Riverdale News & Stories
Dr. Melony Samuels with George Harvey '17, right, who nominated her for
the Jolli Humanitarian Award, and his brother Thomas '17. Photo by Peter Simon.
"Food is not a privilege. It is a right."
Dr. Melony Samuels, the founder and executive director of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, did not set out to feed tens of thousands of hungry New Yorkers every month. She had a good job, a husband, and a comfortable home in New Jersey. But she also had a desire to help others, and that led her and her husband to get into the car every weekend to bring food to a struggling family in Brooklyn.
One family turned into eight families and it wasn't long before Samuels was involved in something much larger than she ever could have imagined: the busiest food pantry in Brooklyn. Riverdale honored her on Tuesday with the Jolli Humanitarian Award, recognizing the impact that she has had on her community.
She was nominated for the award by George Harvey '17, who wrote: "Dr. Melony Samuels has truly transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, not only with food but also a sense of dignity and self-empowerment that the community she serves so desperately needs and deserves. She embodies the qualities that Riverdale stands for — perseverance, compassion, and innovation. Although she has won a few awards, she is relatively unheralded. Despite her amazing work, she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Think about the thousands of people who go hungry every day just a couple miles from our school and about the profound impact Dr. Melony Samuels has had on many of their lives. She is a truly brave and inspirational humanitarian, who stands as a beacon of hope, making New York City and the world a better place."
At an assembly of the Middle and Upper Schools on Tuesday to honor her work, Samuels described how BSCAH continued to grow to meet the needs of the surrounding Bed-Stuy community with the help of volunteers, donors, and community partnerships.
Samuels began with a small food pantry in a church basement in Brooklyn where she distributed bags of prepackaged food. The problem was that the food didn't meet the needs of her clients, many of whom suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. So she looked for ways to offer more nutritious options: fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat. The operation grew into a supermarket-style food distribution center, where people could make healthy choices according to the needs of their families. BSCAH now serves more than 30,000 low-income people a month, and the numbers are growing.
Committed to providing nutritious foods, and hampered by the high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables, Dr. Samuels started a garden on the land behind her office. In Jamaica, where she grew up, backyard vegetable gardens were common. It wasn't easy — rubble had to be removed and soil replaced — but the BSCAH garden grew into veritable urban farm, with beehives, chicken coops, composting, and a harvest of tens of thousands of pounds of food annually.
Addressing hunger meant providing help for other poverty-related problems as well. BSCAH's services expanded to include classes on diet, nutrition, cooking, fitness, and gardening; health screenings; help with health insurance, tax returns, and assistance programs; and referrals to legal, educational and health resources. BSCAH set up mobile food pantries to reach neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Sandy and other locations lacking emergency food assistance.
BSCAH has a fulltime staff of 11, and numerous volunteers. Yet the more BSCAH accomplishes, the more there is to do. As housing in Brooklyn becomes more expensive, the working power struggle to afford their rent and have less money for food. "No one wants to become homeless," she said. Funding is an ongoing concern. Often donors will support causes that relate to their personal experiences and interests, she said. Hunger is not "what they are looking for."
Yet in her eyes nothing is more rewarding than helping people with their basic needs. "I have had the opportunity help thousands of people, and I have had the opportunity to see children get fed and seniors get fed," she said. "That to me is a great accomplishment."
The Jolli award honors humanitarians who are making a difference in the world and it encourages sophomores, who make the nominations, to consider what it means to change a community, a country, or the world for the good. An academic building is named for Samuels this year.
Previous Jolli Humanitarian Award winners are Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan gay-rights advocate; Pernille Ironside, a child advocate for UNICEF who has worked in war zones around the world; Rachel Lloyd, an anti-human trafficking advocate; Geoffrey Canada, an educator, activist and former leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone; and Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of a women’s peace movement.
To watch a video of Samuels' speech, click here.
To read about Frank Mugisha's appearance at Riverdale last year, click here.