This story originally appeared in the Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy
However this niche locavore market has plateaued at the same time that farmers face the increased costs and logistical challenges of servicing what is now a multitude of neighborhood city greenmarkets.
The long-term viability of the local fresh food movement now depends on small and mid-scale farmers securing more efficient and more robust channels for reaching urban consumers beyond greenmarkets, and, most critically, on the elimination of the barriers that have constrained wholesale and institutional demand for their produce.
Fortunately few see the answer for the region’s struggling farmers in former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s now infamous dictum: “Get Big or Get Out.” Instead market players who take the long view understand that the solutions lie in creating more robust collaborative networks reaching across the supply and demand side of the local food market. They are wisely investing in more robust knowledge-, skill-, and infrastructure-sharing initiatives.
Annette Nielsen, Manager of Community Partnerships and Food, Nutrition, and Culinary Programs at the Horticulture Society of New York, and an award-winning food writer, illuminates here how a farmer in Central New York; the director of the GrowNYC food hub in Hunts Point; a food service manager at a large New York City not-for-profit; and a chef who operates a teaching kitchen in a Manhattan settlement house are designing a new network architecture for the Greater Hudson Valley’s regional food system that will ensure that it continues to grow and thrive.—Susan Arterian Chang, Director, The Field Guide.
Brian Reeves of Reeves Farm
Brian Reeves owns a large tract of land in Baldwinsville, New York—2,100 acres including woods and ponds, to be exact. The farm has been in his family for five generations and Brian is part of the fourth generation to work the land. When Brian’s great-grandfather arrived in Baldwinsville from England over 100 years ago, he grew vegetables and raised livestock. His grandfather followed with what was primarily a dairy farm. Brian’s own father returned to mostly vegetable farming.
Brian and his brother, Mark, actively and sustainably farm 500 acres with over 300 in crops that include fresh market vegetables and berries, 40 acres in rye grain, and another 100 acres in cover crops. The Reeves Farm also employs a seasonal workforce of 50 to 65 workers. Their commitment to healthy crops and healthy soil includes employing Good Agricultural Practices or GAP (Global GAP certified), the use of Integrated Pest Management (minimal pesticide use), organic certification (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York or NOFA-NY) for their blueberries and a number of their vegetable crops, and thoughtful crop rotation and cover crop planting.
To continue to farm sustainably Reeves Farm also needs to operate sustainably by financial measures. The farm now sells its bountiful produce, not only at its farm stand, but also across New York State to large supermarkets like Wegmans, Hannaford, and Price Chopper, and to New York City retail outlets like Blue Apron, Dig Inn, Fairway, and Sweetgreen. Still, Brian and his brother continue to seek better and more cost effective ways to access their existing markets and to reach new ones.
From his informed perspective as president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, one of the oldest agricultural associations in New York State, Brian speaks of how his fellow farmers struggle with “last mile distribution,” or the final step in the farmer’s delivery process. Reeves Farm also belongs to the Upstate New York Growers and Packers Cooperative, a farmer-owned statewide marketing cooperative selling produce to wholesale and retail buyers. The Cooperative is working to address that last-mile challenge, which can in fact range from a few blocks to a number of miles. “It would be nearly impossible for me to do that last mile on my own,” Brian reports. “You need a critical mass of volume to make it worthwhile to make the trip. I have my own truck, but no tractor-trailer.”
Frank Walrond of Bronxworks
As the Food Service Manager for BronxWorks, Frank Walrond’s introduction to food service started when he began helping out in the kitchen there 15 years ago. Now, he’s responsible for food service in two of BronxWorks’ five facilities: Safe Haven and the Living Room. He brings passion and resourcefulness to his mission to serve healthy, fresh foods to his clients, overseeing the preparation of 195 meals a day, 1,365 meals a week and about 70,000 over the course of the year.
Two years ago, Frank enrolled in The Teaching Kitchen at Lenox Hill Neighborhood at the invitation of NYS Health Foundation, which was sponsoring their grantees to attend the training. “I was excited about the possibility of going through the training,” he relates. “At that time, in our facility we were a warming kitchen, preparing a lot of convenience food,” so he was open to training that would allow him to serve a more expanded menu. Frank had volunteered in kitchens where they cooked from fresh ingredients, so he already knew it would be more work. But it didn’t seem right to Frank that so many institutions were preparing meals from frozen vegetables knowing the superior taste and texture and health qualities of fresh. The first change he implemented at BronxWorks was to introduce fresh vegetables as substitutes for frozen. The kitchen was already serving salad, so broccoli was the first fresh vegetable he introduced.
