Urban Farming on the Agenda: NYC Food & Climate Summit

Posted: December 19th, 2009 | Author:

On Saturday December 12, 2009, over 1,000 people (!) attended the NYC Food & Climate Summit: Creating a Platform for Change, hosted by NYU.  The event was hosted by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Just Food and NYU.  As proof of the significant public interest around these issues, the Summit was filled to capacity, turning people away at the door who had not pre-registered.

The Summit was framed as relating food issues to the concurrent Copenhagen Climate Conference. At the start, all attendees assembled in the Skirball Center for Plenary Remarks.

We were treated to welcoming addresses by video from two amazing women who provided an international perspective on the food and climate issues. Wangari Maathai was recorded in her garden in Kenya. She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement, an environmentalist, and the author of several books. Maathai spoke about how Kyoto Climate Conference had ignored the impact of climate on food.  She and others raised the connection between food and climate so that the nexus will now be discussed at Copenhagen.  Maathai mentioned the shocking statistic that Africa is responsible for creating only 3% of the globes greenhouse gases but suffers disproportionately from the impacts of climate change. From India, Vandana Shiva, one of the founders of the International Forum on Globalization, remarked about US agro-business negatively influencing food and climate degradation.

Once plenary remarks helped establish the global context for our work, we broke into smaller working sessions a la Copenhagen.  The stated goal of the Food & Climate Summit was “to increase engagement and action around our food system’s role in climate problems and solutions.”  The organizers attempted to make good on that goal of engagement by structuring information sessions to obtain audience feedback through forming impromptu working groups.

After an expert panel presented in one of the 29 separate sessions (with some repeats), the audience would be asked to provide and distill ideas with the help of facilitators.  I thought that this approach, honored the activist impulse that drew people to this political topic and made it more like a public conversation.  A similar meeting format for the Food Justice Conference yielded the excellent report “Food in the Public Interest” last year. The session format also permitted more social networking and discussion.

I attended two sessions entitled, not surprisingly, “Urban Agriculture.”  The first session was devoted to Community Gardens and Farms.  The second session focused on Roofs, Walls and Other Under-Utilized Spaces.  Both sessions yielded a wide range of interesting ideas for promoting urban agriculture.  One idea was to hypertax owners of vacant lots with tax relief provided if owners permitted the land to be used as an urban farm for at least five years.  Reforms were offered for education, government services, tax policy, incentives, and other areas. Someone suggested the creation of Deputy Mayor of Food and Agriculture.

There was a lot of focus on government, legal and legislative reform.  It was interesting how comfortable we all have become with government intervention as the norm for social change.  I supposed being urbanites, we can’t really get along without government mediating the complex interactions that are required to make city life bearable. However, I am not always in favor of more government action for ideas that require social mobilization for real change. History shows that community organizing and popular education that result in building a social movement seem to be the only way to prompt goverment to make lasting and sustainable change. See Howard Zinn “People’s History of the United States” for more on this idea.

Despite all the seriousness, there was a marketplace after the sessions in which local food producers and advocacy groups shared their wares. The bazaar was another engaging place to learn about new food and ideas, including an excellent beer made in Harlem on the “Sugar Hill” label.

Overall, I was impressed that the conference organizers understood the important resource represented by the large, assembled group, respecting their collective time and motivation by involving them in envisioning solutions. I liked the democratic quality to the process. And I appreciated the organizer’s desire to produce a coherent consensus-driven platform for food and climate change in NYC with an eye towards the global impact.

I am very much looking forward to seeing the report that comes from the Summit. You will hear about here!

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Monsanto Monopoly on the Run?

Posted: December 18th, 2009 | Author:

NY Times today reported that Monsanto alleges that it will allow seed saving by farmers — in 2014! — when its patent on Roundup Ready 1 soybeans expires.  Monsanto has aggressively sued farmers who have saved seed from their harvests and required them to buy new seed each year at a steep cost.  Based on its corporate strategies, Monsanto has achieved a monopoly on the seed business, for instance, selling 90% of all soybeans planted in the US.

Soon, Monstanto will launch new Roundup Ready 2 Yield seeds which will be protected by patent.  Most farmers believed that Monsanto would force them to purchase this new breed of seed as well.  ”Facing antitrust scrutiny over its practices in the biotechnology seed business, Monsanto has said it will not stand in the way of farmers eventually using lower cost alternatives to its genetically modified soybeans” including re-using Roundup Ready 1 seeds.

Given Monsanto’s history aggressive enforcement of contracts with 1000s of farmers who had saved seeds accompanied by its complete disruption (or destruction) of the businesses that ran seed-saving equipment, it remains to be seen if this new stance is genuine or merely a public relations campaign aimed at relieving some to the pressure coming at the company from regulators.

One nefarious aspect of Monsanto’s contract “enforcement” arises from Roundup Ready 1 seeds accidential commingling with standard soybeans on adjacent fields.  Instead of acknowledging forces beyond a farmer’s control in the process of cross-fertilization, the company has prosecuted farmers as violating its patent on nature. This is just one of the tactics that has led Monsanto to dominate the soybean, corn and wheat markets with its genetically-altered seeds.

Monsanto spreads its monoculture all over the planet. It is high time its business tactics are challenged with all regulatory means at the disposal of the government. I hope that the anti-trust enforcement helps reveal the unfair practices of Monsanto that have hurt farmer’s bottom lines and are not good for the environment.

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Last Minute Gifts for the Locavore

Posted: December 16th, 2009 | Author:

OK, I am ambivalent about participating in the seasonal orgy of mass consumption that marks the end of the calendar year. However, it is hard to resist the spirit of giving, especially when everyone looks at you with those “Ain’t I Gonna Get Nothing” eyes.

So, if you have a Locavorus Naturalis on your holiday shopping list, permit me to make some sweeping suggestions.

BOOK

“Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer” by Novella Carpenter ($25.96 Hardcover, Penguin 2009). A scion of back-to-the-land hippies ends up in blighted Oakland area called “Ghost Town” and begins farming a vacant lot next to her house, surrounded by garbage, homeless junk collectors, street walkers and other urban oddities. Carpenter is not content to be a mere city gardener but seeks to become an true urban homesteader. Her pursuit takes an unusual turn (which gives titles the book’s chapters) when she raises various species of animals for eating and production: bees, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks and — most improbably — two immense Duroc pigs.

Carpenter treats her hobby-cum-career as an experiment about the practical limits of urban agriculture, setting herself a goal to eat only food harvested from her small plot for the month of July 2006.   She misses carbohydrates the most, not being able to grow grains in her limited acreage. Pointedly, her get-along boyfriend, Bill, does not take the same pledge, providing comic relief as she watches in dismay as he eat donuts and other foods she has forsworn. Carpenter’s tone is self-deprecating and casual.

Her process of discovery is funny and informing about the challenges and opportunities for those who fantasize about following in the footsteps of American legends of Thoreauvian Zen, yeoman farming and self-sufficiency. On a deeper level, the book addresses some of our ingrained cultural eating and consumption habits that inhibit our society’s path to local, environmentally sustainable living — as well as revelations about the nature of the non-seasonal global food system.

