Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Ask the Expert

September 10th, 2008 · No Comments

Michael Hurwitz is the Director of Greenmarket, a Program of the Council on the Environment of NYC (CENYC). Hurwitz will be speaking on the subject of “Food Miles: An Inside Look at Food from Farm (or Factory) to Table” at Green Brooklyn.. Green City on September 18th. For more information on this full day event, visit www.greenbrooklyn.org.

CUE: Maybe a good way to begin is with the borough itself—are any of your farms located in Brooklyn?

Hurwitz: While no one at Greenmarket currently offers food grown in Brooklyn fields, Greener Pastures sells wheatgrass and other sprouts grown in a warehouse along the Gowanus, while David Graves of Berkshire Berries keeps beehives NYC rooftops, including some in Brooklyn, and sells the sweet harvest at our markets. Not far from Brooklyn, a working farm on Staten Island rears city-grown produce as part of our New Farmer Development Program; look for the morning’s picking at our market on Staten Island. (Greenmarket looks forward to welcoming the Queens County Farm, Added Value and other urban farmers in the near future.)

CUE: What’s day-in-the-life of a Greenmarket farmer like on market day—are there some behind-the-scene preparations that you think New York consumers would find interesting?

Hurwitz: Picking and packing usually happens the day before market and can last well past dusk. On market day, most farmers are up by 3am to finish loading the truck and start their drive to the city. Most arrive by 6:30 am or so; their entire set-up comes in the truck: signage, tents and weights, tables and of course their inventory for the day. Set up happens whether it’s raining, snowing, or 99 degrees. Farmers deeply appreciate your shopping in all weather, so thank you! Some markets operate 8-2, others operate 8-6. After a full day selling, sometimes with a quick midday nap in the truck, farmers pack up the truck and drive home, it may be almost 24 hours since they left (at some markets City Harvest comes to collect unsold items, at others Greenmarket donates to food pantries directly). Sometimes customers ask us why our markets aren’t open 7 days a week – now you know!

Farmers will tell you there’s nothing like direct retail, particularly here in NYC. The conversations they have, relationships they build with the community—markets bridge the rural-urban gap as everyone comes together over the tomatoes.

CUE: Some people have said that the recent focus on “buying local” has trumped the organic in consumers’ minds—have you found that to be the case? Roughly what percentage of the Greemarkets are organic? What are the criteria for becoming a NYC Greenmarket vendor?

Hurwitz: We carefully govern who may sell at Greenmarket and what may be sold. We invite local farmers, fishers, foragers, preservers and bakers to sell their own foods at our markets. By local we mean within about 250 miles; farmers come from New York and bordering states, including maple syrup from Vermont.

Many of our growers use methods consistent with the USDA’s National Organic Program but unless they have gone through third-party certification (which about ten percent of our farmers do) the government does not allow them to use the term organic. Several of our farmers who were certified organic for years gave up the certification a few years ago in protest of the weakened rules. But sometimes when customers hear that a farm hasn’t gone through the certification, they assume the produce marinates in chemicals. Bear in mind that our farmers live on the land they cultivate, raise families there and drink the well water. They are personally disincentivized to forgo chemical applications. And the more customers who are willing to tolerate the occasional corn worm or cosmetic imperfection, the more farmers will give up sprays altogether.

CUE: What kinds of restaurants use the greenmarkets and how does that work?

Hurwitz: Here’s a link to some of the restaurants who shop at Greenmarket: If you’re not cooking for yourself, please patronize them, and thank them for their buying habits!

It’s impossible to single out a single “type” of restaurant that buys its ingredients at Greenmarket, many cook what’s called “New American” (modern incarnations of country farm classics, from roast chicken to cherry cobbler). Some are motivated by extraordinary freshness and taste, some by ecology, some by the richness of working directly with a farmer who can, say, grow a particular bean, or custom-pick cucumbers a little bigger or a little smaller, or cut that pork chop extra thick.

A group of tourists was recently visiting Union Square asked if any of the city’s best restaurants shop at the Greenmarket. Our staffer answered, “Unfortunately they’re the bulk of our restaurant clients.” We’re thrilled that so many top chefs love local food but look forward to the day when more inexpensive restaurants – who collectively have far more buying power than all the 4-star chefs – start buying local too.

CUE: How prevalent are Greenmarkets in the neighborhoods that need them most—and what’s being done to expand access for all New Yorkers?

Hurwitz: Here’s a map of all our market locations. (WARNING: PDF!!!) As you can see we operate markets in all 5 boroughs, including neighborhoods like the South Bronx or Washington Heights which have crisis levels of diet-related diseases. Our mission is to ensure a steady supply of fresh, local foods for ALL New Yorkers, not just the ones with deep pockets. Moreover, we establish markets in lower-income communities not just because we want to benefit as many New Yorkers as possible – but also because selling there is of benefit to our farmers. While some well-to-do New Yorkers are big market spenders, plenty of low-income New Yorkers are even better shoppers. Some communities are more likely to eat in, to cook for larger families, or to have moved here with an existing appreciation of fresh-from-the-farm foods.

To enhance buying power at our markets, Greenmarket operates one of the most aggressive farmers market EBT programs in the country. We also advocate for local and federal farmers market access programs such as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the NYC DOH Health Bucks.

CUE: Green markets have become so popular—what’s next on their ever-expanding horizon?

Hurwitz: Our mission is to preserve regional farmland by ensuring that NYC residents have readily available access to locally produced agriculture products. To date the mechanism has been individuals and restaurants purchasing directly from the Producer at market. I think it’s at the core of our mission for local institutions to be sourcing locally as well. The NYC Board of Education is the second largest provider of daily meals in the country; only the US Military feeds more people. Exposing young people to healthful food that tastes good will not only help to address youth obesity and diabetes but will also change youths’ eating habits. Furthermore, hospitals should be feeding patients the most nutritious food, which of course, are the products that are picked when ripe as opposed to before they mature so they can survive their cross country travel.

(Interview conducted by Rebeccah Welch—Associate Director of Public Affairs at the Center for the Urban Environment. As a guide to a more sustainable New York City, the Center is dedicated to educating individuals about the built and natural environments. For more about our work visit www.thecue.org.)

Tags: CUE · Urban Environmentalist