Frank admits that motivating staff to make the transition to fresh produce was not always easy, since it requires more washing and chopping up. He passes on to them what he has learned at The Teaching Kitchen training course, and looks for ways to cut down on their prep time, for example, finding fresh broccoli that requires less trimming, and had taken time to instruct his staff in the delicate art of how not to overcook fresh vegetables.
BronxWorks clients’ acceptance of the transition from frozen to fresh has varied from facility to facility. “At one, the population was super happy and at the other, it was so-so,” Frank admits. “They were not as into fresh vegetables.” The adult male, chronically homeless population at BronxWorks’ Pyramid, a 75-125 bed facility, had been accustomed to iceberg lettuce, and balked at dark leafy greens, Frank reports. At the Living Room a 50-bed drop-in center that houses both male and female homeless, clients come and go off the street, shower, eat a hot meal and get essential help. “Some aren’t used to vegetables, but are more used to getting a ham and cheese sandwich, not a salad.”
Frank has found ways to make the salads and vegetables more appealing, keeping them basic with red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, olives, and sometimes adding fruit. And he always takes feedback to heart. When clients complained about raw kale in the salads, he started mixing it with iceberg lettuce or spinach and found the complaints subsided.
Other healthful changes he’s implemented include beverage choices. “I’ve totally gotten rid of juice, pushing for more whole fruit, different types of fruit, and it’s working out ok,” he notes. While his kitchens serve milk, water is now the main beverage served. On special occasions he serves seltzer, providing the fizz of soda without the empty calories.
Salad dressings have also posed an interesting challenge, but not an insurmountable one for Frank. Even his staff didn’t think he was offering enough dressing, he reports, and recommended he continue with squeeze bottles on the tables, but he realized he was using a lot of dressing that way. Now he pre-dresses the salads and uses less.
“We learned a couple of new dressings from Lynn at Lenox Hill and tried them out,” he adds. “The clients love them.”
“Mostly,” Frank says, undaunted, ‘it’s about changing habits – you have to introduce something new a number of times.”
GrowNYC’s Greenmarket’s Olivia Blanchflower is connecting farmers to their wholesale city markets.
Launched in April 2012, the GrowNYC’s wholesale distribution program, Greenmarket Co., is New York City’s first food hub dedicated to connecting regional food producers like Reeves Farm and the Upstate Cooperative with New York City’s wholesale food purchasers. Greenmarket Co., currently operating out of a 5000 square foot space at Hunts Point in the Bronx, distributes a little over 2 million pounds of produce a year. But an expanded facility, slated to be operational in early 2020, is expected to handle ten times as much.
Olivia Blanchflower, a self-defined, food-obsessed, Italian American who grew up in Central Massachusetts, heads up Greenmarket Co. Starting out as the Youthmarket Program Coordinator for GrowNYC nearly a decade ago, she now serves as its Director of Wholesale and Distribution for GrowNYC.
GrowNYC’s diversification from Greenmarket management into the food wholesaling and distribution business has been a natural evolution. Olivia says it all began when a GrowNYC’s farmers’ market in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood failed to generate enough consumer traffic to make the trip to market worthwhile for farmers. When the last farmer dropped out, a local business owner who shopped at the market called Greenmarket, proposing that if GrowNYC could continue to deliver local produce to the neighborhood, he would identify neighborhood teens to distribute it at a small farm stand. While farmers might have been directly distributing source-verified product to restaurants or specialty markets during this time, Olivia reports that “up until this point, Greenmarket had never distributed product around the city.”
This experiment became the Youthmarket program, GrowNYC’s first foray into the distribution business. In rented U-Haul vans, GrowNYC purchased produce from farmers on a wholesale basis, and drove it from farmers’ markets to youth-run farm stands, primarily located in underserved communities. After seeing Youthmarkets in action, nearby restaurants began asking for deliveries. Schools, too, wanted to start their own markets and wanted to use healthy produce for fundraisers.
In 2012, GrowNYC opened its first distribution center in borrowed space at the City Harvest food rescue facility in Long Island City. In 2014, it began leasing its current facility in the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point. Last summer, after the New York State 2016 Food Hub Task Force report identified a need for a regional food hub, and as the demand for GrowNYC Greenmarket Co.’s service and products continued to expand, it received a $15 million grant from the State of New York to build a state-of-the-art distribution center. Olivia reports that GrowNYC has also raised $2.5 million in funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and $5 million from the New York City Council.