KID’S BOOK

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat – Young Reader’s Edition by Michael Pollan ($17.99 Paperback, Penguin 2009) . Pollan has produced a version of his book that is more accessible to young readers with more pictures and diagrams. Kids today are taught a lot of environmental lessons, like “Recycle,” but rarely do they get an overview that matches their curiosity for why environmental choices are so personally and globally important.

APPAREL

Cool T-Shirts and Totes from Brooklyn-based Black Sheep Heap. “Beet the System” and “Eat Local” slogans accompany beautiful silk screened designs printed on American Apparel off-white organic cotton.

DVD

“Food, Inc.” (2009) by Robert Kenner provides a good overview of the inter-connection between business, government policy, environmental hazards, labor politics and personal health. The film covers a lot of ground in short time and it provides a strong primer for the problems plaguing the food system, providing strong visuals for some of Michael Pollan’s arguments laid out in the Omnivore’s Dilemma. Good follow-up and update to 2006′s “Fast Food Nation.”

PLANTS AND PLANTERS

If you want to grow your own food, you should go check out Liberty Sunset Garden Center at the end of a pier in Red Hook. First time I visited Liberty Sunset, I thought I had died and gone to urbanist heaven. Even if you don’t buy anything, Liberty Sunset is a diamond in the rough with great views of the Statue of Liberty. Surrounding the store, the owners have greened a huge swath of the pier in a space the size of a whole city block, transforming the area into privately-managed public park. I hear you can host events there too and Liberty Sunset just started offering gardening classes, which could be another gift option. . . .

LOCAL FOODS

While you are visiting Liberty Sunset, you can grab a Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie and support local food production, which is part of the same complex of buildings. One of Steve’s pies would make a great gift too.  Try a Lime-Ade and “Swingle,” one of Steve’s original creations, consisting of mini key lime pie speared on a stick, coated in chocolate and then frozen solid. Rich and delicious.

You could also head over to Brooklyn Larder or Marlow & Sons (or Daughters) which both carry a lot of Brooklyn and NYC brands, like Mast Brothers Chocolate and McClure’s Pickles.

Splurge for a shopping spree at Union Square Greenmarket (or any of the 18 Year-Round Greenmarkets).  You can buy these cute little wooden tokens with a credit card or ATM card at most of the Greenmarkets. The credits look like poker chips made of wood and remind me of military scrip.  Anyways, you could get your locavore pal $50.00 in credit chips that can be spent in $5.00 increments.  Change will be given from farmers when the item’s price falls short of the dollar amount of the chip.

If you want to get really bold, you could sign your locavore friend up for a share in Community Supported Agriculture group.  Contact Just Food to find out which CSA is located nearest to your recipient.  Note: There are often waiting lists!

CLASSES: GARDENING

If you decide Liberty Sunset is too remote for your gardening class, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens is close to the subway and always has interesting class offerings for the urban agrarian, like “Plant Propagation” on Janaury 5, 2010 or “Rooftop Gardening” on January 30, 2010.

CLASSES: COOKING

There are many good spots around the city to pick up a trick or two about gustatory preparations but no place is more locavore than Brooklyn Kitchen, run by my pal, Taylor Erkkinen, who has created a wonderful and devoted community around food lore in just a few years of operation.  January classes include such offerings as “Perfect Dinner for 2″ and “Desserts.”  Home made food processing is a big part of the classes at Brooklyn Kitchen, such as “Intro to Home Brewing” and “Curing Sausage.” Now that’s making it locally!

CLASSES: BUTCHERING?

If you really want to take the plunge and understand how your food is made, then you could take an in-depth butchering class at Fleisher’s, the first business to focus entirely on organic, pasture-raised animals, located in Kingston, NY.  You get one-on-one lesson time with the “MooRu,” Joshua Applestone.  This sort of special treatment does not come cheap. “Butchery 101″ costs $2,000 for a week of training.  You can also take it to the limit with a complete training in whole animal butchering for pork, lamb and beef lasting 6-8 weeks and running you $10,000. I guess the time when Marlow & Daughters impresario Tom Mylan learned the carcass-cutting trade at Fleishers and slept on Applestone’s couch is a relic of the past. FYI – If you want a more modest (and less pricey) introduction to the art of butchering, you could take Tom Mylan’s “Pig Butchering” course at Brooklyn Kitchen.  See listing above.

OK, I think that wraps up the things that I thought would make good gifts for myself and for my friends and family.  Happy Holidays and Please Recycle!

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Lack of Slaughterhouses Curtails Local Meat Availability

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author:

Recently, I wanted to make a braised eye of round using local beef for a latke party. None of the stores in my area carry locally-produced, pasture-raised meat from artisanal producers.

At local stores, I can purchase dairy and eggs from local producers but I usually have to go to a Greenmarket to get local beef, pork, lamb, chicken or turkey. Usually, I would turn to Grazin’ Angus (Ghent, NY) for beef and DiPaola Turkey Farms (Hamilton, NY) for turkey at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket. I like shopping at Greenmarkets but it is not always convenient.  When I asked Ian Dines of Dines Farms (Oak Hill, NY) for eye of round, all he had was chuck roast, which I nabbed.

I was left wondering why the current intense consumer demand for high quality, local meats has not translated into supply for the city consumer outside of restaurants.

In the latest issue of “Edible Brooklyn” (No.16, Winter 2010), Ann Monroe provides the answer to my conundrum in her article “Foodshed: The Slaughterhouse Problem”.  Monroe highlights a significant impediment to the growth of the local food economy: the lack of slaughterhouses and animal processing facilities available to small, local, artisanal producers.  As noted recently by Judith LaBelle at the Glynwood Awards, “The lack of slaughterhouses is a nationwide problem preventing small-scale producers from expanding their markets.”

Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the management of slaughterhouses to insure clean operations and healthy conditions through the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Certainly, government inspectors should help prevent food borne illness. However, the USDA slaughterhouse regulatory system is broken and needs to be fixed, privileging large industrial meat producers and hurting small farmers.

The major issues of “The Slaugherhouse Problem” are as follows:
1. There are very few independent USDA certified slaughterhouses for each type of animal available for small farmers to patronize.

2. The existing USDA slaughterhouses are often far away from farms, adding to the “food miles” traveled to transport animals — reducing environmental benefits and increasing transport costs.

3. Usually, farmers must schedule the slaughter of animals many months in advance at the USDA slaughterhouses.

4. Long advance scheduling of slaughter makes it difficult for farmers to fulfill orders on demand, satisfy increased demand or take specialty orders.

5. Furthermore, long advance scheduling of slaughter prevents the farmer from harvesting its animals at an optimum moment. Animals mature to optimal weight and feed according to growing seasons and other factors beyond the farmer’s control.

6. The quality of the processing of the meat at the USDA facilities varies and does not always meet the same high standards employed by farmers in raising the animal.

7. Farmers who spend tremendous time and effort caring for their animals in a humane manner must surrender their animals to slaughterhouses that do not necessarily share their values.

8. Slaughterhouses often must adhere to USDA rules do not permit harvest of certain parts of the whole animal, such as blood for sausage.

