stories, that’s why I’m still doing this work. One of the most memorable moments I’ve had in our food pantry garden was when a class of elementary students made the connection that fruits and vegetables can come from flowers — they were in disbelief and I can still picture their wide eyes as they tried to imagine such a thing is possible! We were observing the beautiful colors and sizes of flowers on a row of tomato plants when one student asked what the flowers are for. Since they came back to the garden every few days we were able to show and tell them that the flowers had all turned into tomatoes. They thought this transformation was pure magic.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

We are raising awareness about food problems in our region and working to define how to be part of the solutions. Simply put, there isn’t enough food. It isn’t grown locally. And what is available hasn’t been distributed equitably.

We realize these problems are systemic and will require radical new solutions. That’s why we’re working on a program to experiment with models to address these issues. We are also identifying additional partner groups and individuals to collaborate with to explore the potential for more urban farms in our region.

A tipping point in this work was when we looked at a very popular and impactful program we have been running for about 8 years with a more critical lens. Through our food pantry farm we operate at our headquarters, we’ve donated more than 70,000 lbs of fresh produce to local food pantries. In recent years we’ve realized that while this program is impactful, it is a great short-term program but it isn’t solving the root cause of the problem.

So, as a land conservation organization, we’re digging deeper and thinking about longer-term solutions specifically related to farmland access, land ownership, and land tenure. While I don’t think we’ll ever eliminate the food pantry farm program, we realize we can do more. It is a slow journey and step one was recognizing that we need to collaborate with others to understand the role we can play in assisting urban communities with acquiring land and putting it into production. We are deeply committed to this work as an organization and have no interest in checking boxes; we want real change and if we can help make that happen, we will.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

“I want you to succeed” are powerful words to hear and I’ve been fortunate to hear them throughout my career by people who have eventually become mentors and dear friends. I recall taking on an expanded leadership role at an organization and one Director took me out for lunch the following day. He was clear and straightforward and saw more potential in me than I did in myself. During lunch he handed me a list of all the ways he thought he could support me in my new role. It was specific, thoughtful, and deeply moving. I ended up taking him up on his offer of support a few times, and certainly borrowed from his playbook with my supervisees and colleagues as often as I can.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Empathetic — I feel what they feel for better or worse. I recognize that life is a roller coaster and I’m ready and willing to journey through the lows and celebrate the highs alongside them.

Encouraging — I’ve had great opportunities to shape and advance my career thanks to the encouragement I’ve received from colleagues and supervisors. I want these same opportunities for my team and will often side-step the spotlight so that a teammate can take it. My colleagues know that I will support them behind the scenes whenever I can, and that if I’m ever asked to present or lead or facilitate a workshop/training/lecture that they have interest in, I’ll defer to them. I want to make room for others to grow in their careers like I’ve had the chance to.

Organized — coworkers always remark that I come to meetings with my To-Do list, my office is as neat as a pin, and I have a good sense of the day-to-day tasks and big picture goals. I think my organizational skills help establish a foundational level of trust from my teammates.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be tough, yet gentle. Humble, yet bold. Swayed always by beauty and truth.” — Bob Pieh

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

I once would have defined a food desert as a place where there is inadequate access to healthy food. My definition is evolving each day I work on our urban agriculture and conservation projects. I realize food desserts keep low-income communities of color in poor health and cycles of poverty, and acknowledging that is the least I can do. I think it is important for an individual and community to feel empowered to make their own food sourcing and growing decisions and to have their own food preferences satisfied without question, judgement, or outside control.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? The first that come to mind are health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. There are also mental health implications, like higher rates of depression. And I can’t ignore all the other impacts and results of living in poverty including high rates of unemployment, crime and incarceration, depressed real estate values, and poor educational outcomes, to name a few.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

A long history of discrimination in geographic placement of markets, redlining, and the lack of investment in low-income areas and communities of color.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

We are raising awareness about food insecurity in our region and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. We need to grow more food where people live.

Due to COVID, we had an uptick in requests for the food we grow at our food pantry farm at our headquarters, Sugar Hill Farm. Since all the food we grow at Sugar Hill Farm was already spoken for, we were able to respond to the new requests by facilitating two land matches with private landowners and a food justice group to allow for more private land to be put into production. This was a new spin on an existing farmland match program we manage. Historically, we’d match new and beginning farmers with private non-farming landowners and that food would be sold to local restaurants or at farmers markets for full retail sale. The food justice group we matched on private land was able to use the land free of charge to grow additional crops that were incorporated into their sliding scale CSA programs.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

It’s safe to say that last year was a tough one for us all. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we have been able to accomplish meaningful work that helped our communities, thanks in large part to an outpouring of support from young people. As kids, teens, and young adults turned to the land to cope with the struggles of the global pandemic, academic demands, and social unrest, they also turned to our organization to volunteer their skills, time, and talents.

These young people made a difference while gaining real-world experience — they removed invasive vines threatening a wildflower meadow, grew hundreds of pounds of fresh and delicious produce that was donated to our local food pantry, and improved the sustainability of our trails.

I’m so proud to be able to work alongside these faces of our future who give me hope, challenge our organization to act more boldly, and to be unwavering in our fight for a brighter and more just future for all.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I think every organization and nonprofit group benefits from going through their own process of figuring out how they can have the most impact with this work. My organization is very much in this process and there are no quick or easy answers. We were fortunate to have worked with a consultant to help us begin this process and to also help us see that there is work to be done internally and externally.

It can be very enticing to look at what other organizations are doing and try to replicate their programs and projects. But that simply will not work. Every organization’s culture is unique.

This process and our food justice projects are ongoing and evolving so we need to be sure we have the right people who can shepherd them along over many years through leadership transitions and staff turnover. That is easier said than done.

For now, the things we are focused on are pretty straightforward: we are ensuring there is buy-in from our leadership and that we have realistic goals and know how to measure success. We are taking a look at our leadership and staff to determine if we need to add community bridge builders and liaisons. Finally, one of the most important things we are doing is identifying and inventorying what our organization can uniquely contribute to future food justice collaborations. We fully recognize that we cannot do this work alone.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

I admire (and am inspired by) the work of Farm School NYC, Truelove Seeds, Grow NYC, Rock Steady Farm, Rise & Root Farm — the list goes on and on. They (and many more) are good reminders that there is a role for everyone to play in food justice work and there are many good people working toward change. Our organization has a role to play, too. It may not always be crystal clear what that role is, but the people who make up these inspiring organizations remind me to stay nimble, open-minded, and to not lose sight of “the why” that makes this work a priority.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I see the need for increased funding for the acquisition, restoration, and stewardship of land suitable for urban farms and funding for programs focused on working with community groups to ensure the permanent protection of the land beneath community gardens. And I think It would be great to see more accommodating zoning in our urban areas to allow for more innovative farm enterprises.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think I’d have to begin with inspiring a movement that would ensure everyone has pure and plentiful water and fresh food.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Rebecca T. De Souza is the author of Feeding the Other, Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries and her research and writing compliments a lot of the projects I’ve been focused on. I would love to be able to meet her someday, to ask her questions, and to run a few ideas by her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Instagram: @westchesterlandtrust Facebook: @WestchesterLandTrust

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.