Jilly Stephens, Executive Director of City Harvest, thinks about food 24/7. She thinks about fruits, vegetables, green markets, restaurants, and nutrition. She thinks about the 1.5 million New Yorkers who live in poverty and rely on organizations like hers for food deliveries. And she constantly dreams about reaching a seemingly impossible goal—to end hunger in New York.
Stephens presides over a truly amazing organization that has been bringing food to New York’s needy for more than 25 years. In the current economic climate, City Harvest is more important than ever. “We are extremely concerned about what is happening and what will happen for people who are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table,” Stephens says. “Already we are seeing an unprecedented number of New Yorkers turning to the city for food.”
While exact percentage increases citywide are hard to come by, Stephens says the reports she receives confirm that the need is greater than ever. “In our own mobile market in the South Bronx, we are seeing more than a 20 percent increase,” she says. “We are hearing similar reports from other food pantries.”
Stephens, however, refuses to be discouraged. “We can’t let up in our quest to find more food,” she says. If the need is great, “then the job we have is to find donors who can give more or new donors.” And she has great faith in New Yorkers. “What we are seeing all around is that New Yorkers continue to step up to help New Yorkers,” she says, calling the number of people giving through City Harvest’s direct mail campaign “astonishing.”
She also lauds the many restaurant owners who provide food, financial support, and inspiration for City Harvest. Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin, is donating $1 to City Harvest for every diner who visits his restaurant in 2009, and $1 for every person who buys his new cookbook, On the Line. So even while some restaurants are hurting, they are looking for ways to give back. Stephens estimates Ripert’s pledge will result in a $100,000 donation to City Harvest. “That’s incredible,” she says.
In 2009, City Harvest will rescue 23 million pounds of excess food from restaurants and other food establishments across the city, using more than 80 staff members, 1,800 volunteers, a fleet of 17 trucks, and three bikes. Food is delivered around the clock seven days a week to soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, AIDS care providers, senior centers, and children’s day care centers.
Stephens has played a major role in focusing the organization on providing fresh produce, nutrient dense foods, and nutrition education to low income New Yorkers. “People are hungry today and have to be fed today,” she says, “but we have to look at longer term solutions that are at the root of the problem.”
Greenmarkets for many years have been a source of fresh produce for City Harvest. Stephens says that volunteers go around to the greenmarket stands at the end of the day to collect contributions. This activity is one way volunteers, including families, can get involved in the group’s efforts.
With food from the greenmarkets into the pipeline, City Harvest’s programs teach people how to incorporate fresh fruit and vegetables into their diet, as well as how to cook and store them. The organization has a “very robust” nutrition education program that has grown over the last few years. An initiative called “fruit bowl” teaches preschoolers about nutrition. “We teach them a simple recipe, like a fruit and yogurt parfait, that they can make at home,” Stephens says. She was delighted to hear a story from one teacher about a student who asked his mother to buy a pineapple because he had tasted one in City Harvest’s program.
Stephens grew up and was educated in Great Britain. Because her father was in the army, she traveled a lot. “I’ve always had a love of food,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed it in forty countries, some of it fantastic, some of it challenging to get through.” When the family settled, however, home became Norfolk, a hamlet. “It wasn’t even a village,” she laughs. “There was no shop, no pub. It was boring.” Now, however, she longs for that quiet existence and she and her family visit a couple of times a year.
Prior to joining City Harvest, Stephens served as vice president of program operations at ORBIS International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the elimination of avoidable blindness through hands-on surgical training and education. She helped create blindness prevention programs in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India, China, and Vietnam.
Stephens and her husband, Gary Dovey, live in Brooklyn with their three children, Charlie, 9, and twins, William and Rosie, three years-old.
Charlie, she says, understands what she does and talks a lot about City Harvest. “One of the most touching moments I’ve had was when he received holiday money and let me know that he wanted to give a large part of it—$40 out of $50—to City Harvest,” she says. “I love that he is already getting the spirit of giving back. “
City Harvest’s annual benefit, “An Evening of Practical Magic,” will be held on April 22 at Cipriani’s on East 42nd Street. This year’s event, hosted by actor David Arquette, will honor several New Yorkers. Stephens says the goal is to raise $1.4 million.
Right now, Stephens sees herself continuing in her role for the foreseeable future. “I’ve always had the best job in the world,” she says. “This is just the latest in a line of really wonderful jobs.”
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite place to shop: Any of the small stores in my Boerum Hill/Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn are places I love to shop.
Favorite place to eat: There are so many wonderful places to eat that reflect the tremendous diversity of New York City. It’s impossible to choose one restaurant. My all time favorite has to be at home with my friends and family.
Favorite New York Sight: I love the Brooklyn Bridge and the fantastic views from the bridge are favorites.
Favorite New York Moment: Whenever I see a City Harvest truck anywhere in the five boroughs. I see them out there often!
What I love about New York: The sky is usually blue and the sun’s usually shining.
What I hate about New York: That so many New Yorkers don’t know where their next meal will come from.