9. USDA rules are oriented to large scale meat production, leading to sometimes arbitrary enforcement against small scale facilities that cater to artisanal producers. For instance, Star Farmer Joel Salatin operated an outdoor slaughterhouse ruled to be unsanitary by USDA even though his chickens had dramatically fewer bacteria than those slaughtered in an enclosed facility that met USDA standards.

10. Slaughterhouses sometimes return the wrong animal or parts to farmers whose animals have been raised for unique taste, humane and healthy practices and brand identity.

Taking all these issues together, “The Slaughterhouse Problem” demonstrates many obstacles to increasing market share for small, brand name producers of meats. Activists and farmers that want to address “The Slaughterhouse Problem” might propose reforms, such as changing USDA rules to accommodate the legitimate differences in practices between large and small scale producers.
In addition, states wishing to promote local agriculture could craft more effective policies that encourage the creation of meat processing facilities, especially closer to dense urban areas — like Hunts Point Market — where the final product will be distributed and sold.
‘The Slaughterhouse Problem” illustrates one of may examples of systemic flaws in food business infrastructure tilted too far in favor of large scale production, hindering the development of local agriculture and farming.
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NYC Council Speaker Announces FoodWorks New York

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author:

On December 7, 2009, NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a bold, new and comprehensive initiative aimed at overhauling government’s role in the food system of New York City, called “FoodWorks New York.” At the New School, Speaker Quinn spoke at a celebratory meeting of the Good Food Good Jobs coalition which had coalesced around the enactment of FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) Initiatives.

Speaker Quinn’s speech was breathtaking in its scope and optimism detailing what government could undertake to improve the local food system. It was amazing to hear a politician articulate issues that many advocates in the food movement have been seeking to address for many years.  At the very end of her remarks, she identifies the importance of promoting urban agriculture!

Accordingly, in recognition of what might turn out to be a historic occasion for urban agriculture, particularly in NYC, I have decided to reprint Speaker Quinn’s speech in its entirety below.  Quinn has ambitions to be Mayor, so food activists should take note of these pledges and seek to hold Quinn accountable to deliver on them in the next four years.

During the speech, Quinn’s staff distributed and then collected “FoodWorks Registration Cards” which queried “What areas of New York City’s food system are you most concerned about?”  Please share your comments with me (and Speaker Quinn) about FoodWorks NY.

Food Works New York
NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn

Introduction*

Suppose I told you that New York City had the opportunity to create thousands of new jobs.

Now, suppose I went on to say that we’ve actually had that opportunity for years, we just weren’t paying close enough attention. I bet you’d all have some choice words for me – the kind that shouldn’t be repeated in polite company.

Alright, now suppose I told you that by taking steps to create those jobs, we could also improve public health and reduce our energy consumption. We could fight childhood obesity and asthma. We could keep millions of dollars in the local economy, instead of sending those dollars across the country or around the world. But we still weren’t doing it.

Well the fact is, we have been ignoring those exact opportunities. For years, we’ve been missing a chance to create a greener, healthier, and more economically vibrant city. How? By ignoring the enormous potential of our city’s food system.

Too often, we allow food issues to get pushed to the fringes of public policy. Maybe folks assume that the only goal of food initiatives is to feed the hungry. Or they think that worrying about where your food comes from is a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.

Some Examples of Food Issues*

But the truth is, each step in the food cycle – from the farm all the way to the table – has a major impact on the lives of every New Yorker. And each step has the potential to create jobs, to improve public health, and to preserve our shared environment. Or – if we continue to ignore those opportunities – the potential to cost us jobs, increase obesity, and pollute our air. Here’s an example – outside of the US military, New York City is the largest institutional buyer of food in the country. The Department of Education [DOE] alone serves over 860,000 meals a day. But way too much of that money is spent outside the city and outside the state.

In the last few years, the DOE has started offering salad bars at many public schools – a great initiative we hope to expand. To stock those salad bars they spend nearly 300,000 dollars a year to buy over half a million pounds of Romaine lettuce. But the lettuce they serve doesn’t come from New York State. It comes from California or Maryland. The problem isn’t that we can’t find lettuce in New York State. In fact we’ve identified a farmer in Orange County who grows Romaine lettuce, and would love to sell to the DOE. The problem is, there isn’t a facility in the area to wash, cut and bag that lettuce so it can be served in schools.

We have the product. We have the demand. And we’re already spending the money. All we need to do is to bring that kind of wash, cut and bag facility to the five boroughs. And wouldn’t that be a great way to put some of our now empty manufacturing space to work?Doing this will create jobs in our City, keep money in our area, and prevent half a million pounds of food from being transported all the way across the country.

Here’s another example – 97 percent of the food that comes into the Hunt’s Point market is transported by truck. Only 3 percent comes in by rail. Now the City has already committed to redeveloping the Hunts Point market, and they deserve credit for that. But we need to make sure we do it right. If we were simply to double the amount of food coming in by rail, it would eliminate 58 million truck miles every year. 58 million miles. To put it in perspective, that’s the equivalent of a single truck making 23,000 trips around the globe. Or let’s look at it another way. Eliminating those trucks would prevent 76,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being pumped into the air every year. It would take over 29,000 acres of trees to eliminate that much carbon dioxide. That’s the size of 35 Central Parks.

These are some of the reasons why we need to take a comprehensive look at our food system, and find ways to make it stronger. For too long we’ve taken a piecemeal approach to these issues, without any kind of long term planning.

Recent NYC Food Initiatives*

Now make no mistake – there’s been a lot of great work done on food initiatives in the last few years. Work done by Council Members like Bill de Blasio, Leroy Comrie, Joel Rivera and Eric Gioia. Work done by Mayor Bloomberg; Borough President Scott Stringer; Former Health Commissioner Tom Frieden, and our Food Policy Coordinator Ben Thomases, along with so many others.

I’m especially proud of the work the City Council has done. Our Food Stamp Data Match with HRA has helped thousands of New Yorkers enroll for food stamps. We’ve restored millions of dollars to food pantries and meals on wheels. This year we more than doubled the amount of food stamps being spent at Greenmarkets. And working with EDC and Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, we’re constructing a brand new kitchen incubator at the city’s La Marqueta building. This will help dozens of small food businesses create hundreds of new jobs. Each of these initiatives is stimulating our economy, while helping people feed their families, and access more nutritious food.

But it wasn’t until the FRESH program that we began to find a more forward thinking, soup to nuts approach. As Bruce [Both, President, UFCW Local 1500] and Peggy [M. Shepard, Executive Director and Founder, We Act for Environmental Justice] mentioned earlier, the FRESH program grew out of our Supermarket Commission, which brought together government, industry and labor with food advocates and community representatives – meaning all stakeholders and all perspectives had input.

Their recommendations took into consideration the full scope of the food cycle, and the full range of potential benefits – from improving public health to strengthening the local economy.  What they came up with was the first of its kind in the nation – the use of both zoning and tax incentives to bring more grocery stores to underserved communities. And we should all be incredibly proud and excited that the FRESH zoning initiatives are about to be passed by the full City Council this week.

