Our Heroes: Doug DeCandia of the Food Bank for Westchester

When the news is full of stories about Listeriaoutbreaks, natural disasters and Agribiz-funded ad campaigns masquerading as benevolent nonprofits, it's easy to feel disheartened.  Fortunately for sustainable food advocates everywhere, we can always turn to people like Doug DeCandia to restore our optimism.

Doug works as the Food Growing Project Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, an organization that fights hunger by acquiring and storing food that it distributes to more than 200 hunger-relief programs throughout New York's Westchester County.  In this role, Doug manages FBW's nascent Food Growing Program, which was created to supply fresh produce for the Food Bank.

The job involves farming, of course - Doug cultivates 2.5 acres of land located at five different sites spread across the county - but it also entails serving as a teacher and mentor because in addition to producing vegetables, the initiative is designed as a vocational program to train at-risk youths to grow food.  Doug works the land alongside children who face a range of emotional and behavioral challenges, some of whom are currently incarcerated in the county's juvenile correctional facility.  Together, they grow fresh, healthful food for those who need it the most.

The Food Bank for Westchester provide[s] hope in the form of fresh, good-for-you food to those people who don't get it.  It's [done in] solidarity; it's not a charity. We're not giving anything away to make ourselves feel good. It's all in the hope of empowering people, and empowering spirit.

The effort isn't easy; Doug's work requires patience, dedication, kindness and love.  It involves sweat and blisters, sore muscles and long days toiling under sweltering summer sun.  But most significantly, Doug's work reflects his indefatigable sense of hope.

At the end of the summer, Doug was kind enough to give Ecocentric a tour of three FBW gardens (see photos in the slideshow above).  While onsite, we discussed the Food Bank, the Food Growing Program, food justice and the forces that allow hunger to exist within a society of great affluence.  Listen to the 27-minute interview by clicking on the audio player above, where you can also download as a podcast. You can also find excerpts from the interview below.

Want to get involved? You can support the Food Growing Program by volunteering with Doug at the gardens, contributing fresh produce to the Food Bank, or by making a donation. Learn more on the Food Bank for Westchester's website.

Doug, can you tell me a little bit about the program?

The Food Bank for Westchester Food Growing Project was an initiative by the Food Bank to grow fresh produce for Westchester's residents that are experiencing hunger. It's a joint production and vocational program at five sites throughout Westchester County. Three of the sites are at schools, one is here, at Leake & Watts, in Yonkers; another is at Woodfield Cottage Juvenile Correctional Facility in Valhalla. And then there's Eldenwald School in Pleasantville, as well as the Westchester Penitentiary in Valhalla and the Westchester Land Trust up in Bedford Hills. So there are five sites that we are growing vegetables on, alongside volunteers, alongside inmates and alongside students, at each of the sites.

Everything that we grow is donated to the food bank. And the kids at each of the schools help in the management and the actual operation of growing the produce, and inmates as well. It's a vocational program in addition to being a production program. Our focus is to produce as much locally organically grown food as we can.

We grow about 20 different varieties of crops spread throughout each of the sites. So each site is growing approximately five or six different things, and specializing in those five things and then each year we rotate. So in a five-year rotation, each site will have one of those 20 crops. This divides up what's grown where, and how it's grown and also the facility and the people at each of the facilities get to see something different every year.

Aside from the nutritional and environmental benefits, what are the advantages of growing fresh produce for the Food Bank?

Personally, from my own experience, being able to taste and eat food that we take that day from the ground that we walk on is a very empowering thing. As far as taste and quality and smell, it is far superior to anything that you'll find in a grocery store. And I think a lot of people haven't experienced that or don't experience it, and so if we can provide even just a little bit, a taste of something to someone that may have never had something like that before, it has the potential of providing, of giving hope, in a way that there is something else other than what they are given, or what they've had. It's not all just canned food; there is goodness and if we can provide something, even just a little bit, just a little taste to someone who has never had it before, our hope is that it gives them a little hope and empowerment in a way that there is someone that is thinking about them and they are not forgotten.

What do you see as other ways to address the problem of hunger?

Well, I think addressing the problem is getting to the root of the problem. The root of hunger is not that food isn't there; I mean, there's plenty of food. It's just today the majority of it's going to cows or fuel. And so it's accessibility. It's affordability. It's using that food as food, and using the land that we have to grow food and not to grow fuel.

But even that's a symptom; the root of the problem is respect for ourselves and for our planet. If we don't have respect for our bodies, for our own selves, as far as what we eat, what we consume, what we do with our lives, there is very little incentive for us to care about our neighbors or care about the earth. What the Food Bank for Westchester, this little organization in this one county in this one state - what we can do is to provide hope in the form of fresh, good-for-you food to those people who don't get it. And I mean, it's a solidarity thing, it's not a charity. We're not giving anything away to make ourselves feel good. It's all in the hope of empowering people, and empowering spirit.

Do you think this program can be replicated elsewhere?

Yes. I do. I think a nonprofit is a good medium to do something like this. It can also be done on the private scale.  The Westchester Land Trust has a farmers' network that is matching farmers with landowners throughout the county, landowners who have land available and would like to see it farmed. And then there are farmers who don't have land who need land. So that's a program that is helping people find land.

I think as far as pantries and shelters and places like that, I've had so many calls and so many conversations with food pantries this year that want to start their own gardens and work with their members to grow their own food at their own places. So I think that model - the food pantry scale - can be done.

And then on the larger scale like the food bank and other nonprofits, I think this model can be transferred to other organizations and give opportunities like this to lots of people. Because there's funding. This takes money to do, but a lot of nonprofits are privately funded, and sometimes it just takes one person to donate a few thousand dollars and with that you can pay to start a farm. I think it can definitely be replicated and done in lots of other places, for sure.