Meet Katherine Hernandez, Fi2W’s Award-Winning Food Journalism Fellow

Katherine Hernandez won the 2018 Ippies award for best social issues story. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

When Katherine Hernandez began her food journalism fellowship at Feet in 2 Worlds last September the Trump administration’s most egregious immigration policies had yet to come into force.  But even before children were systematically separated from their parents at the border, immigrants across the country were reeling from the impact of Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade. As part of her fellowship, Katherine decided to look at one group that had received scant media attention.

Her story on the economic impact of increased immigration enforcement on New York City street vendors offered an in-depth look at how undocumented vendors were suffering severe losses just as Trump was hailing the success of his economic policies.

In June Katherine’s story won a top prize in the Ippies, an award program that honors outstanding journalism in New York City’s community and ethnic media.

During her fellowship Katherine was mentored by Von Diaz, a former Fi2W journalism fellow. This fall she will enter the master’s program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Katherine spoke recently with Fi2W’s managing editor Rachael Bongiorno.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What motivated you to get into food journalism?

I’ve always been passionate about food, eating food and learning about new restaurants that were in the city, and just exploring different cuisines. So I became this person within my circle of friends who always knew where to go for a good ramen or really good tacos. Then I started writing a food column in my student newspaper to share those reviews with others.

I also started reading publications like Edible Brooklyn, Food & Wine magazine and Bon Appétit. I wanted to know what the other food writers that I aspire to be, what they were writing and who they were writing about. Then I was like, oh, wow, people of color are not recognized in these publications. All these white chefs and fine dining cuisines were on the covers of the publications, and it wasn’t anyone that I was reporting on. It was none of the chefs, none of the people from the places where I was eating food that I thought were doing amazing things within their community.

Besides being passionate about sharing places to eat, I wanted to highlight people of color in my writing because they deserve a space. So then I shifted into that.

I really wanted to shape my own college experience, so I did some research and I found that CUNY had an interdisciplinary studies program. So I did food studies and I did journalism. I was taking classes in wine, and going to wine tastings and taking pastry classes, and cooking classes while also taking classes in journalism at City College and Hunter.

Just before I graduated in Spring 2017 I found out that Feet in 2 Worlds was doing a food journalism workshop that focused on immigrant communities and I was like, oh, that’s right up my alley. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

Katherine Hernandez on her first reporting assignment for Fi2W. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

What are the food stories that you’re passionate about telling?

I am passionate about sharing stories about people. To me that’s what it really comes down to. I want to share stories about the little hole-in-the- wall place that’s maybe run by an immigrant family who pooled their money together and want to make a taqueria or we want to make a little cuchifritos spot, or whatever. People who want to start a little pop-up business, people who just have a dream.

They’re small places and maybe no one’s using molecular gastronomy, and people wouldn’t say it’s innovative, but the food to me is authentic. I feel like that’s a tricky word, but it feels like it’s honest to them. It’s whatever they grew up with. It’s the flavors that they know. I appreciate that.

So those are the people that I highlight because when the food tastes so good, you know someone put love into it. And I want to meet that person, I want to know that person. I’m like “who made this?” because you know that there was a recipe that came from other generations or maybe they were innovative about a recipe that their mother made. But nonetheless there was love, there was attention to detail. It may not be the healthiest food, like super greasy tacos with pulled pork or all this oil and seasoning, but that’s okay. We can have those moments when we enjoy things that aren’t the best for us but are just delicious and somebody put the hard work into making that dish for you.

“[The Fi2W fellowship] gave me the confidence to say these stories matter.  I matter. What I have to say matters.  The people that I want to report on matter. It backed me up.”

What impact did the Feet in 2 Worlds fellowship have on you?

This fellowship meant everything to me, everything, everything, everything. I think about journalism and I’m like, “oh my god, I can’t pay my bills, what am I doing in this field?” But it really gave me the confidence to say I can do this. To realize that there is a space for me in this industry. I always felt like an impostor because there are a lot of food writers who are mostly white.

It gave me the confidence to say these stories matter. I matter. What I have to say matters.  The people that I want to report on matter. It backed me up.

To get the training, to get the mentorship, to have people on my back about deadlines and check in on me. I just really appreciated it.  