The FRESH program has become a critical part of our efforts to create jobs and promote nutrition in the city. But more importantly, it has given us a model for even larger efforts.

Food Works New York*

So today I am proud to announce a bold new initiative – one that will be a major focus of the City Council in the coming months, and inform all of our work throughout the next four years. Over the next six months, we will be developing a long term, comprehensive plan for our food system – one that is healthy, sustainable, and economically vibrant.

We’re calling it FoodWorks New York, because it’s about using food to put New Yorkers to work, and finding ways to make food work for us. We’re going to reevaluate and redefine every step in New York City’s food cycle – production, processing, transport, retail, consumption, and post-consumption.

To help us develop our plan, we’ll be passing legislation that will require city agencies to report back on food related measures. This data will help us set ambitious but achievable goals, and better coordinate efforts across all levels of city government. At the same time, we’re having conversations with a wide array of experts from the same sectors we tapped in our Supermarket Commission.

Food Work New York: Five Goals*

All of this work will culminate in the Spring, when we’ll present our final FoodWorks blueprint. That blueprint will help us achieve five clear and critical goals.

Goal number one: Improve our city’s food infrastructure. Too much of that infrastructure is outdated and inefficient, which costs us jobs and damages our environment. That’s why we need to begin making key, targeted investments – creating
better links between the city and upstate producers, and supporting a smarter redevelopment of Hunts Point.

Our second goal: Create new and better jobs in the food industry. We need to attract more food industry companies to the city, like we’re doing with the FRESH initiative. And we’re going to find creative ways to expand local food manufacturing – like we’re doing with our kitchen incubator, and like we could be doing with a brand new wash, cut, and bag facility for the Department of Education’s lettuce. We talk a lot about getting people food, so they can feed their families. Now let’s use food to get people jobs, so they can afford to feed their families.

Goal number three – keep more of our local food dollars in the local economy. Food sales and services in the five boroughs constitute a 30 billion dollar market, but percent of the fruits and vegetables coming through Hunts Point are produced in New York

We can change that – through state legislation allowing the City to prioritize local producers. We can also expand our farmers markets and CSAs, and encourage more wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants to use regional products. And when we send more dollars to our local farms, we need to make sure they’re being used to create good paying jobs. It’s high time for the State of New York to protect the rights of farm workers.

Our fourth goal – reduce diet related diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. 58 percent of all adults in New York City are overweight or obese, and more than half a million New Yorkers have been diagnosed with diabetes. We can fight this epidemic by bringing more healthy foods into low income neighborhoods and making sure that they’re affordable. We can enroll more New Yorkers in Food Stamps and WIC, get more children taking advantage of free meals. We can invest in nutrition and cooking education for New York City families.

Now our final goal is one that’s often overlooked when thinking about food policy in the city – we’re going to reduce environmental damage from the production, transport, and consumption of food. We can help get more food transported into the city by rail instead of by truck. We can expand urban agriculture through community gardens, green roofs, and urban farms. We can create programs allowing restaurants and homeowners to more easily compost their food scraps.*

Conclusion*

These are just a few examples of the ways we can begin to meet our five goals – improve our infrastructure, create jobs, strengthen our food economy, reduce diet related disease, and protect our environment. In the next six months, we’ll be looking for even more ideas, and announcing new and exciting proposals in FoodWorks New York. We’ll especially be looking for initiatives that can be done at little or no cost to taxpayers, and I believe in many cases, we’ll actually save the City money. And we’ll be counting on each of you to help us dramatically change the way our city looks at food.

With FoodWorks, we’ll make sure that food works for our economy, that it works for our environment, and that it works for our health. Because the next time I see one of you, I want to be able to say that we are creating thousands of new jobs. I want to be able to tell you that we are protecting the health of our children, that we are improving our air quality and supporting our local farmers. I want to tell every New Yorker that we have a real vision for the future of food in this city. And I want to tell them that when we had the opportunity to use our food system to make their lives better, we took it for all it was worth.

[Headings and emphasis supplied by thegreenest.net!] Click here for a PDF of Speaker Quinn’s FoodWorks New York speech.

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A New Hope for Our Food: Notes from Young Farmers Conference

Posted: December 11th, 2009 | Author:

On December 3 and 4, 2009, I attended 2nd Annual Young Farmers Conference hosted by Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.  The panels and talks were inspiring as was the company of farmers and food activists.

View from courtyard at Stone Barns Center

First of all: Get thee to Stone Barns! No matter what the reason. Stone Barns is an 80 acre former Rockefeller estate located in Pocantico Hills. Everything that Stone Barns Center does is beautiful, peaceful and precise — its buildings, its food, and the materials for the conference. I walked into the Stone Barns greenhouses and it felt like a cathedral consecrated to the goodness of sustainable agriculture.  For those of you who may be intimidated by Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the upscale restaurant, don’t be. On the grounds, there is a lovely affordable cafe too. The farm is also a different but related enterprise, so you can visit and tour at minimal charge.

The conference was attended by about 200 farmers and was packed. The program was impressive. The sessions that were offered ranged from policy discussion to practical matters, like slaughtering a chicken.

Greenhouse: Farm at Stone Barns

A recurring theme was the “generosity that farmers show in sharing their knowledge freely with each other” as stated by start-up farmer Ben Chute from Hearty Roots Farm. Imparting knowledge from experienced farmer to beginner was cast with some urgency. According to Stone Barns Center “The number of American farmers aged 55 or older has grown from 37% to over 60% in the last 60 years, meaning the future of farming depends heavily on the entry of a new generation of farmers.”  So young farmers represent the future of the food system and a new hope for its evolution.

By and large, the conference was populated with people who had been working on farms rather than people who were tending vegetable patches in their backyards, although there were a few hobbyists too. The tone was optimistic, supportive, serious and professional. Farmers were upfront about their love of working the land with their hands yet understood that “operating a farm is running a business whether it’s netting $700 or $7,000,000 per year,” said Rachel Schneider of Hawthorne Valley Farms.

I attended sessions on some of the following topics: Permaculture, Overcoming Obstacles to Starting Your Own Farm, Market Baskets for Low Income CSAs, Farm Beginnings Program: How To Set Goals and Market and Develop Your Farm.  All of the presentations were well-organized and informative. By far, the two most relevant sessions for urban agriculture were “Growing in Unusual Places” and “Feeding Our Cities: Marketing Products to Urban Populations.”

Rooftop Farms, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

In “Unusual Places,” Annie Novak of Rooftop Farms described her experience this past Summer starting a community farm on top of a television & film studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. [Urban ag may have become the new “radical chic” — Novak reported that Vogue had a photo shoot at her farm.] Comparing notes from earlier sessions demonstrated to me the challenges for urban agriculture. For instance, Novak said “We couldn’t really compost the way you would in a rural area because we have to haul the plant waste up and down stairs.” Novak went on to describe limitations of composting directly back into the soil in raised beds on a roof because the weight must be kept within certain limits. Building up layers of soil over time is not so easy to achieve in a roof garden.

