In 2022, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey and First We Feast embarked on a journey to find activists creating a more sustainable future for America’s food landscape. Together, they selected a chef, a farmer, a bartender, and an educator to be New American Food Pioneers. Under this initiative, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey gave each pioneer a $10,000 grant from its Bulleit Frontier Fund, a grant administered by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, to reinvest in their communities and to support causes that align with their personal missions. Get to know them through this four-part video series highlighting their work to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for their cities, then read more of their thoughts below.  

At its best, food is more than fuel. When it’s fully realized, food is community, identity, celebration, and a wondrous, almost mystical form of self-expression that tells the world, I am here. The best food connects those who cook it and consume it to the folkways of history and to their ancestors. And great food can be a bridge to the future too, leaving a legacy for one’s descendants in the form of family recipes and culinary traditions. But to be its best, to do all of that, food must be healthy. To truly feed and empower people and communities, food has to be nutritious and fresh and flavorful.

Chef Yadira Garcia understands this, having learned it from “a trinity of really strong, powerful women” who expressed themselves in the kitchen during her Bronx upbringing on the “last stop of the D train.” That family history informs Garcia’s work. “I think that my love of food and my memories of food and why food is such a driver in my life is because, from a very early age, food is something that I have so many emotional memories around,” she explains. 

But despite those early memories and that strong foundation, Garcia didn’t learn everything about food’s true power all at once. It also took visits to her family in the Dominican Republic, and later, one difficult life event to get her there. “I grew up being sent to the Dominican Republic every single summer until I was 16 years old. So, I grew up between the concrete jungle and the sugar cane fields.”

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Image via First We Feast

Garcia’s international upbringing led her to New York University, where things went well until she was a junior. That year, she fell down two flights of stairs, ending up in a wheelchair just as her classmates and friends were getting ready to walk for graduation. Disabled and on pharmaceuticals for herniated discs, pinched nerves, and broken bones, Garcia went back to her past, realizing that clean, healthy food could be medicine for both her body and soul. 

As she fought to regain her mobility, nourishing herself on healthy meals as she progressed from wheelchair to walker to cane, it became clear to Garcia that many of her childhood neighbors in the Bronx couldn’t get the same fresh, nutritious food she was using to support her recovery. “I like to say we have a bit of a broken food system,” she explains matter-of-factly. 

The realization that others in her community did not have access to wholesome food or to the historical foodways she felt tied to thanks to her upbringing gave Garcia a mission: to become a chef, advocate, and educator. “There are a lot of marginalized and victimized communities in the city. And we don’t all have access to the same things,” she says. “Which is where my passion for not just sharing food, but sharing food access and food equity came from.”

To accomplish that mission, Garcia had to create her own niche. In culinary school, she remembers explaining, “I want to work for my people,” but her instructors and classmates “weren’t really sure what that meant.” 

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Image via First We Feast

Casting doubters aside, Garcia knew pursuing professional cooking was the right call. Now she says, “I feel uniquely positioned as a chef to be a connector in a pipeline.” And that’s how she spends her time. “Not only do I teach how to make good food, how to make it healthy and culturally conscious, but I fight for those same communities that I’m rooted in to get the access to the best fresh food,” Garcia adds. 

To accomplish that and further her mission, Garcia has founded a number of her own organizations and worked with many others. “I have over 20 programs that I’ve launched in New York City that have been successful. I’ve liaised with thousands upon thousands of members and fed people and made meals,” she says. 

Out of all those programs, Corbin Hill Food Project (CHFP) is among Garcia’s most-cherished. Speaking about CHFP, she’s energized with a sparkle in her eye, explaining, “Corbin Hill is one of my favorite organizations in New York City. It’s a Harlem-based non-profit that, like me, is working behind the scenes and secures food access through a lens of racial equity.” For Garcia and CHFP, a large part of that is the non-profit’s Food as Medicine (FAM) program, which distributes fresh produce to 260 families across the Bronx and Harlem twice a month.

Beyond those partnerships, Garcia focuses on her role as community educator. Spurred on by the realization that many of her neighbors had lost track of historical food practices like soaking beans and grains to extract maximum nutrition at minimum cost, she created her own classes. They grew rapidly. “The classes started with a couple of people,” Garcia recalls. “Then I’d be in a church basement with like 50 or 60 people from elders to youth. So, I found this intergenerational connection and this love and I realized that it was my ancestral calling.” 

Those classes have nourished Garcia’s soul and been a boon to her community. “The reception that I’ve had and the embrace I’ve received from my community in the past six, seven years shows me that this is something that we really needed,” she explains.

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Image via First We Feast

For Garcia, that’s what her role as a New American Food Pioneer is all about. “Being a New American Food Pioneer feels very impactful for me,” she says. “I feel so honored to be a part of this project and to receive this Bulleit grant to do and amplify what I love in my community. This kind of money is life-changing for small community-based organizations.”

To maximize that windfall, Garcia is putting every dollar towards her mission. “When I think about the future, I want to leave a legacy of empowered community members that are able to do this for themselves,” the activist-chef explains with passion. “I feel like I’m a catalyst, so I connect people to green spaces or fresh food or ancestral recipes in a future world.” Hearing that, it’s clear Garcia’s a pioneer who’s ensuring the path she blazes now will someday become a nutritional superhighway. 

As part of the New American Food Pioneers program, Yadira Garcia received a $10,000 grant from the Bulleit Frontier Fund. Garcia is using the grant to provide fresh food and meal deliveries to residents of the Bronx and Harlem. The Bulleit Frontier Fund is a donor-advised fund administered by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.