This is one in a series of essays related to an ongoing research project. The research is focused upon developing a Farm-To-Institution distribution program in New York State. A more detailed description of this work can be found under Ongoing Research, in the Research section of this site.
The latest two interviews conducted for this project presented a rather revealing story. The first was with the organizer of a small delivery company that links farmers to restaurants in New York City. The second was with a representative of a Brooklyn District Public Health Office (DPHO), who is involved in the Brooklyn Coalition of the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership.
Representing the small delivery service, the first interviewee eagerly told me about how her company works. She gave me the nuts and bolts, the logistics, the schedule. The farmers post their products on Fridays, the restaurants order on Mondays, the farmers harvest to order on Tuesdays and deliver to a drop-off site that night. The truck is loaded that same (Tuesaday) night, the driver departs early Wednesday morning, the city driver takes over by sunrise, and the restaurants receive all their deliveries before Wednesday evening. The company works with farms in a single county. They deliver to about twenty restaurants. They charge their farmers a fee that leaves them (the farmers) with a higher percentage of the price of their produce than they would ever receive from a wholesaler or mainstream distributor. The interviewee herself is essentially a vibrant link, on the phone, answering farmers’ questions, dealing with chefs’ neurosis, solving the little crises that occur when the truck breaks down or the traffic is bad or the frost lingers longer than is ideal. She told me about the possibilities for the company’s growth, who might be served, how service could be expanded and made more efficient, what additional farmers she might work with, what additional clients she might seek. We spoke for nearly two hours about the potential and possibilities of the model her company has pioneered.
Of course, the small delivery company serves relatively high-end restaurants that are committed to buying fresh, local products, and of sourcing through a short, transparent supply chain. Such restaurants are willing to pay a premium for the high quality (and marketability) of these products, as are their customers.
The bodegas of Central Brooklyn are a different story altogether. They are no more able to pay a premium for perishable produce than they are to charge their customers $4/lb for tomatoes. But they’re still a part of the same food system.
As a result of the Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Fitness Partnership, the second interviewee participates in many meetings and conferences regarding the regional food system, and in particular, related to the high rates of diabetes and obesity in the neighborhoods within her district of Brooklyn. Her DPHO, along with the one in Harlem, recently conducted research that shows a correlation between a lack of access to healthy foods and health risks. The research found that most community members buy their food from bodegas that rarely offer fruits, vegetables, or milk, but instead primarily provide the residents with cigarettes, alcohol and soda. This research led the NYC Department of Health’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program to partner with local bodega owners to expand the availability of healthier food choices in target neighborhoods the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the city (Harlem, South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn).
As the second interviewee explained the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, she did not lose her eagerness to share her experience, but her words were not hopeful. “The distribution network does not exist,” she said, “to make it feasible for local, small grocery stores to source foods from local farmers, even if fresh produce were financially accessible. It would be great if the farmers who sell at markets in nearby [more wealthy] neighborhoods,” she continued, “could just come here at the end of their day, and sell their leftover produce at a discounted price to a distributor at a central drop-off/storage location, rather than trucking it back home. Storeowners could then purchase the produce from the distributor, at a lower price than is possible at the moment. But this system is not set up, and at the moment, the farmers don’t have the incentive to come here!”
So the story goes: When enough high-end restaurants begin to demand fresh, local produce, a delivery company emerges to cater to their demand, trucking quality products straight to their door from upstate New York. When community residents demand fresh, local produce, they work to change policy. But their bodega-owners can’t “demand local produce” because there isn’t an efficient distribution system in place to make fresh produce convenient and affordable enough for their business. The community demands may change policy – in some ways, they already have. But only purchasing power can inspire the creation of a distribution system.
The second interviewee had never considered the effect it would have to encourage the purchasing of fresh, local produce in the hospitals of Central Brooklyn. Yet the main tool she has to work with, besides policy, is purchasing power. Bodegas may provide many people with “food,” but they are small and unorganized, and have no set choreography for collaboration. Their purchasing power, as individual entities, is negligible. Meanwhile, several local hospitals serve thousands of meals a day. The patients in these hospitals are the same mothers and fathers and children who so are so gravely affected by obesity and diabetes as the customers at the local corner stores. If anything, hospitals are deeply invested in their patients’ health, and the correlation between human health and consumption of fresh produce has been proven! The latest draft of the New York City Council’s “Global Warming ‘Foodprint’ Resolution” sets a goal for 20% of food served in city-run institutions to be local and preferably organic produce within ten years, and provided a budget allocation to make this possible. As policies like these develop, centers of demand for fresh produce are powerful tools for inspiring the development of a stronger local food system. Hospitals are hubs of such demand. We who understand (and are so eager to learn!) how we might connect our nearby farmers with the city….we have to talk to the hospitals.
Some other cities and regions at work…
Plow to Plate: New Milford, CT
Center for Food and Justice: Los Angeles, CA
Local Food Plus: Toronto, Ontario
Grow Montana: Montana State