Fresh Local Food
On Wednesdays we received our Local Produce Link delivery, and every customer took home an armful of healthy, lush vegetables: crisp lettuce, robust bunches of kale, potatoes still earth-scented, shiny collard greens, rosy beets with the tops still intact, giant sweet potatoes, sweet corn in its husks, and virtually anything you’d find at a farmers’ market or in a CSA share. Seeing the brilliant smiles on the patron's faces, and their bags bulging with produce from a Hudson Valley farm, you might be surprised to see them exiting a food pantry in Flatbush. Or, you might be thinking to yourself, it's about time something like this happened.
Brooklyn knows how to eat, and more and more it is figuring out how to eat well with personal, public and ecological health in mind. Think of the borough’s crowded farmers’ markets, the surge of urban agriculture projects, waiting lists for community garden plots and advertisements for coveted garden-access apartments. This degree of dedication to changing the food system – both on the part of producer and consumer – indicates a significant shift in the way that we approach the potential and possibilities of New York City’s food system. Yet, it’s obvious that not all of us can afford to dine on glorious, organic eco-minded meals every week. We’re simply not in a place yet with our food production where it’s possible to produce food with a greater conscience that competes in price with industrial food products. Change is afoot, however: pioneering projects throughout the city are tangibly increasing everyone’s access to wholesome food.
I recently worked as a coordinator for a food pantry in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, and my perspective on the possible connections between food justice and sustainable agriculture changed substantially. The pantry participates in Local Produce Link, a program coming out of a partnership between Just Food the United Way of NYC, and the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP) to bring fresh vegetables from local farms to 38 food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City. Every week for the entire growing season, a truck full of fresh produce from Hearty Roots Farm in Tivoli, New York would wind its way down the BQE to Flatbush Brooklyn, where its contents were doled out to several food pantries in the area. In a community where close to 1 in 4 people live below the poverty level, this program delivers the kind of whole, fresh food that is significantly lacking in many neighborhoods throughout the city.
It’s not just Brooklyn that benefits from this program – Local Produce Link happens all throughout New York City. Farmers are matched up with the pantries by location and supply fresh produce every week from June to November to communities that have limited access to healthy foods, and which are often riddled with obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Funding from Fresh Produce Link also provides revenue for farmers in and around New York City who choose to grow with ecological preservation in mind. I have seen this system work on the most basic level, in the young woman with three children who stops to thank me, a bag of fresh vegetables in her hand and a warm expression on her face.
Poverty comes in all different forms, from the tiny fixed incomes of senior citizens to the enormous health insurance costs of the uninsured. During 2009, there was a substantial increase in the number of customers visiting food pantries and soup kitchens all across New York City. Where I worked, the number of monthly customers almost tripled from the fall of 2008 to 2009, an obvious correlation with the recession and its unwelcome higher rates of unemployment. I make no claim to know the exact reasons why more people came to the pantry or that everyone receiving the food was veritably needy; this is a longer, political discussion that has no easy answer. Yet when I saw a line of 50 people outside the pantry's front door, I had no time to question the pantry's efficacy in the long run. Everyone needs to eat somehow. But for those who are transitioning away from Emergency Food Programs but still struggle with the cost of healthy food, there are other options available.
One option is a subsidized Community-Supported Agriculture program, allowing individuals to pay what they can according to their income. One such program exists through the Flatbush CSA, and Just Food the NYC-based sustainable food organization has a program designed to help individuals find affordable CSAs. Food stamps are another resource; they can be used at greenmarkets in the city and other locations that provide wholesome food. Food stamps are significantly underutilized in New York City, but their use at greenmarkets doubled in 2009. Getting them does require a lengthly application, but most food pantry customers in New York City have access to food stamps counseling to walk them through the process. This counseling is available through the Human Resources Administration in New York City and other agencies in the city. Some food pantries, such as the West Side Campaign Against Hunger on the upper West Side of Manhattan, actually have HRA food stamps outreach staff.
With so many agencies and programs working to create a better food future for everyone, it certainly feels that we are on the right path. The next step is to make sure that what we’re doing is for all of us, especially those most adversely affected by a lack of affordable fresh food in their neighborhoods. These programs need citywide support and participation, so for those who have a conscience about what you consume and a commitment to food justice, I have a few suggestions on how to help: First, consider volunteering in a food pantry where there is a Local Produce Link program, and see for yourself how it succeeds. Pantries are always in need of volunteers, as they tend to be tightly budgeted and are often staffed and run entirely by volunteers. Another option is to consider contributing money toward a CSA share for a low-income individual or family. Food is the most basic of things, giving simple yet meaningful pleasure to all of our lives. There’s a lot to be done before we’ll see everyone have access to enough fresh food, but this movement is growing in the right direction.