Greg Silverman, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger's executive director.
Chef Greg Silverman has taken a long journey to combine his love of working “on the line” in restaurant kitchens with trying to combat hunger. After graduating from the former French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, the search took him from owning restaurants in Ithaca, New York, to the Peace Corps in Mali, to nutrition education and emergency food programs in London and Washington, D.C.
In January 2017, he became executive director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew at West 86th Street near West End Avenue. Founded in 1979, WSCAH is the nation's oldest supermarket-style food pantry. It also provides a one-stop gateway to social services and trains some clients as chefs.
Silverman lives in Harlem with his wife and baby daughter. He talked to Straus News about WSCAH's mission, and how the community pitches in to help its neighbors at Thanksgiving.What is WSCAH doing to help its customers have a traditional Thanksgiving?
Everyone is used to seeing a turkey on the table on Thanksgiving from a very young age, and understanding that some people don't have that opportunity is a powerful message. Every year we run the “Thousand Turkey Challenge.” We ask people for $18 for a turkey. You can give us a check, you can go online and pay for a turkey, and you can text TURKEY [to 56512] and we will get money for that.
Community members, various folks on the Upper West Side, long-standing religious institutions and schools, reach out to their communities. We'll probably give out over 1,200 turkeys. People are getting bread and they're getting potatoes and sweet potatoes and carrots, and they're getting greens. The funding goes to all the food that we give to people during the holiday season. We want you to be able to have joy on that day, and forget about all the troubles that are happening, and enjoy a turkey and just have a great time.One of your fundraisers showcases some of WSCAH's future chefs, right?
Our [November 13th] fundraiser is our great opportunity to have dinner to again bring the community together. Over 200 people come to a three-course, sit-down dinner cooked by our Culinary Pathways Chef Training students. It's been amazing to watch these students in 12 weeks learn, not just knife skills but, more so, [gain] the confidence to go after a job and get a job, whether it's in the pastry kitchen or in the service of food or in the prep kitchen. [The program] just gives people opportunity. This year we'll raise close to $250,000.Do you see more demand during the holidays?
Across emergency feeding [organizations] in New York City, need spikes in November and December. And partly it's because people want to do more for their families, but people struggle. It's seasonal employment, there's all these issues that are happening. So we struggle to make sure we have all the food we need on the shelves for all the extra customers.What other services does WSCAH provide?
We are a free grocery store. So many customers come here because we give better food and we give more food. [Our] mobile market [truck] came online this past year. We've grown our number of people that we see by 25 percent in less than a year, and instead of bringing people to food, we're bringing food to people.
Like any non-profit, or entity, we have to have the money to do our work. That goes to make sure that we can keep that truck rolling across the city, that we can have a free chef training program, that we can have six social service staff, in-taking every customer so that when you show up at the WSCAH, you're not just getting food. Do you need immigration support? Do you need health insurance? [Do you have] housing issues? We want to help lift people out of food insecurity and poverty, and it takes a lot more than just food.How did you go from being a chef, running restaurants, to running a free food pantry?
I had three restaurants for many years. It wasn't enough to cook great meals for my customers. I was spending more and more time as a board member of a soup kitchen and running a literacy program in Ithaca because it was more satisfying. I took a break to go into the Peace Corps, but ended up working there in Mali in West Africa, mostly with restaurateurs. Again I was stuck as a chef in a good way, working with local community members who were trained to advance their business interests and also who were trying to do good by their community.
I worked for the City of London on nutrition education programming. I re-did school feeding programs in East London. In Washington, D.C., I helped grow a program for a non-profit called Share Our Strength. I led their national nutrition education initiatives and that also allowed me to be our lead on White House engagement. I saw a lot on how to scale programs across the country, and how to influence policy and how to do advocacy.What's so special about the Upper West Side and WSCAH?
I've worked in national organizations in Washington and London, and what I've found is a lack of connection to the work on the ground. At the WSCAH, it's not about trying to make that connection happen. It just simply is a community — a community of 20,000 food customers, 800 volunteers a year, 3,000 people who donate to us every year, of a myriad number of public and private schools, religious institutions, government officials and businesses all across the Upper West Side, all coming together to feed their community.
Coming to the West Side Campaign Against Hunger gave me the opportunity to pull everything I've done into one place. This organization has innovated how to perform emergency feeding in a way no one has, building up a customer-choice model. It advocates at a city, state and federal level, and at the same time, we're a community and a team who work together every single day. And that sort of ability to be on the ground and also functioning at a high level at the same time allows me to be all that I want to be.Last question: what's your favorite vegetable?
Beets. The first thing my daughter ever ate was a beet puree.