In “Feeding Our Cities.” New York City was presented as a case study about how determined food activists with a vision have made a huge difference in the food system of state and city. NYC Greenmarkets started in Union Square in 1976. Today, there are about 85-100 farmer’s markets in NYC and 49 of them are managed by Greenmarkets, a project of Council on the Environment of NYC (CENYC). June Russell explained how Greenmarkets increased access to fresh food in low-income areas by accepting food stamps via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) in 24 of its locations.  As a result, the amount of food stamps spent at NYC Greenmarkets soared from $900 in 2005 to $200,000 in 2009.

Paula Lukats and Jen Griffiths from Just Food, a non-profit dedicated to improving access to healthy, fresh food, discussed its program that supports Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in NYC. Starting in 1996, Just Food has provided technical assistance and training to people who want to start a CSA in their own neighborhood. The members of a CSA buy “shares” in the farmer’s harvest with the length of season, price and size of the share determined by the farmer. Usually running weekly from June to September (but sometimes May to December), the farmer will deliver fresh produce to a “drop location” in the city for pick up by CSA Members. Just Food began with 6 CSAs and now assists 80 with only 1 or 2 dropping out each year.

Mokum Carrots: Farm at Stone Barns

Interestingly, a mission-driven for-profit company, Basis Foods, presented its newly operational business model for delivering fresh, local food to the City.  Just Food and Greenmarkets emphasize developing personal, direct relationships between consumers and farmers.  By contrast, Basis seeks to act as an intermediary to streamline the relationship between consumer and farmer. Basis manages a distribution network for delivering fresh local food from the farmers to chefs, retailers and institutions.

Basis has set a goal that the foods that it provides are “100% traceable” to the farm and its method of growing. Starting in early 2009, Basis has grown dramatically as it fills a need that has been identified by food advocates repeatedly. The for-profit model is susceptible to manipulation by markets, investors and financiers, raising some concerns about how Basis will be true to its own ideals. Founder Bion Bartning responded to this concern: “For our type of business to succeed, we have to develop trust at all levels of the business. The minute that we seem to be untrustworthy, the consumers, farmers and retailers will turn their backs on us.”

I would like to be objective and report about everything that took place at the Young Farmers Conference from a neutral perspective. However, I have to let it be known that the Young Farmers Conference kind of blew my mind. The people were so inspired, inspiring and intelligent that I was filled with hope for the future of our food shed. Everyone there seemed to understand the deep and complex issues at work in the US food system and wanted to engage in work that would promote positive change.

Based on the interest that I saw at this conference and intense level of effort and discourse, I tend to think Stone Barns may need to start looking for bigger venues, especially if it wants to train and network enough farmers to really bring about systemwide evolution in food production in the US.

FYI – To listen to a talk back about the Young Farmer’s Conference on NPR, click here.

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Fun Flavor Fantasy Can Be Food Nightmare

Posted: December 10th, 2009 | Author:

In Michael Pollan’s recent book “In Defense of Food,” he makes a simple provocative statement — Eat Food.  Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

Pollan writes that much of what is being sold in the supermarket today is not really food, rather, its “food.” He emphasizes that industrial food products are akin to slow-acting poisons that cause obesity and diabetes and, as such, should not be regarded as food that sustain our health and well-being. In practice, Pollan is advocating that we eat “whole foods” and avoid “processed foods.”

With Pollan’s perspective in mind, I read Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker article “The Taste Makers” (11/23/09) and experienced the horror of recognition.

Khatchadourian has written an excellent research article exploring the $20 billion flavor and scent industry. He enters the universe of The Society of Flavor Chemists, known as “flavorists,” who concoct tastes that fool the palette and engorge profits for the food and beverage industry. I read with great interest about the knowledge and skill of these Would-Be Willy Wonkas whose creations evoke the same awe . . . and fear as the fabled candyman.

Flavorists are the PT Barnum’s of the processed food industry, selling razzle-dazzle to consumers’ tongues and noses in order to overcome the needs of the rest of the human body and body politic. Khatchadourian writes:

“About ninety percent of the money that Americans spend in the supermarket goes toward processed food, much of which could not be made without [flavoring] companies.”

The principle personage profiled in the article is a female flavorist, Michelle Hagen, employed by Swiss flavor giant Givaudin, who seems most enamored with the sugary tastes of her youth: Hubba Bubba, Cherry Icee, Dr. Pepper, etc. Hagen’s bubbly enthusiasm for flavoring seems to mirror the perky personas of the “foods” she adores. As a reader, I was rooting for Hagen — a woman in a Old Boy’s Club. However, her Froot Loop fantasies gibe with the consuming public’s rose-colored goggles yet hide the cold calculation about how flavors dump health and pump profits for the food industrial machine.  According to Khatchadourian:

“Most of the food-and-beverage companies have become marketing-and-distribution companies,” a flavor company executive told me . . .I understood what he meant when, in one of his laboratories, I saw a number of his colleagues working on a tasteless “slurry,” consisting largely of starch, oil and salt, which a client was hoping to transform into a marketable product.

The food company’s flavorists mimicked the chemicals from the fresh ingredients found in guacamole “with an eye toward injecting the flavor compounds into the slurry in the most stable and cost-effective way.” The concoction that Khatchadourian describes being made sounds plucked from the plot of a creepy science fiction movie — like Wall-E or Soylent Green — except that it is just another mundane example of how processed food companies continually pack shelves and aisles of the market ever higher with “new” products for greater profits.

Not surprisingly, the “slurry” described by Khatchadourian consists of the unholy trinity of fat, salt and sweet.  These three substances occur rarely in nature so that humans are not wired to limit their appetites for them. It is no accident that processed food almost always supplies these three elements which seem to fuel the epidemic overeating in our land.

Khatchadourian interviewed flavorists about the potential health who said “the essence of their work is to bring greater enjoyment to life, which is not necessarily the same as providing food that is good for you.” The best defense the flavorists could offer derived from the fact that their work could mimic unhealthy flavors that had been removed from foods, like the beloved trans fats, recently excised from Oreos. I think Pollan might say that the Oreo is still not a food, even without trans fats.

As the son of two scientists, I have to admit that the flavorists’ research and discoveries about the chemical composition of complex olfactory sensation impressed me as “almost getting to pharmaceutical grade science.” I was titillated with visions of extracting exotic scents and titrating “volatile” flavors, like Tahitian pomelo and the Jamaican ugli fruit.  Flavor science seems infused with the hubris of Icarus, harnessing some attributes of nature without really understanding its complex power. For instance, “orange” flavor was initially built from nine chemical compounds in 1948. Now, scientists have identified more than 200 others that contribute to an “orange” taste. Perhaps ten years from now, flavorists will find the orange scent is even more complex. Or maybe, the flavorists will simply eat an orange and give up trying to copy it.

Reducing whole foods to constituent chemicals harks back to Pollan’s discussion of the science of nutrition. “In Defense of Food” gives examples showing that scientists don’t really understand all the diverse positive and negative elements present in food and plants. Every new food fad is heralded by a discovery of some positive or negative substance: transfats, cholestoral, vitamins, omega 3 fats, fiber.  The food faddists seek to reduce the benefits of all food down to a single essential formula and then the food industry exploits the fad to sell the public ever more processed food, emphasizing that little sliver of isolated knowledge (Fiber Added! No Trans Fats! Low Cholestoral! Rich in Omega 3s!).

