By Trinity Benton, Food Studies Graduate Student at Syracuse University/ Full-Time Kitchen Technician within the University
In this recent addition to our series On the Road to Syracuse for the Second Annual Summit on the Right to Food, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jessi Lyons, who works with the reputable Brady Faith Center Organization in Syracuse, New York. Jessi represents the Brady Farm and Market on the local planning committee for the National Right to Food 2024 Summit which will take place in Syracuse, June 4 – 5, 2024.
Jessi is a Pacific Northwest native who came to Syracuse to study Landscape Architecture with a focus on Urban Food Production at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF). As a part of her studies, she worked on the design project of the South Side Community Garden and the West Newell Street Community Garden. Through these projects, she got acquainted with the Syracuse South Side Gardeners, which aided her in the decision to move into the neighborhood and take a permanent job opportunity in Syracuse.
In 2015, she began working as a lead advisor with Brady Faith Center providing support to south siders about urban farming in Syracuse. She now serves as the Farm Coordinator and the Associate Executive Director at Brady Faith Center, while providing administrative oversight of Brady Market. Brady Market is a grocery store located on the west side of Syracuse that operates within the not-for-profit, Brady Social Enterprises, Inc. The market was inspired by the 70+ year history of Brady Faith Center’s witness to and engagement with generations of individuals and families in some of the most disinvested and impoverished neighborhoods in the nation.
Because Syracuse has a history of ranking within the top 10 mid-size cities with the highest poverty rates in the U.S., we asked Jessi, who works within the Syracuse food system, a few questions to get a scope on the innerworkings. Jessi started her response to my questions by recognizing that her point of view may be a little different because she did not grow up in Syracuse and she is a racial minority on the south side.
Interviewer: How would you describe the food system in your community?
Jessi Lyons: Karen Washington coined the phrase “Food Apartheid” and that definitely applies in our community .
Food apartheid is a concept that highlights the structures that limit access to affordable, nutrient-dense foods in low-income communities, which are mostly communities of color, while simultaneously pushing nutrient-deficient ultra-processed food into the same neighborhoods. This does not happen by accident; it is part and parcel of policies and practices that redline certain communities from the kinds of investments that would create abundant and affordable access to healthy food. Syracuse’s south side is an example of this.
Jessi goes on to explain that the issue in Syracuse is not so much the lack of food, but the lack of good quality and affordable food in the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of poverty. She highlights the targeted lack of investment in low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods -- the south and the west side of Syracuse -- especially when it comes to grocery stores and full-scale grocery items. For example, there is only one grocery store on the edge of the south side of Syracuse, which is supposed to service the entire community of approximately 4,000 people. The next closest grocery store is 4 miles away. And the food that is on offer in the stores within these neighborhoods tends to be low quality foods that are priced high due to the convenience and lack of competition. Transportation is an issue in these neighborhoods as well. In 2017, the American Community Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, revealed that one third of the households on the south side did not have access to transportation.
Jessi Lyons: What you will see is kids walking to the corner stores and buying their meals for the day -- chips and red juices.
Jessi goes on to commend the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) for providing an emergency food system for children. SCSD cafeterias offer children a place to come for free breakfast and lunch every day -- even when school is not in session over the summer.
Interviewer: What kind of change would you like to see within your community’s food system? Are there any good things that you’d like to keep the same?
Jessi Lyons: Fundamentally, we need to have easier access to food that is nutritious and affordable. Accessibility needs to be about not just physical proximity, but it needs to be about true access based on mobility and transportation. A half mile is a long way when you are in a wheelchair.
Jessi would also like to see a reclamation of a cultural connection to food.
Jessi Lyons: I would put out a farm stand [in the south side community] and no one would show up!
She doesn’t believe that it’s because people don’t want the food. It’s just that people are used to the way they eat now – even if it’s unhealthy and highly processed – because that’s what’s readily available and affordable. Some people, of course, Jessi comments, want to change and eat healthier, but there is a loss of cultural connection to whole foods that grows deeper with each generation.
Jessi Lyons: We need to have systems that help people reclaim their physical health through food. They tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps… well that’s cool if you have boots.
She mentions how cultural food traditions traveled with people when they moved to Syracuse. People have their own childhood stories attached to the food that is grown on the Brady farm, Jessi says. Her favorite memories are the stories that south side farmers have shared with her about the valuable, rich connection around food that she doesn’t want people to continue to lose. She admits that it’s hard to not lose this connection when Syracuse has a lack of access to food and to land to grow food. Jessi sees value in keeping community gardens because they are a place where people can come together and reconnect.
Interviewer: What actions do you think need to be taken to create the changes you want to see, while maintaining the positive things about your community’s food ways?
Jessi: There has to be political will. I think what has happened is this throw-your-hands-up mentality when it comes to this city and county. They are saying they need the right business models, but no one is willing to push it, or come up with the policy, or come up with incentives to where we can at least see the potential. It takes commitment from the city to say that food access is a fundamental right and as a city government we are going to prioritize that, and we are going to find a way to do something different instead of just allowing the economic dynamics of capitalism dictate whether our community gets access to food. This would be best achieved by working with the community members. There does need to be protection of community gardens and support for gardeners. We are the only big city I know that does not have public community gardens. There is pushback from gatekeepers in the city claiming that public community gardens are a burden and take too much maintenance… but they don’t value the positive community building that comes from it.
The Capital District Community Garden in Troy, New York offers a good example of how to address food system issues similar to the ones we see in Syracuse. The CDCG organization created a multi-pronged approach to address food issues, and it starts with access to community gardens. They are supporting 30+ community gardens across three regions, mostly in partnership with either the city or county. They regularly collect the excess produce from the gardens and distribute them to local food pantries. They also opened a food hub to process and aggregate other products that could be used for their mobile market, including products coming from local farms in addition to community gardens. This also allows them to sell food where it is not currently available.
Jessi Lyons: We need to prioritize the gaps [in good food access].
Another solution could be to implement a system city-wide used at Brady Market called Double Up Food Bucks when it comes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits (formally known as food stamps). For every dollar you spend on SNAP, you get an additional dollar to spend on produce. This idea could expand into other local markets or any store that accepts SNAP benefits. It takes grant money to support these kinds of projects. But imagine if the city of Syracuse supported this kind of program to guarantee that all residents have the right to adequate food and nutrition!