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South Ozone Park resident shows families how to transform food pantry staples into delicious meals

Apr. 20, 2023 By Carlotta Mohamed

South Ozone Park resident Geraldine Fermin, who is a frontline worker and program manager of the City Harvest Nutrition Education Program, will be honored as a frontline hero at the 40th City Harvest Gala on Tuesday, April 25, for playing a significant role in helping the organization feed its neighbors in need. 

It’s an honor for Fermin, 37, who has dedicated her life to teaching New Yorkers how to cook healthy, nutritious meals using food pantry staples as part of her work with City Harvest, New York City’s first and largest food rescue organization. Through the City Harvest Nutrition Education Program, Fermin teaches participants how they can find, prepare, and enjoy healthy, tasty and affordable meals. 

City Harvest partners with community organizations in all five boroughs to offer nutrition education classes taught by City Harvest staff and volunteers —all for free. 

Fermin, who grew up in Corona and Elmhurst, offers cooking classes taught in Spanish at P.S. 19Q, located at 98-02 Roosevelt Ave. in Corona, where she teaches about 15 to 20 participants how to prepare meals. She has taught three courses at the school and another class is scheduled to begin in two weeks in May. 

“I try to do culturally relevant food. The other day I made a turkey burger where we make our own Sofrito using fresh produce. The burger comes stuffed with tropical white cheese, which is a low sodium low-fat version, with lettuce and tomato on a whole wheat bun and served with flavored sparkling water that has zero sugar,” Fermin said. “We try to get food from the five different food groups into every meal.” 

Geraldine Fermin (l.) conducts a cooking demonstration. (Photo courtesy of City Harvest)

Fermin’s cooking class is an hour and a half and divided into two sections: a cooking demonstration and nutrition segment. Afterwards, everyone sits down at a table and enjoys their meal together as a family. Additionally, Fermin conducts shopping tours with the participants, who receive $10 to do a challenge to get items from the different food groups. 

Today, as Fermin works to support New Yorkers in need, she has also helped her family who once struggled with food insecurity. 

As a teenager, Fermin saw how her parents and grandparents — who immigrated from Venezuela and were undocumented — lost their jobs when 9/11 happened while she was in high school. To offer some relief, she recounted going to summer school to get ahead in courses and being able to get breakfast and lunch. 

“I remember my grandmother saying ‘I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you money to buy a bottle of water,’” Fermin said. “It was very sad because no one should apologize for that. She was very sorry that we were in the situation that we were in although it was not her fault. When you’re an undocumented immigrant it’s really hard to find resources, especially when you don’t speak English.” 

While she was employed at the city Department of Education Office of School Food and Nutrition Services and was planning to become a teacher, Fermin decided that she wanted to do something different. After learning that City Harvest was made to help families in similar circumstances, she was compelled to act – first as a part-time volunteer and now a full-time position ensuring that no New Yorker goes hungry. 

“It’s very emotional for me because when I decided to jump into the frontline it was because me and my family struggled a lot as an immigrant family when 9/11 happened,” Fermin said. “That was my motivation to go out and help the people that I knew were not going to get help because they were undocumented. It’s not only for me, but all those people that we were able to help that were hopeless.” 

According to Fermin, her family didn’t know about City Harvest and that they could pick up fresh fruits and vegetables, or go pantry hopping like many people do in order to get a month’s worth of food. 

“But now, we do know and we usually refer people to these places when they come for help because a lot of the people that came to the mobile markets, we give them the information so they could go to food pantries in-between one market and another because we only have two markets per month,” Fermin said. 

The City Harvest Mobile Market is an open air farmers market offering free food for New Yorkers in need. In Queens, the mobile market is held in Astoria and Long Island City twice a month. 

At the height of the pandemic, Fermin witnessed firsthand the devastating impact it had on families across the city. Everyday at the Mobile Markets, people were lined up for hours waiting for what would be the only food assistance they would receive for the week. Fermin was there everyday to make sure New Yorkers still had access to healthy, nutritious food – even when she was serving three to four times as many families as before.

“I remember a mother who came to me crying and she told me ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” Fermin said. “She told me her husband worked in construction and she worked at a bakery and they were both out of a job with three children at home. She was one of those people that we were able to make an exception for because of the amount of children that she had to get two boxes of food.” 

It was very difficult for Fermin to see people struggling as they would often express that their food stamps aren’t enough, or the rising cost of eggs due to weathering inflation, she said.  

“They’re really worried. They have to turn to tuna and do more with canned meat since they can’t afford fresh meat,” Fermin said. “Today, we went over the unit pricing, trying to understand the price per pound and they left with that knowledge to make their money last a little longer.” 

According to Fermin, it makes her happy to be able to help people, especially working with an organization that truly cares about New Yorkers. 

“I wish there were organizations like City Harvest in the country, and I really don’t know if there are. I work at a place where people love what they do — as a group we become each other’s support and I think that has given me the success in what I do and am able to help people,” Fermin said. “Being able to offer nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and recording videos and supportive material, all those that help the community is great.” 

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