Every new discovery about food and nutrition science should teach us that scientists neither know the whole truth about food nor how food impacts our bodies. Pollan’s stated goal in debunking nutrition science is to simplify eating and end nutrition fad whiplash.  We know that people are healthier when they lay off the processed foods. It’s that simple. In fact, the food faddists try to make food seem complex because it keeps them working as consultants and experts, tinkering with knowledge that nature provides for free. The same seems to be true of the flavorists but with even more lucrative results.   By creating flavors that signal our bodies to eat more substances providing neither health or sustenance, flavorists have unwittingly cast themselves as the mad scientists of the diabetes and obesity epidemic.

Khatchadourian demonstrates that flavorists seek to fool our involuntary senses while the food and beverage companies sell more product by appealing to our conscience minds with tall tales about the “food.”  Products with a story sell more, like “Madasgascar Vanilla” versus simple “vanilla.” Hence, food and beverage companies are selling consumers a fantasy narrative about the distant origins of substances flavored to recall exotic places or imagined feelings. I am beginning to feel like I am trapped in Plato’s Cave and the American public is buying and eating shadows of the Forms.

So what can we do to promote eating food rather than fantasy? Maybe we fight flavor with flavor, story with story.  Recently, I had the pleasure to hear Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, speak to the 2009 Young Farmer’s Conference at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Barber has been at the forefront of the farm-to-chef movement, sourcing ingredients responsibly, organically and locally.  Farmers asked him what he saw as the future of the local food movement:

Flavor is what chefs are trained to do. Give me a story about a new varietal that has never been tasted before. Give me something with a unique taste. Most chefs don’t care about the environmental or nutritional value but give them a story and they can ask the customer to pay more. If the customer is hooked by the story, he will go out to the supermarket and try to find that food for himself.  Take grass fed beef. No one was eating grass fed beef until chefs started telling the story about it. Where it grazed. Who the farmer was. Now, the consumer is asking for it in stores. And it’s not so special. That is how to keep pushing for change in our food system.

I think Barber is correct — to a point. Blue Hill serves an elite, educated clientele that partake in progressive ideas about food which slowly trickle down to the buying public. The impact is slow and incremental. Meanwhile, the flavor companies are mixing potions for a million NEW and IMPROVED products to support their $20 billion industry and overwhelming the average consumer’s senses with compelling back stories and vapors that continue to make them sick.

Today’s fun flavor fantasy could be tomorrow’s food nightmare, if we don’t take swift and decisive action to promote eating whole, fresh foods for all.

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Five Borough Farm: Urban Agriculture As the Future of Green Building

Posted: December 8th, 2009 | Author:

INTERVIEW WITH ARCHITECT GITA NANDAN

Recently, I met with my friend and colleague, Gita Nandan, at Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Gita is the principal of the groovy green architecture firm, thread collective, and a motive force behind GreenHomeNYC, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and touring green buildings.

I spoke with Gita about why she sees the future of green building as linked to urban agriculture.

What is the future of green building right now?
The green building marketplace is totally over-run right now even with the overall market is down. Green building went rapidly from a small group of fringe folks who were dedicated to social change to the darling of big business and government overnight. Today, there are literally thousands of people with ‘LEED Accredited Professional’ printed after their names who have never worked on a green building and who may or may not care so deeply environmental progress.

I have observed that phenomenon too with some dismay. Isn’t it a good thing that the mainstream market forces have begun to seek out green objectives and sustainability credentials, like LEED?
I am a bit dubious about the widespread understanding of environmentally transformative practices in light of the recent rush to green professionalization and standardization. Green building really involves continually pushing the envelopes of the professions and the practices — not achieving some static benchmark that everyone can attain at once. For instance, one day solar panels won’t even be seen as a green design element because some other, more efficient technology or better building system will have replaced them.

Then what’s the next frontier for green building?
I am looking for more ways to express a green design agenda that is progressive rather than status quo. Like you, I have been investigating ways that green building projects can be combined with urban agriculture to be truly sustainable and catalytic for neighborhood change. A private green residence doesn’t do much to help people in poor communities understand their environmental impact and limited environmental resources.

What are you working on now?

We just received a grant from the Design Trust to work with Added Value on exploring how urban agriculture can be expanded to have a greater city wide impact, incorporating a metric based study.  Currently New York City does not have an urban agriculture policy in place.  We will be exploring the potential of how this can take shape.   The project is called the Five Borough Farm.

We are also in the planning process with Added Value exploring the expansion of programs and facilities at the Red Hook Community Farm.

What would that expansion look like for Red Hook Farm?

One idea is to create a Red Hook Center for Sustainability and Agriculture.  We would add a 7,000 square foot facility to the existing farm that will be carbon neutral and give back to the environment with a knowledge-based center for community learning about sustainability and the culture of food.  For instance, the building would have solar power with a learning center teaching about how the photovoltaics work and how the system provides electricity.  We envision having similar exhibits about biodiesel, black and grey water processing, wind power and animal husbandry.

Whoa, you lost me there. Did you say, ‘Animal husbandry.’ I am getting flashbacks from studying for the SATs.
OK, OK. How about ‘caring for animals’? Does that make you feel better?

Marginally.
Anyways, we plan to have a wayfinding system for schoolchildren and signage everywhere. To the extent that systems require operation and maintenance, we will engage visitors and volunteers in these processes.

This is a really ambitious plan.  How are you going to get these all done?

Our idea is to proceed in two phases. Phase 1 will be exploration of ideas, community outreach, need identification and pre-design. Phase 2 will involve building a small functional portion of the larger structure, say 2000 to 3000 square feet. We are going to begin with a study to show that urban farming is a viable business and identify its importance.

Sounds right up thegreenest alley.
Yes, it is. We are going to explore how private-public models, like the Red Hook Community Farm, function.

What makes the Red Hook Farm private-public?
[NYC Department of] Parks owns the land and lets a private not-for-profit, Added Value, operate a farm there.  It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and its important because the farm is actually considered a public park.  Unlike most other farms that are on private land.

OK.  What is the roll-out plan for the Five Borough Farm?

First, we are working to determine the a set of specific metrics.  The focus will be on the triple bottom line impact that Added Value and urban agriculture can have.  These are impacts on social justice, economic justice, and the environment.

Next, we will develop a so-called “Kit of Parts.”  We will research best practices used by Added Value and other successful urban farms to produce a guide for urban farmers.

Lastly, we will convene city agencies, community groups, and local stakeholders to discuss what would be the best strategies to promote urban farm development.

And what kind of food productivity could New York City expect? We need to have a consumption and production study that shows the challenges and obstacles.   Then, we need to have a city-wide discussion with decision makers about potential policy impediments to urban farming.  We need to understand the foodprint of NYC.

Foodprint is the amount of land needed to supply one person’s nutritional needs for a year.

