Nourishing NYC: An Interview with Gina Keatley, Founder of an East Harlem Food Center

Gina Keatley, (BS ’08) a graduate of Steinhardt’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, is the founder of the Nourishing NYC, a not-for-profit food center located in East Harlem. Nourishing NYC provides free and healthy hot meals, nutrition classes, and chef training to members of the community. As a child, Keatley, the youngest of four children of a “very transient, low-income family,” experienced what she describes as “the “vast variety of cuisine that America had to offer…the peasant meal.” Keatley’s career merges an education at NYU Steinhardt and a restaurant management degree with lessons she learned early in life as a recipient of meals from soup kitchens and pantries. StayClassy, a leader in social fundraising for nonprofit organizations, recently named Nourishing NYC charitiy of the year and Keatley as its New York City volunteer of the year.

What is a typical workday like for you at Nourishing NYC?

Each day is different at Nourishing NYC. We have a variety of programs that we run on a seasonal basis. In the spring and fall, you will find me working with a team of volunteers planting and or harvesting one of our community gardens for The Urban Produce Program. This program is offering New York City’s urban residents free fresh produce in an effort to improve the overall health of low-income individuals. The program disburses over 5,000 lbs of fresh produce on an annual basis to the New York City in need community. The low-income clientele should be consuming at least nine servings (at least 4 cups) of vegetables and fruits a day. With the raising costs of fresh foods the Urban Produce Program offers a chance for the most in need clients to bridge the gap in their malnourished diets by including fresh produce into their diets. In the summer I can be found coordinating our Summer Junior Chef Program.

You recently got a a $25.000 Post Grant for Good Health to fund your junior chef program. Can you talk a little about the program?

Junior Chefs is a culinary arts and nutritional education program for children ages 6-12. Students spend five weeks learning the ins and outs of the hospitality industry, from prep to plate while learning to be advocates in their own lives. The Junior Chefs program was created to connect underserved and undernourished youth to the culinary arts while educating students and their families on issues of nutrition and wellness. These hands-on classes gave 12 underprivileged children the opportunity to gain skills in the kitchen by learning to make healthy, easy to prepare meals. In addition to the direct training, the students received materials to prepare the meals at home with their families, plus a local gym membership to engage in physical activity. Students learned how to protect themselves and their families from the threat of diabetes and obesity raging in their neighborhoods, while acquiring a comprehensive introduction to the hospitality industry.

What are some of your fall and winter programs?

During Thanksgiving week, Nourishing NYC will be distributing turkeys to families in need, feeding more than 5,000 hunger New Yorkers though our Holiday Turkey Program. Distribution locations will be in every borough in low-income areas, and we will be collaborating with shelters, senior centers, and schools to connect those in need with free turkeys. Nourishing NYC’s volunteers will also be implementing the Warm Winter Outreach Program, distributing healthy hot soups and basic cold weather necessities such as gloves, socks, and hats to the homeless who are living on the streets.

What was memorable about your experience in Steinhardt’s food studies program ?

NYU is very unique in the fact that there are a variety of professions that are often working directly in the field they are teaching. I had the opportunity to work with everyone from food writers to food scientists. This allowed me to view the food world as a whole and expand my horizons. With NYU being located in the middle of New York City I was allowed the opportunity of being just steps away from every kind of food and culinary experience you could imagine.