At mid-November's Eco-Metropolis Conference, a local-to-NYC incarnation of the Bioneers annual gathering, I heard a great panel on "The Greening of Cuisine: Sustainable Restauranteuring." And we've had a flurry of suggestions for links to food-related projects. The day after Thanksgiving -- America's most deeply felt ritual feast -- seems like a good time to begin rounding these up.
Ranging from international trade to community kitchens, the common thread woven through all these projects is the desire to feed people well in all senses of the word, do business more justly, provide opportunities for dignified employment (whether as a farmer, a food artisan, or in restaurants), bring people together, and ultimate transform food culture.
First: the Eco-Metropolis panel, which featured guests whose efforts acutely reflect the economic and social contradictions--and opportunities--of this city. It's exciting that so much worldchanging is arising from one of New York's most unique, vital, creative and economically essential arenas--restaurant culture.
Leslie McEachern of Angelica Kitchen has been called "the godmother of vegan, organic cooking in New York City." For over 25 years, Angelica has embodied McEachern's philosophies of creating good food (that very intentionally avoids the leaden, bean-sprouts-and-brown-rice pitfalls of "hippie cuisine"), respect for the environment, engagement with and respect for farmers and producers, and creating community. Angelica buys nearly all of its food organic, from regional family operations. McEachern sees her efforts as contributing to the gradual transformation of the restaurant industry, such as the rise of the Slow Food movement worldwide.
The Community Food Resource Center, meanwhile, is providing a remarkably cohesive--and inspiring--suite of programs for low-income New Yorkers in Harlem. Director Hiram Bonner described the foundation of CFRC's approach as "dignity and respect for the consumer, the community and the environment." So in just a few examples: the center's SOUL Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program works with upstate New York farmers to bring fresh produce to members in Harlem. The Vegetable of the Month Club offers cooking classes. CFRC helps the members with their taxes so that they can obtain credits they might otherwise lose, to invest in their CSA memberships. The food pantry program moves beyond just providing a handout, which can erode the self-respect of the recipient, to allowing recipients to shop off a list of available products. The Community Kitchen serves food with real plates and silverware, rather than paper and plastic, and features a community culinary training program that teaches food handling, preparation and nutrition skills to workers, who can be certified by a nationally-recognized program and move on to employment in the restaurant industry. "Meals on Heels" engages teens from neighborhood high schools to deliver meals to homebound Harlem seniors.
Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York originally came together to help workers from the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant after the 9/11 attack, and has blossomed into an advocacy center for the city's largely immigrant, often undocumented and chronically underpaid restaurant workers. It is doing research and analysis on the restaurant industry, advocating for greater workplace safety and ending racism, helping workers open cooperative restaurants, and continuing to assist the survivors of Windows on the World and families of the victims.
I feel strongly about this issue and have been involved in it since the mid-70s. My involvement started with community gardens, working with Boston Urban Gardeners before they were Boston Urban Gardeners, local and regional food coops, helping to restart farmers markets, and public plantings of food-producing trees and bushes, the Fruition program.
We had the good luck to have state Rep.Mel King focusing on an urban-rural coalition and a commissioner of food and agriculture, Fred Winthrop, who was devoted to the idea that Massachusetts needed a healthy agricultural sector.
In the years since then, we've seen the establishment of the foodie culture with its emphasis on fresh, local food in season. From that has come the Chef's Collaborative which concentrates on local food infrastructure, from premier restaurants down to homeless feeding programs.
In the 90s I tried to come back to active work on this issue but found that those who were interested in the issue were focused on single issues, not the larger context. It is my conviction that the local and organic agriculture movement has actually built an alternative economic model that works today. I tried to convince others that by making that network more explicit, by mapping and publicizing it, we could expand the network itself and make it more important in policy and politics. Nobody I talked to could see it or was interested in it. When I called the regional coop network, I couldn't even get them to give me a list of local coops!
Food is the one area where the counterculture won. We changed the way people eat and consider food. We changed the way food is marketed and displayed. We even changed the way supermarkets are stocked and what they put on the shelves. We should capitalize on that victory by at least recognizing it and then building upon it.
I also believe that the farmers markets are a really good way to build the base for sustainability and ecological restoration. When we started in the 70s, there were maybe 18 farmers markets statewide. Now there are over 100. That's over 100 towns each week where key constituents for green values meet from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving. I have toyed with a green curriculum for displays and information tables, building from week to week from planting seeds to winterizing windows, that could serve as community education but have never found anybody else interested in spending the time to make it happen.
Oh well, at least I'll always feel proud of what we accomplished back before Reagan and how it's grown. I just wish that there was a community of co-workers to build on those successes as there was back in the day.
Or maybe it's just me that can't communicate any more.
BTW, NYTimes had a long piece on two studies on local food infrastructure back on July 21, 2004, page D1. One was being done by the city and the other was being done by the state. The focus was on the missing mid-scale between the retail of farmers markets, CSA's and direct marketing to restaurants and the wholesale of the terminal markets as Hunt's Point used to be. The idea was if they could do it in NYC, as the song says, they could do it anywhere. Part of the impetus for the study was the experience in the weeks after 9/11 when NY fed itself to a greater extent than usual.
Civil defense and emergency preparedness are roads to an ecologically restorative society, if done right.
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