That sounds like a government function.  Shouldn’t the government be charged with analyzing the foodprint?
Currently, there is one full-time government employee working on agriculture in New York City and she is not even employed by the City, she works for New York State Department of Agriculture [and Markets].

There is currently one person running the Office of Food Policy Coordinator within the Office of Econonmic Opportunity.  This office is focused on providing access to healthy food for low income New Yorkers, which is a great thing, but there is no coordinated effort at the moment that addresses urban ag[riculture] and food in a systematic or holistic way.

[Side Note: A resolution was introduced on June 30, 2009 in the NY City Council by Bill de Blasio, called “FoodprintNYC,” calling for an initiative to create greater access to local, fresh, healthy food, especially in low-income communities as well as city-run institutions. For more information on this effort to pass legislation analyzing the NYC “foodprint,” see NYC Foodprint Alliance]

What are your short-term needs to get this process off the ground?

We are working with Design Trust to hire three fellows. First, we need a statistician to compile health, food, and economic data. Next, we need someone to act as a community liaison to discuss how to get the neighborhood involved in the planning and running of an expanded Red Hook garden. Finally, we need to undertake some mapping to show the results of research in graphic form.

Is this only for Red Hook? It sounds broader.
Right. The idea is to take the Red Hook Center and then replicate the model throughout the City. I have often thought that libraries, which are (unfortunately) dying, could be converted into “Sustainability Learning Centers.” That way, the library could engage communities in active education that impacts our daily lives.

Great idea, except that every community campaign wants to somehow include libraries. The libraries themselves are beleaguered from responding to these entreaties when they are trying to run their core business of lending books.
OK. I may have to re-think the library bit.

Will the design be driven by the community? If so, how will you avoid the dreaded ‘Architecture by Committee?’
Very funny. The design will be proposed by Added Value and Thread Collective but the elements of the design will be suggested and approved through community meetings. We also want to engage community youth in the actual building of the project, like putting up chicken coops and solar panels.

So, in a sense, this is not about a pretty monument dropped in from the outside?
Not at all. This project is not a community garden project. It’s not just about beautification and open space. It’s about learning to run urban agriculture as a business: a thriving non-profit education business with a for-profit component that grows food for sale.

How is the Red Hook space going to sustain both the education and production sides of the business?
This particular part of the plan for Added Value is still under discussion. The inclusion of farmland managed by Added Value on Governor’s Island opens the door to more opportunities that could provide straight cash flow to the organization while the Red Hook site becomes geared to education.

The expansion of the Red Hook Community Farm reminds of New Alchemy project in Massachusetts. I visited that project as a child and it was inspiring and revolutionary. Are you familiar with New Alchemy?
No. What is that?

Bioshelter illustration from New Alchemy (1970)

It was sort of exactly like what you are describing for the Red Hook Center. New Alchemy had aquaculture with Tilapia before anyone even knew what that fish was and at a time when it was not even sold in stores.
Cool. What happened to them. Are they still around?

I think New Alchemy failed because the environmental movement lost steam in the 1980s and 1990s and it was never self-sustaining. Are you afraid that the green movement is a fad that will die out as the American economy groans in pain?
No. I think green thinking is now embedded in business thinking to some extent. However, not all of the aspects that are embedded are positive, like ethanol production, which has been a disaster.

What about New Alchemy’s other problem, spreading itself too thin? Does this expansion of Red Hook Community Farm have the potential to dilute Added Value and one of the most inspiring urban agriculture projects in the City?
No. I think that mission spread is a danger for any mission expansion. Added Value has wanted to expand in this way for many years and has planned carefully to get to this point. In fact, there was an earlier round of planning for this change before Thread Collective came on board to refine the idea further.

I guess I am concerned about Red Hook Community Farm going “high tech.” What I love about Red Hook Community Farm is that it’s pile of dirt on a parking lot. I think that the project speaks to youth about the possibility of a small positive action having a big positive impact.
I completely agree with that.

Do you fear that if there are new buildings and complicated green systems that the Farm many alienate people in the neighborhood who might see the more sophisticated undertakings as out of reach?
We believe that every element in the Red Hook Center should be created to engage the community. We also believe that the community that has supported the Farm will support this change. The building will not be static museum. It will still be a working farm. The farm will just have more bells and whistles to engage even more local people in the possibilities of improved sustainability. We think that it is essential to help people understand their connections to the new green economy. And we think that the Red Hook Center is the best way to achieve that aim.
Sounds good.

[Full Disclosure: Gita and I have worked together on several projects together over the years: partnering on GreenHouse Effect, a sustainable life style exhibition; organizing GreenHomeNYC building tour of my project, Greenbelt; and working on a green renovation project in DUMBO.]

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Slow Food NYC Raises $10,000 for Youth Farm

Posted: December 6th, 2009 | Author:

Master Bartenders Compete Head-to-Head for a Cause

On December 3, 2009, SlowFoodNYC collected upwards of $10,000 at its First Annual Cocktail Fundraiser to benefit The Youth Garden Project, planned for a location in Brooklyn TBD. 100% of donations raised went to the urban farm project.

SlowFoodNYC is finalizing discussions with several potential partner sites to run a youth-operated urban farm. The entirely volunteer-run chapter of Slow Food NYC will use the funds raised to obtain compost, to install a rainwater catchment irrigation system, to buy tools and storage sheds, and to prepare for spring planting. The aim is for youth farmers and SlowFoodNYC volunteers to work together to plant the crops, to maintain the farm and to run a farm stand.

The event was entitled “Paint the Town Green” held in the home of Board Member Sandra McLean and featured “slow” cocktails made by some of NYC’s most illustrious mixologists from the Clover Club, PDT, Little Branch and Death and Co. as well as celebrity mixologist Allen Katz. I sipped each of five different cocktails and left feeling very generous indeed.

I had the pleasure of meeting cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, the author of “Imbibe!” (which was auctioned off later in the night). He told me that he was working on a new book about alcohol punch. Wondrich and I compared notes on the “Suffragette” a 1909 cocktail I discovered which resembles a martini — created to poke fun at the men that supported the nascent women’s movement. True to “slow” form, the hosts provided some delicious food made with local ingredients. After all, McLean is a chef herself who teaches at The Institute of Culinary Education.

McLean explained the impetus behind the farm project: “It is especially gratifying for us to sponsor this Youth Farm Project, as the locations that we are considering are all located in one of our city’s ‘food deserts’, meaning that wholesome, honest, fresh food is scarce.” In addition to providing fresh produce in the community, “this farm will help kids learn about good food and its value towards their health and well-being” added McLean.

To learn more about what you can do to support the growth, maintenance and development of the SlowFoodNYC Youth Farm Project, contact info@slowfoodnyc.org. Click here to support the Youth Farm Project with your donation. 100% of your donation will go to the farm project, rather than administrative costs or salaries.

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Revisiting “A Locavore’s Thanksgiving”

Posted: December 1st, 2009 | Author:

Turkey Strut at Mecox Bay Dairy Farm

The Locavore’s Thanksgiving is now behind me.

What a lot of messing around I did to source all that stuff. Exhausting!

Anyways, I wanted to chime in with some post-prandial thoughts about what worked out well and what did not.

