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Food for the Soul

by Jocelyn Zuckerman

Back in 1979, when she founded the company she decided to call Great Performances, Liz Neumark wasn’t looking to do much more than help out a few of her struggling-artist friends. A recent Barnard College grad, the lifelong New Yorker got together with a dancer pal to create an agency designed to help place female artists in part-time jobs serving at cocktail parties and receptions around town.

It wasn’t long before Great Performances had added food preparation to its offerings (and men to its roster of artists) and leased its own kitchen in downtown Manhattan. By the late nineties, Neumark, who’d since bought out her partner, was catering parties with million-dollar price tags; she would soon go on to sign exclusive contracts with such high-profile venues as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Rockefeller University.

But in 2004, the youngest of Neumark’s four children, a six-year-old daughter named Sylvia, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, forcing the powerhouse caterer to re-evaluate her life. Within two years, she’d purchased a 60-acre parcel of land two hours north of the city and was working with a local farmer to develop it into an organic farm. She and her family also founded a nonprofit called The Sylvia Center, aimed at teaching underprivileged children about healthy eating, as a way of honoring her daughter’s life. The Center works with public schools and community centers (both in the city and upstate) to coordinate after-school programs that enable local kids to visit the farm, pick produce and cook it into healthy lunches. Though the pandemic meant pivoting the programs to virtual ones (they’ve since resumed in-person classes), Great Performances also signed on with various corporations to provide emergency meals to frontline workers, under an arrangement that saw 15 percent of the profits directed to The Sylvia Center.

Over the course of 2021, the Center directly touched more than 2,000 people and delivered in excess of 2,500 meal kits. These days, Neumark, who recently relocated both operations to the Bronx, is involved in an array of food-related social- justice missions—from the Fund for Public Housing to GrowNYC—aimed at closing the gap between the glamorous- event-attending haves and the food-insecure have-nots. “When I’m out in my one-percent life,” she says, “I can really champion these causes. I actually think it’s the most selfish thing I do, because, you know, giving is the best getting.

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