Katherine Hernandez recording her first radio story which was broadcast on PRI’s The World. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

What specifically did you learn from the fellowship?

I feel like it’s ongoing, but I definitely feel that the fellowship taught me how to structure a story, how to make a story compelling, how to research and make make sure that I have a main character that kind of brings everything together — to bring my story to life and make it personal. I saw my writing improve dramatically within the fellowship.

It also taught me to persevere. If you believe in the story, fight for it. Persevere regardless of the challenges.

What about the Ippies prize?  What does it signify for you?

It felt great to know that I’m doing the kind of food journalism that I wanted to do. It felt good to know that it mattered – someone’s reading it, someone’s paying attention to my work, people are acknowledging what I’m trying to do. When I started in food journalism I had a very clear purpose. I even put it on my wall.  “As a journalist, I want to inspire change, cultivate conversation, and share a deeper look into the human experience.” That really entails telling stories about people of color within the food industry as well.

Katherine Hernandez with her mother Juana and boyfriend Alan at the Ippies awards. Photo: Marco Poggio

I wanted to uplift people’s voices and make sure that they were acknowledged. This is who I want to be as a journalist, and now things are just coming together for me, because people are acknowledging that this is what I want to do, and this is what I stand for.

If it wasn’t for Feet in 2 Worlds, I wouldn’t have gotten this award. So it just shows you the kind of support and the skills that everyone within the organization gives to people in order to allow them to get in a position where they can win awards. It was just a reminder of how glad I was to have the opportunity.

You recently wrote that if someone told you five years ago, that you would be where you are today, you wouldn’t believe them. Can you talk a bit about that?

I didn’t necessarily grow up in a super bad neighborhood. But it was definitely a low income neighborhood, and I come from an immigrant family from the Dominican Republic. My mother brought us up as a single mother. We were a family that only spoke Spanish at home, we also grew up in a very tight knit Dominican, or just Hispanic, community.

Unfortunately, I feel like when you grow up in a low income community, your focus is to survive or you can get caught up in other things. Some people get caught up in the street life, or some girls get pregnant young, and that’s fine, everybody does what they want to do in their own life.  I always knew I didn’t want that for myself. But I didn’t know how that was going to manifest.

I always thought that the structures and my circumstances were telling me that I wasn’t going to be anyone in life. It was telling me that this is where you’re going to fit in, this is what your life is going to be like. I thought, I think I’m gonna stay poor, I wasn’t writing much… I didn’t have the money for the opportunities. I just told myself that this was going to be my life and that’s it. But here I am, five years later and I’m like, “oh my God, look at all the things that I have accomplished.”

There’s so many structures, so many things against people, all these things that keep people poor in the place where I was growing up, and it’s something I still struggle with. But I didn’t think I was going to step out of that mentality, or step out of that environment. I’m still poor, but at least I’ve done some things in life!

Were there opportunities that came out of the fellowship?

The fellowship allowed me to build a portfolio with well-recognized publications such as NPR’s The Salt and PRI’s The World as well as Feet in 2 Worlds.

Initially I didn’t’ realize how significant it was having those names on my resume and having my mentors introduce me to those editors and those outlets. Because honestly, I grew up in a very Spanish home and so I didn’t I know NPR growing up, I didn’t know WNYC, I didn’t know any of these places. I grew up watching Telemundo. That was my news. I didn’t realize how big NPR or PRI was. 

So because of that, I had a compelling application when I was applying for my master’s in journalism at the CUNY Graduate School this year. I truly believe that it was because of my portfolio – and my recommendation letters, of course, my essays and passion as well – that I was a strong applicant.

Feet in 2 Worlds put me in a place to be able to get my master’s in journalism. Feet in 2 Worlds helped put me in a place where I’m in this competitive internship now, the CUNY Knight Fellowship that had over 200 people apply nationally. I was one of the 20 that got accepted, and who are competing for the five grants available to fellows to cover the full tuition for a master’s degree in journalism. 

The Fi2W food reporting fellowship is supported by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and The Culinary Trust, whose mission is to give culinary professionals the tools and opportunities to understand and act on critical issues in the world of food.  Together, Feet in 2 Worlds and The Culinary Trust help emerging voices tell important food stories from the perspective of new Americans.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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