General Success

Overall, the family gathering was a lot of fun and all the eats were delicious. The local challenge was the talk of the meal. My Aunt Ellen told me that her rabbi had spoken to the synagogue about the importance of local food at Friday services. I toasted to “Provenance” that provides chance and bounty allowing us all to thrive and mingle.

Cooking and Stovetop “Smoking”

My father-in-law, Dan, researched all of the recipes and handed out cooking assigments to me and to my brother-in-law, Bino. Most of the dishes came from Cook’s Illustrated or Fine Cooking. All of the preparation involved some fussing but yielded excellent-tasting results. Some said it was the best-tasting Thanksgiving ever. But maybe we say that every year.

We had one major nightmare. The oven broke. Right after our guests had arrived but before everything was cooked, the fan in the back of the oven started making a noise like a plane landing. In a hasty shuffle, myself, my father-in-law and brother-in-law all shifted to finishing the dishes on the stove top.

I cooked a sweet potato gratin in a huge clam pot. My cousin Adam told me later he loved the smoky flavor. I guess the metal bottom was a bit thin for the pro-style range burner heat. Luckily, good cheer prevailed and it all worked out in the end. We all had a lovely time  . . . and lots and lots of dishes to wash.

Turkey

On Wednesday, my wife, Lara, picked up the turkeys Mecox Bay Dairy. Art Ludlow took Lara aside and said: “We also sell beef with no fear hormones because I just walk up to them in the field and shoot them point blank.” Rustic!  The turkey was delicious thanks to the expert culinary skills of my father-in-law.  He cooks the white and dark meat separately on metal trays to be able to adjust time and heat for these very different types of meats. Cook’s Illustrated and Martha Stewart both have good recipes for this approach to the big bird.

Mecox Sunrise by Mecox Bay Dairy

Cheese

We bought some big wedges of three types of cheese from Mecox Bay Dairy: Mecox Sunrise, Sigit, and Shawondasee.  All excellent eating.

Bacon and Sausage

Due to a communication breakdown with Dines Farms, I snagged bacon and sausage from the oldest continuously operating butcher shop in NYC, Staubitz Market.  The no-nitrate bacon came from Nodine Farms, Goshen, CT.

Brussel Sprouts

OK, I kind of blew it here.  The recipe called for 2 pounds of sprouts. We tripled that. Note to self: Pounds per stalk is not a reliable method of measurement. We found ourselves short several pounds of sprouts. In a last minute dash to the local market, I bought the remainder needed. The store carried Mr. Sprout — a food packager at the Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx. I called to discover the Brussel source for Mr. Sprout but got nowhere. Hmmph! At least the sprouts were packed in the Bronx . . . .

Sang Lee colorful carrots

Carrots, Sweet Potatoes, Turnips, Onions & Garlic

I got all of these items from Sang Lee except the turnips, which I snagged at Garden of Eve (after hours, thanks).

Milk &  Cream

As it turns out, Milk Thistle had no cream. I went to Whole Foods and nabbed some Ronnybrook Cream. For the average reader, please note that organic milk and cream from Stonyfield Farms is probably a good option and widely available.  Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield CEO, sources the milk from the same dairy farms that produce the company’s yoghurt. Organic Valley milk and cream are probably pretty good too because this company of 1,300 dairy farms has to source most of its dairy close to NYC in order to avoid spoilage.

Butter

Did anyone make homemade butter out there?

Honey

In the end, I got honey from Wickham’s Fruit Farm, Cutchogue, NY. Amazing fresh cider donuts kept warm on a woodburning potbelly stove. Fall classic. Yum!

Flour

The flour from Wild Hive Farm has good flavor. Bakers should use caution because stone ground flours absorb liquids differently (less) than steel ground flours. The slight change in the consistency makes stone ground all purpose flour behave like a half-half combination of whole wheat and white flour.

Concerned about the results for the pies and out of time to test the results, we opted for a traditional-style organic flour.  However, my brother-in-law, Bino Marsetti, cranked out home-made pasta using Wild Hive flour on the rainy day after Thanksgiving.  He found the flour usable and flavorful but wetter than usual. Bino made delicious tortellini stuffed with chopped turkey and arugula finished with a sage butter. Buon Gusto!

Since writing about Wild Hive Farm, I have discovered two other NY mills do exist but none as committed to totally local and organic like Don Lewis.  Birkett Mills, Penn Yan, NY has been producing buckwheat products, like Wolff’s brand, since 1797 and claims that the Finger Lakes region is America’s buckwheat capital. Champlain Valley Milling Corp., Westport, NY is a family-owned organic flour mill shipping all over the US and in operation since 1985 packaging whole, white bread, pastry, spelt, rye, kamut, and cornmeal flours as well as cracked grains and grain and seed mixes.

Apples

The Razor Russet at Wickham's Fruit Farm

After all the back-and-forth, we packed a peck of apples from The Milk Pail Farm & Orchard, Watermill, NY. This farm is operated by the Halsey family, a branch of the same family that runs Green Thumb Organic Farm. Milk Pail farms with the same Cornell standards used by Terhune Orchards. We also grabbed a few apples from Wickham’s Fruit Farm, Cutchogue, NY, including the Razor, an apple I had never eaten before.

The “Razor” is great russet apple with excellent flavor. Medium sized with a thick, speckly golden bronze skin, almost like a pear. The flesh is firm, slightly coarse yellowish white. The Razor is very sweet, making it great for fresh eating and for cooking.

Wine

When I arrived at The Lenz Winery, I tried a few other wines. My intended choice, The White Label Chardonnay, seemed more like a light summer wine. I switched to the 2006 Gold Label Chardonnay, finished in oak, and a 2005 Gewurtztraminer, which was full of spice, grapefruit and complexity.  Gewurtz is a tricky, finicky grape that is a specialty of Lenz, arising from the lucky accident of its winemaker dating an Austrian woman who convinced him of the hidden virtues of the varietal.

Oak Barrels at The Lenz Winery

Our Locavore Thanksgiving Menu

  • Two 18 lb Mecox Bay Dairy Turkeys, Roasted
  • Gravy with Root Vegetables from Sang Lee
  • Sausage Stuffing with Sourdough Baguettes from Buon Pane, Mushrooms from Union Square Market and Sang Lee Marjoram and Sage
  • Sang Lee Sweet Potato Gratin with Ronnybrook Cream, NYS Maple Syrup, and Sang Lee Onions
  • Mr. Sprout + Sang Lee Brussel Sprouts with a Thyme Butter (from Ronnybrook)
  • Garden of Eve Turnips with Cardamon Hazelnut Butter (from Ronnybrook)
  • Poinsette Cranberry Relish
  • Milk Pail Apple Pie
  • Candy Kitchen (Bridgehampton, NY) Vanilla Ice Cream
  • Castello di Borghese 2005 Cabernet Franc Estate
  • Lenz 2006 Gold Label Chardonnay and 2005 Gewurtztraminer

I am already looking forward to discovering new sources for next year as I scour the local scene for flavor and interesting twists on the Thanksgiving meal. Please let me know if you want any recipes!

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