Together, this funding will enable the organization to construct a 65,000 square foot distribution facility specifically for local food. Greenmarket Co. will occupy a third, or about 15,000 square feet of distribution space, with a mezzanine office area. Olivia says the new facility will provide a permanent home for Greenmarket Co., and that the rental income from the facility will help support their operations cost. Olivia reports that 60 percent of their distribution is to buyers serving low-income or nutritionally at-risk populations. Distribution of local food is expected to rise to more than 20 million pounds per year for the new Greenmarket Co. space alone, not including estimates for food distributed by other tenants that will occupy the facility when it reaches full capacity. Groundbreaking is projected for late 2018 with an opening in early 2020.
While Brian of Reeves Farm in Baldwinsville, New York, says that GrowNYC’s Greenmarket Co. hasn’t yet altered his own farm’s annual growing plan, it does make it possible for him and fellow members of the Upstate Cooperative to distribute more product to New York City markets at a lower cost. So now, instead of an order of what might have been only a couple of pallets of tomatoes traveling to a wholesale customer in New York City over 200 miles away, his order can be combined with other products grown by another farm and delivered to the GrowNYC hub for delivery to the same customer or another.
Giving wholesalers, supermarkets and restaurants easier access to product at the hub makes the trip more cost-effective for both the supply and demand sides of the equation.
Brian points out that the hub has been able to provide this level of support to upstate farmers while operating out of what is little more than a garage-like facility.
“Now they’re looking to a first class, multi-loading dock, climate-controlled facility going to more places in the city,” he explains. “So, we’re hoping we’ll have an organization that says, ‘we need more product and more local growers,’ resulting in additional business for the farmers and easier access for customers in need of their products.”
Olivia is optimistic that the expanded facility, once open for business, will soon be operating at full capacity and can rely on its existing network to ensure that whatever the demand from the local markets, it can be met by producers. “Much is word of mouth and we can call on our farmers – they know the agricultural communities,” she maintains, “If we are looking for a specific product, we ask around, do research online and we speak with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and Cornell Cooperative Extension.”
“We’re really excited about partnerships with organizations in the community who do job training,” Olivia reports, “excited about keeping jobs in the South Bronx, and providing advancement opportunities for those who have been with us for awhile. This project will be an important tool for communities in the city to affect change.”
Lynn Loflin of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Teaching Kitchen
Soon after GrowNYC’s Greenmarket Co. wholesale distribution hub launched in 2012, Lynn Loflin, then Executive Chef at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan, reached out to Olivia Blanchflower, the facility director. Lynn’s kitchen was serving 350,000 meals a year to Lenox Hill Neighborhood House’s clients through various programs.
Whereas a grocer might want fruits and vegetables being all the same size and shape for retail display, the need for specific aesthetics is minimized when preparing and cooking food for service. “Lynn said she needed high volume and high quality,” Olivia says, “There’s a tremendous opportunity with institutions like hers.”
Lynn has been cooking since she was a child growing up in Louisiana and received her formal culinary training from the New York Restaurant School, formerly associated with the New School. Her resume boasts impressive professional roles in the food world, from caterer and New York restaurateur to her current role as Teaching Kitchen Executive Chef for Lenox Hill Neighborhood House (a 124-year-old settlement house with a longstanding mission to help individuals and families in need). Her varied culinary experience includes growing nutrient-dense food on her farm in upstate New York.
Lynn reports that a hundred years ago our region was known as a major agricultural producer. “The Hudson Valley, Brooklyn, Long Island – grew all of our food—dairy, fruit trees, winter squash and root vegetables,” she reports. “There was an extremely strong connection between rural and urban New York and people understood regional interdependence. And, if you look at what people were eating a hundred years ago – they were eating pretty healthy – there was no processed food. Our grandmothers bought a chicken and stretched it out over the week, so unless you were phenomenally wealthy, you weren’t eating a whole lot of meat, because you couldn’t afford it.”
By the middle of the twentieth century, industrial methods of agriculture had become well established, synthetic inputs increased, and mechanized methods of farming and food production became the norm. Dramatic increases in yields and cheaper food resulted, and at the same time it became easier to transport food across many miles thanks to an expansion of the interstate highway systems. Concentrated production led to a smaller number of farms producing the vast majority of the nation’s food.
Later into the 1980s, as chefs attained luminary status, the general public started learning more about the ingredients famous chefs were using to create their menus and how and where those foods were being sourced. This heightened awareness led more people to care about who grew their food and how it was grown.
“It’s really important – for every reason you can think of – to support our regional agriculture,” she maintains. “For food security reasons due to unpredictable weather patterns that wipe out crops, or situations like the tainting of Romaine lettuce earlier this year. Why would we want 80 percent of our lettuce and spinach to be produced in California’s Central Valley?”
“Now,” Lynn reports, “agriculture through the Hudson Valley up into the Adirondacks is being revitalized in really interesting ways.”
