Awesome Project: WHIN Food Council

New York City resident Danielle Bagley absolutely loves living in the neighborhood of Washington Heights and Inwood (WHIN) in Uptown Manhattan. “I like to describe it as ‘lively,’” she says, and that’s why she feels connected to it. “You always have folks out on the sidewalk, chatting or listening to music; in the summertime, people are out playing games. It’s quite beautiful. There are lots of great community art projects. There’s an Audubon bird mural project. You can walk around and see murals [of different birds] that people have created.”

Danielle is the Co-Fundraising Coordinator for the WHIN Food Council, a volunteer-run group whose members live, work, and play in the Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods. “A really important part of the Council is that the people who are part of it live here, which means they know the needs of the community. And not just the needs,” Danielle says, “but the community itself.” 

As the members of the council know, one major problem the neighborhood faces is its lack of accessibility to fresh and healthy food; in fact, the neighborhood ranks among the least healthy food environments in the city. According to data from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s 2018 Community Health Profile, there are about 13 bodegas in the neighborhood for every supermarket. “Bodegas are generally less likely to have as many healthy options compared to supermarkets,” the report states. “It’s easier to make healthy choices when healthy, affordable food is readily available.” Other data from the report show that residents of the WHIN community bear disproportionate negative health outcomes compared to other neighborhoods in NYC. 

In 2016, local resident Catarina Rivera wanted to do something about the food inequities that existed in her community. With support from City Harvest, she and her neighbors started hosting informal meetings to discuss food issues and brainstorm how they might help WHIN residents live healthier lives. Those discussion sessions grew and grew, and eventually they developed a mission, vision, and operating procedures for their new organization, the WHIN Food Council.

Helping folks identify their food justice issues and empowering them with tools to determine their own solutions has been at the heart of the Council since its inception. “Our main goal is to work in sustainable food systems and food justice in general,” Danielle says. “So we do a lot of work around gardening, healthy eating, and trying to advocate for green spaces in New York. We want people to have spaces where they can go and engage safely out in nature and learn some tips and tricks on how to grow their own herbs or come to the garden and see what we’ve got planted.”

Gardening, community outreach, community building, and education: these are the four pillars of the Council’s work. They’re on a mission to inspire people to eat healthier today, but they’re also investing in teaching folks about growing food to bring awareness to food justice and accessibility. They manage two garden plots in the neighborhood and host family garden days, where people can stop by and harvest some produce. They continue to host at least one free community event or public meeting each month. They spread education through their social media channels and feature tips and tricks on their Instagram about how to prevent food spoilage, how to reuse food scraps, and more!

In order to keep the program up and running, the Council needs funding to maintain the garden and to continue providing outreach and education. And as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, their work has taken on a new urgency as they help address immediate needs in their community. “We have been sharing resources on our social media channels to address current needs and challenges, such as local opportunities to secure food, local food businesses to support, and calls for volunteering,” their leaders say.

When Danielle and her Co-Fundraising Coordinator, Caroline, came on board with the Council in August 2020, the organization was gearing up to use ioby for their first-ever crowdfunding campaign. “We got to push [the campaign] forward,” she says. “It was so exciting.”

“We had a soft launch first,” Danielle remembers. “We reached out to family and friends and our supporters [and said], ‘Hey, we’re doing a crowdfunding campaign, check it out! If you feel inclined, please donate or send it to people who might be interested in donating.” Once they hit a certain number, then they officially launched their campaign and spread the word to their community through their social media channels, newsletter, and email list. 

Danielle acknowledges that along the way they faced some challenges, particularly for the moment. “It was hard with COVID, because you don’t know people’s financial situation. But even the littlest bit helps. So we had [a suggested donation amount] of $4 in honor of our four year anniversary,” she says. Another way they generated interest in their campaign was by partnering with local businesses, artists, and growers to host a raffle. The money from the raffle, plus individual donations, helped them raise most of their funds. But with about 24 hours remaining in their campaign, they found themselves just shy of their fundraising goal. 

WHIN Food Council hosts regular education programs to teach all neighbors about growing food.

“Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan,” she says. She knows it’s important to be adaptable and ask for advice or help when you need it. “ioby has a lot of resources on how to get started, how to launch, how to promote, and things like that. So the resources are there. [You just have to use] what you can and pivot if you need to.”

For Danielle, that meant emailing their donors for one last push in the final hours of their campaign. “[We told them], Thank you so much. We really appreciate it. We’re almost there. If you could share this with people that may be interested, or if you’ve been interested and haven’t donated yet, this is the last 12 hours. And that’s honestly how we [did it]” Danielle says, “because within the hour of that email, [we reached our goal]. And then we just kept getting a little bit more, and then when [the campaign] finally closed, we had surpassed our goal. We thought that was so fantastic.” Their hard work paid off: they raised over $5,900, which meant they had surpassed their initial target!

And the momentum is still going strong: Danielle is looking forward to a bright future for the WHIN Food Council. She and Caroline are brainstorming ways to make fundraising more sustainable so they can continue to grow. In addition to crowdfunding, they’re exploring grants and other ways to generate funds for their garden. “We have so many ideas for what we want to do,” she says. “It’s exciting because it shows how many cool things we have going in our thoughts and the potential [we have]. I’m so excited to see what 2021 has in store for us.” 

For the folks at the WHIN Food Council, it’s all about eating healthy today and investing in a more sustainable food future for us all–from the ground up.

Check out ioby’s 2020 Giving Report for more awesome stories of positive change.