Interviews & Profiles

Helping New Yorkers in need of food

An interview with Jilly Stephens, CEO of City Harvest.

Jilly Stephens is CEO of City Harvest.

Jilly Stephens is CEO of City Harvest. (Image courtesy of City Harvest)

According to City Harvest, New York City’s first and largest food rescue nonprofit, the group will deliver 77 million pounds of rescued food this year – most of it fruit and vegetables – to more than 400 recipient endpoints such as food pantries, soup kitchens and its own free-farmers-market-like Mobile Markets, all via a fleet of 24 trucks coming and going from its new Sunset Park, Brooklyn, headquarters. The group does its work at a time when, according to stats on its website, half of working-age households in the city are struggling to make ends meet, 1.2 million New Yorkers are struggling to feed themselves and their families, one in five NYC children are experiencing food insecurity—and visits to food pantries and soup kitchen are up 60% since before the coronavirus pandemic.

As Thanksgiving approaches, New York Nonprofit Media spoke with Jilly Stephens, a Brit who’s helmed City Harvest since 2006, about what a typical day is like leading a staff of more than 170 and a FY2024 operating budget of $60.7 million; what the organization’s work actually looks like on the ground and what she cooks at home after a long week getting food into the kitchens of struggling New Yorkers.

Can you start by describing a typical workday?

No day is alike. I usually get up around 6 a.m. and try to ride my stationary bike. I live in Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens, I'm not sure which – I think I'm right on the border. Then I walk the family dog, Molly, a terrier-mix rescue. I'm the single mother of three children who all live with me, two in high school and one in college, and we all take care of Molly, but I do the early-morning walk with her. Then I'll make coffee and lunch to bring into work – I don't have to have coffee first thing in the morning to fire myself up. Today for lunch I brought in a salad of shallots, chickpeas, parsley, roasted butternut squash and a poached egg. 

Then around seven or seven-thirty, I drive to work so I can be there in 10 minutes. The subway would take me 45 minutes. As soon as I get to our Sunset Park headquarters, I try to walk around and check in with people. Then the rest of my day is usually full of meetings. I color-code my calendar so that in any week, I can see how I'm spending my time, divided among things like board-related meetings, donor meetings, our DEI work, media and marketing – this interview is on my calendar as hot pink – anything to do with partner organizations, internal meetings and visits to our programs out in the field. 

Today I'm catching up with people because I've been in London for two weeks, which was mostly a personal trip, but I also went and visited their food-rescue program, which was started in 2016 after they got in touch with me and spent a few days with us here in New York. Whereas we have one depot, they have five, and they're cooking in one of them.

Speaking of that, because you distribute so much fruit and vegetables, do you show City Harvest recipients how to prepare or cook them?

Yes. At every one of our nine Mobile Markets in all five boroughs, we have a chef-nutritionist and great volunteers who will cook the foods we're distributing that day and have recipes printed in multiple languages. We give out samples so people can taste what they're picking up. Many years ago, at our Mobile Market in Harlem, I was chatting with a gentleman about some deep leafy green we were distributing – maybe it was kale – and he said that his son had been there three times already to taste the dish. I think having people taste the dish and think about cooking it themselves takes the mystery out of some of these vegetables. I just walked through our repacking room this morning and it's full of the most beautiful eggplants.

How much are you at headquarters versus out in the field?

I'm probably at headquarters 70 to 80% of the time. It depends on the day. We're going into the holiday season, which gets very busy. I haven't had a moment yet to go down and see what food we have in our warehouse today, so I'll do that after this call.

What are your evenings like?

If I have virtual meetings after 5pm, I'll try to dash home and do the meeting from there. Otherwise, when I get home I'll check in and see where my kids are, then usually prepare something to eat, then wrap up my workday by popping on my iPad for what I didn't get to that day, or need to read for the next day. I usually go to bed around nine or nine-thirty after doing some New York Times puzzles, then fall asleep listening to a very long-running British radio soap called The Archers.

What brought you to City Harvest?

I became CEO in 2006 but joined the organization two years before to create new programs like the Mobile Markets. Prior to City Harvest, I was working for a large international charity called Orbis that hops among countries on a plane with an operating room in it to treat conditions that cause blindness like glaucoma and cataracts. They brought me eventually into the headquarters in New York.

What kind of degrees led into your career?

I didn't go to university. All my experience I've accrued on the job. I've never said that out loud to anyone.

Well, it shows my own bias in asking you and it speaks to a growing consensus that a postsecondary degree as a job requirement often creates a false barrier that perpetuates racial and class inequality.

At City Harvest, we've taken away the college degree requirement from every single job we can, except for obvious ones like accountants.

Tell us about the skills you picked up along the way that prepared you for your current role.

I acquired skills from an insatiable desire to learn. You can learn a lot from other people on the job, always asking questions. People really want to tell you what they know.

What's one major thing you've learned?

Not to be too fazed and panicked by things. Obviously some things you need to panic about, but you should take the time to understand what's going on and hear different perspectives. Not everything has to be super-structured. I have a new director here. We went for a walk and left it nice and loose. I wanted to hear what they're seeing and thinking and how I can support them. It's their second day today and they're already drinking from a firehose, so they don't need me telling them what to do. 

What continues to be the most challenging aspect of your job for you personally? 

It's probably a version of time management. I try to get down to the warehouse every day to see the food, to stay close to who we are and why we exist. I'd love to do a better job of that. Like today, it would've taken me five minutes to walk through the warehouse. 

The City Harvest website has a lot of stats about the volume of food needed in this city and also the volume of the organization’s food delivery. What stats are personally the most meaningful to you?

Oh, it's the need. The huge volume of food we're putting out is only because of the number of New Yorkers who need it. Even before the pandemic, 2.4 million New Yorkers were struggling to make ends meet. Now it's up to 3 million. And these are folks who are doing everything right – they've got homes and jobs and their kids are in school, but this is just a very expensive city to live in. And food prices have been up the past few years. I think the USDA just said that they'll go up another 5% this year. So all this plus the really great government programs started in the pandemic that have since gone away combine to send far too many of our neighbors to get help at our food pantries or Mobile Markets to stretch their dollar, because they can't get around pay rent and utilities.

Your website says that $47 in donations rescues and delivers 110 pounds of food – how do you come up with that stat?

We take all our expenses that have to do with getting food in and out – excluding things like fundraising expenses, for example – and then divide it by the number of pounds of food we bring in. That's how we derive those numbers.

You also include the stat that one in five children don't know where their next meal will come from.

We get that from Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap, which is pulling it from USDA.

Meaning kids coming home from school not knowing where their dinner is coming from?

Yes – not having an assured source of culturally appropriate, healthy, nutritious food.

What do you mean by "culturally appropriate"?

For example, we could take rutabagas to a certain part of the city, but it's not going to be familiar to them or what they want. We're actually picking up a lot of food currently distributed to but not eaten by migrants, because it's probably not culturally appropriate for them. You need to give what people will eat.

Speaking of the migrant surge in the city, has that changed you structurally or does it basically just mean more people waiting for food at your endpoints like the food pantries?

The latter. We're working to see to what degree we can find a way to increase the amount of food we're taking out because the pantries are really feeling the pinch as they try to serve everyone who shows up.

There is a lot on your website about COVID-19's impact on city hunger and your work. It says in fact that a whopping one in three New Yorkers visited a food pantry in 2020. What aspect of the pandemic is most vivid to you?

Its impact on us happened overnight. It didn't take many days before a lot of New Yorkers were out of work and really struggling. We saw very long lines at pantries for a very long time and we significantly increased the amount of food we were putting out. We triggered our disaster feeding plan, in which we start buying food on top of collecting it, on March 9 of 2020. Usually that plan is active only for a few weeks but this time it lasted more than two years. And we were only able to do it because of the significant increase in donations sparked by the pandemic. Our team did herculean work – at a time when we were moving into a transitional warehouse  between the old space and the new one. They made sure our trucks rolled every single day.

Pandemic-era emergency programs like a child tax credit, which dramatically reduced child poverty, and enhanced SNAP [food stamp] benefits, have since expired. What has that been like?

When the child tax credit, which was a beautiful program the federal government put in place that lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty, expired last January, it plopped everyone right back to where they were. Then the enhanced SNAP benefits went away, with higher food costs on top of that. Now we're seeing a million more visits each month to food pantries than we were seeing pre-pandemic.

Which leads into the advocacy and policy work you do.

Let's put the child tax credits back. Also, SNAP is funded through the Farm Bill, so we're advocating for a very strong version that should be coming through early next year. Below the federal level, we've had some big wins on the city level, like universal school breakfast and lunch programs, which have done a lot to remove stigma because now all kids are entitled to it. Also on the city level, it's really important to make sure that HRA [the agency that connects New Yorkers to benefits] staffing levels rise to move those SNAP applications along in a timely manner. We're seeing really significant delays for so many New Yorkers. I know a lot of people are working very hard to address that. And let's make sure that HRA is protected from budget cuts.

Much of this is on your website, but just tell me briefly what the moving parts of City Harvest's work look like day to day.

This year we'll rescue and deliver 77 million pounds of food – with 28 million of them having been rescued by one of our 23 trucks and drivers going to businesses throughout the five boroughs, such as Trader Joe's or the Hunts Point Market, and then dropping them off to recipient sites on their route – meaning that it doesn't come back to our facility. The other 50 million pounds come to us on tractor-trailer loads, almost 75% of it fruits and vegetables, with some things like chicken. It's stored for two or three days and then it goes out. We don't hang onto food very long. 

Last year, City Harvest moved into a new site in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. What was hardest about that move and what's been best about it?

The hardest part was raising the money to retrofit a beautiful old 1890s building just as the pandemic was starting. There were supply chain issues and steel was very hard to find. What's been best about it is that we're now all under one roof as a staff, which hasn't ever happened. I love how bright the space is. We can see every day what food is coming in and going out.

The Department of Sanitation is listed on your website as one of your food donors. Can you explain that?

During the peak of the COVID pandemic, the Department of Sanitation operated the GetFoodNYC program, which delivered food to New Yorkers who could not go out to get food, didn't have anyone who could get food for them, and could not afford to order in. DSNY generously donated excess food from that program to us. Between June and October 2020, we received more than 3 million pounds of meals through the program.

Thanksgiving approaches. What will that be like for City Harvest?

We'll buy about 12,000 turkeys and repack some shelf staples like cranberry sauce and candied yams around a Thanksgiving meal alongside the fresh stuff. We don't do desserts unless it's ad hoc. This year I've got 600 pies but that's usually rare because people buy pies right up to the last minute [hence they don't go to rescue].

Do you chill out on weekends? How?

Friends will come to my house and I'll cook for them. I have a nice big kitchen table. One favorite dish I make is with Korean rice cakes, gochujang, scallions, ginger, black beans, creme fraiche and lots of bok choy. You can put in shrimp or pork if you want. 

Any British food you love?

Last year for Thanksgiving, instead of cooking a turkey I did a pork loin with crackling, which is part of a very traditional Sunday roast.

Tim Murphy is a New York City based journalist and regular contributor to New York Nonprofit Media.

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