Food Policy and Obesity Prevention

The Food Policy and Obesity Prevention (FPOP) provides advocacy opportunities for the Mailman community around food access, justice, and policy. ODCI sat down with Kylie Repasy, President, and Abigail Gendler, VP of Student Engagement, to discuss what led them to food justice, current FPOP initiatives, and how Mailman students can learn from and contribute to food justice initiatives in our broader community.

Kylie Repasy, 1st-year MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences
Hometown: Hardyston, NJ

Abigail Gendler, 1st-year MPH student in Health Policy and Management
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

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What experiences in your life led you to this work?

Abigail: I actually got started with this topic through the lens of sustainability and environmental justice. I majored in Environmental Studies in college and became interested in the impact of food, on the natural environment and human health. That led me toward nutrition as well as food access and food justice issues.

Kylie: I became interested in food as a topic on a very personal level in high school as a way to address my own health issues. I went on as an undergrad to study biology with a focus on nutrition and food. After graduation, I switched gears into education and was a teacher/program manager for the past four years in Jacksonville, Florida.

I served all the school-based meals and became more passionate about the policies that trickle down into the services that I was providing as well as how nutrition impacted the performance of my students. I became pretty active with the Duval County Food Policy Council as a volunteer and worked alongside the Healthy Jacksonville Obesity Prevention Coalition, which focused on childhood obesity. I got to see the community organization aspect of food justice and realized that I could find a career in public health that connects education to those issues that I’ve been passionate about for so long personally.

Abigail: All five board members come from very different backgrounds, but we jumped onto the food justice mission that the previous FPOP board honed in on.

Kylie: I think our paths reflect a lot of our board members’ path to FPOP: a very passionate and personal interest in food.  

What led you all to focus the group on food justice specifically?

Abigail: Food justice is very intersectional.  Issues surrounding food are also issues of socioeconomic status and social determinants of health.

Kylie: Every aspect of food —from its production to its consumption— deals with issues of social justice.  Like Abigail alluded to, addressing food access and availability is inherently a social justice issue.  So long as SES and location determine a person’s foodscape, issues of food are issues of social justice.   

I know you just ran a SNAP Challenge. can you tell us about that initiative?

Kylie: This is our second annual challenge. Students pledged to adhere to a SNAP budget of $22 for 5 days.  In taking the pledge, students were encouraged to participate in an online forum to reflect on their experiences and any issues or challenges that arise.  We posed daily questions that students could engage with and capped the week off with a presentation from the Tisch Center for Food Education and Policy.  Julia McCarthy and Claire Uno from Tisch shed a light on SNAP legislation and food policy, in general.

Abigail: We had about 65 students pledge to participate.  Faculty members participated in the challenge along with Dean Delva, who enthusiastically participated in our policy talk as well.

What were some of your goals for participants?

Kylie: It was really a way to bring awareness to food policy and what’s at stake with this new administration. Food policy is complicated— it’s scattered throughout so many different pieces of legislation, and it’s messy – especially when it comes to food assistance programs.

We wanted the student body to better understand that these are important programs that are crucial to so many families and individuals in our city and beyond. So empathy was another goal—being able to understand the lived experiences of others.

Abigail: And for participants to understand the geographic component of food access. There are many areas in New York City where people don't have access to fresh food or it’s very expensive.  

We provided some low-cost recipes so that students could get excited about learning how to cook different things on a budget.

How is your group involved with food justice in our local Washington Heights community?

Abigail: We attend meetings of the Washington Heights/Inwood Food Council, which is about a year old. We offer support at their meetings—participate, offer insight and expertise.

Kylie: We invite the community members to our meeting.  Some of them came to a Q&A our group held with Mark Bittman. It’s a nice link between us and the community.

I think it’s been really great for us to go to meetings we’re not leading. We’re there lending our perspective but we’re not assuming things. I’ve learned about so much going on at a grassroots level, more than if I were just observing food policy on my own or through the lens of academia.

I think that translates into any arena. If you’re interested in…anything, attending something off-campus run by community members is the only way to figure out where you can best assist.

Abigail: I think as Mailman students, we can get stuck in a bubble on campus. It’s really nice to engage with the community and be involved in the conversation about something that will really benefit them, as opposed to discussing it in a classroom.

What issues is the Council focusing on most right now?

Abigail: At the last meeting, we discussed taking a position on a proposed Food Vendor Modernization Act, which would offer more permits for street carts and fruit and vegetable vendors. We’re helping to write a policy paper. I’m really excited to be involved with community policy work and offer expertise developed in my coursework, while learning from community members.

Kylie: They really want to illuminate what is already being done to achieve food justice, as opposed to just assuming nothing has been done. They want to acknowledge that food vendors are there and provide a valuable service—like access to fresh fruits and vegetables, for example.

Next Steps

Engage with food justice in our community

Attend Washington Heights/Inwood Food Council meetings 
Attend FPOP volunteer events

Learn more about food justice 

Attend this year's Food Justice Lecture Series


Follow the NYC Food Policy Watch newsletter

Read Eating Animals (Abigail: “It changed my life and it’s one of the reasons I got into this work!”)

Explore academic resources

Take Mark Bittman’s upcoming course on the food justice movement
Follow events at CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute