Celebrity gives Hunts Point $1 million in food

Heather Mills’ gift will feed residents for two years

By Sarah Grieb

When students and their parents arrived at Hunts Point Riverside Park for the second annual Back to School fair on a late September weekend, they expected to be given school equipment and a burger. As it turned out, free backpacks and free lunch were just part of the story. Long lines began forming in the late morning for what most thought were hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, but were in fact soy-based patties that looked (and tasted) like meat and chicken. The feast continued until late in the afternoon, when the last soyburger had been served.

Now, hundreds of families in Hunts Point will have the chance to continue to receive meatless meals regularly for the next two years, thanks to a donation of $1 million worth of the food from Heather Mills, the former model and ex-wife of musician Paul McCartney. Workers for Mills’ vegan food company, Meatless Meats, served the food in the park as part of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children’s school fair. Mills will funnel her continuing donations through HPAC (see accompanying story). A vegan (pronounced VEE-gun) is someone who chooses not to consume or use any kind of animal product, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, leather and sometimes honey.

While the vegan “meatless meats” are a very different type of food from what many residents are used to, “most people didn’t know they weren’t eating chicken or beef. One man had six!” Mills said as the fair came to an end. She and her group had planned to serve 1,000 of the soy “burgers” and “chicken” patties but ended up serving and cooking every one of the 1,500 they brought. Ramona Beato was at the fair with her daughters and thought the food was nutritious and tasted good, “Especially the chicken,” she said. “My daughters, they liked the food and didn’t even know what they were eating. They believed it was chicken. They said ‘Mommy, mommy, chicken!’”Rosa Lugo attended with her daughter and two nephews. It was the first time they had had soy products like that and they all enjoyed them. “I couldn’t believe it was made by vegetables. I was shocked,” said Lugo.

How did an Englishwoman with a prosthetic leg who nevertheless danced on “Dancing with the Stars”—a woman the tabloids love to hate, who married a musician who first became famous as a Beatle, and who served as her own lawyer in her hotly-contested and highly publicized divorce from him, ending up with a $48 million settlement–wind up in the South Bronx? Mills learned of Hunts Point because of a student project. Students at Saint Ignatius School, where Maryann Hedaa, the managing director of The Hunts Point Alliance for Children, served as the head of school in the past academic year, made a documentary with The Farm Sanctuary. Mills was working with the Sanctuary, which provides rescue, education and advocacy for farm animals, to help plan a vegan menu for an event.

Mills was shocked to learn that hunger was such an issue in a neighborhood that hosts the biggest food distribution center in the world. In an interview she said she “couldn’t believe such poverty was around the doorstep” of a city like New York. “My father would get us to steal food and so he could have seconds, one of us would have to do without food every other day,” said Mills. “I knew what it was like to be hungry.” All of the food Mills is donating is vegan. In addition to the “meatless meat” served at the school fair, it will include fruit and vegetables. Mills became a vegan after losing her leg in an accident involving a police motorcycle. Originally, she said, she adopted the diet for health reasons. Later, she came to believe that the vegan lifestyle could have an impact on the health of the planet as well as the body.
She said she is not trying to convert local residents to her lifestyle, however. “I just want to feed people. I don’t want to feed kids stuff that’s not good for them,” she said.
“When I was kid, if you had meat it meant you were lucky, one or two times week. Now fast food makes it possible all the time,” she continued.
Meat consumption in the U.S. has increased by 25 percent over the last 30 years. Americans now eat 275 pounds per person each year, according to the most recent statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That increase has been devastating to the environment, Mills contends, leading farmers to cut down forests to create grazing land and increasing the number of animals that release methane gasses that contribute to global warming. She does hope some of the participants in the food distribution program will eat less meat: “Like not eating it on Mondays–if everyone did that it would reduce the global gasses by a huge amount,” she said, “but you have to give people an easy affordable option that tastes great.” Mills said she was very touched by the response she’s gotten from local residents. But will she return to the neighborhood? “Oh my god loads of times!” she said.

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