She sites, for example, GrowNYC’s Greenmarket’s Regional Grains Project, which is raising the profile of the Northeast as a grain producer with heritage grains, older grains, and more diverse grain varieties. “It’s a very different type of grain from the wheat that the entire Midwest grew during the boom of industrialized agriculture. There’s now a whole group of Northeastern farmers that are revitalizing the northeast grain shed,” she adds, also noting that the older grains are often much more highly digestible than the newer Midwestern varietals. She points out that localizing the production of grains creates a more resilient food system, helps address climate change by reducing the distance that food is transported to market, and enables agricultural land that is otherwise unsuitable for row crops to be productively cultivated.
When Lynn went to work at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House seven years ago, the menus were already submitted and set. So, in her first three months, she assessed what was being served knowing there was a driving motivation at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House to make changes and serve healthier food – less processed food, sugar, salt, fat and meat, in tandem with more vegetarian meals, whole grains and scratch cooking. She also knew that no one wanted the food budget to go up.
Lynn concluded that in order to purchase potentially higher priced fresh and local food without an impact on her budget she would need to shrink the meat portions and add more fresh fruits and vegetables. “I realized I would have to do more creative things using lots of different kinds and cuts of chicken, beef and pork and much more vegetarian food,” she explains. “There were lots of challenges. The only thing I changed in the first six months was to go from frozen to fresh broccoli and sometimes switch out the potatoes for butternut squash.”
It was challenging for her cooks, too – who were preparing and serving 1300 meals a day. They didn’t have a quantity of sharp knives, cutting boards, prep space or small wares to cook the food, and no steamer and no baskets to pull broccoli out of the water. Nonetheless, she gradually transitioned the kitchen from preparing 90 percent frozen vegetables to 90 percent fresh vegetables, changing it out a few vegetables at a time. Ultimately, she was able to increase the kitchen prep space, get better tools, train the staff with knife skills, and it became easier. However, she had to be sure the staff was on board. She’d include them in the recipe creation along the way – it couldn’t just be her idea or the client’s idea.
“We have a lot of communication and engagement with the staff and people we’re cooking for,” Lynn notes. She emphasizes that if young kids are eating with teachers, there needs to be an awareness that teachers need to model the eating behavior. No matter what she might make or the new tools and equipment she might use, if the teachers didn’t like it and demonstrated that they did, the students wouldn’t eat it. She found that similarly, seniors had strong food preferences.
“We did tons of nutritional outreach (and surveys) – cooked with them and talked about vegetables and grains,” and got to know their preferences. “I just assumed everyone would like the broccoli bright green,” she notes, “tossed with a little garlic and olive oil, but actually, they didn’t.”
In going to smaller portions of meat, the kitchen was able to serve better quality of meat, and the clients appreciated that. Still, she notes, “Changing people’s eating habits is one of the hardest things there is, as it is typically culturally ingrained.”
Knowing that others at institutions across the city would undergo a similar often difficult transition in shifting to locally sourced food in their kitchens, Lynn and the leadership at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House decided to develop a curriculum to train others in their farm-to-institution model. Lynn has harnessed her formidably comprehensive skill set to scale up and teach other chefs and cooks at various institutions how to serve healthier meals with more fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, more scratch cooking, and less sugar, fat, and salt.
The program Lynn developed and helped to scale, The Teaching Kitchen at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, is funded through a combination of foundation grants, programmatic fees, and general operating support. Lenox Hill Neighborhood House now offers a year-long program designed to help nonprofit organizations implement change at a pace that works for them. Starting with a two-day food business course and hands-on training, participants get a full year of technical assistance, site visits, help with goal-setting, workshop offerings, and hundreds of institutional recipes, while they get to share information with others in their profession. Since launching The Teaching Kitchen in 2015, Lynn and her staff have trained 57 nonprofit program sites serving over 5.5 million meals annually. This year, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House scaled the program to train 50 nonprofit programs annually. With the ultimate goal of localizing publicly funded institutional food systems, improving low-income New Yorkers’ health and strengthening the regions’ sustainable farms economies, Lynn and The Teaching Kitchen staff are on their way to training staff at an estimated 600 nonprofit organizations serving city-funded meals across New York City. When asked if there’s a key to making this all work, she says, “The people that are most successful, are those trying the hardest.”
As more and more kitchen workers train at The Teaching Kitchen, more institutional kitchens are beginning to order from GrowNYC’s Greenmarket Co., Olivia confirms. “The trainings are making local foods and whole foods part of the conversation in these kitchens,” she reports.
At the same time, kitchens are getting to know their client’s food preferences and are becoming more adept at creating meals from local foods that are readily consumed and genuinely enjoyed.