Radishes and Rubbish is (in elevator speak) a series of field trips to food production and processing sites and waste management locations within the New York City region. The Green Grant program of NYU’s Sustainability Task Force provides the funding for these trips, during which my friend Carla Fernandez and I offer participants an adventure, education, transportation, and a meal, all for free. The transportation may be by foot, by subway, or by boat, by the occasional rented van, or the rare and appreciated large comfy bus. The meal is always made with ingredients sourced as locally as can be, grown organically if possible, and always made or sold by people or shops that we know and support. The participants are ideally freshmen in college, though they have ranged from librarians to chemistry professors, from film students to food distributors to the curious and unemployed. The destinations are up to us.
Carla and I came at the idea of our trips from slightly different perspectives. I study regional food systems; she studies socially responsible supply chains. She wanted to learn about the large-scale waste management centers where our trash so misleadingly seems to disappear; I wanted to share my friendship with and knowledge of several innovative and small food producers and processors in the region. As students at NYU’s Gallatin School, we both proposed parallel “field trip” projects in April 2008, without knowing of each other’s propositions. The Green Grant committee told us we would receive funding if we combined forces. And thus Radishes and Rubbish was born.
We have led our fellow students (and students at heart) to one recycling center, one artisan baker, two urban farms, two slaughterhouses, three cheese shops, three farms upstate (of which one composts NYU’s organic matter), one importer’s warehouse, and the second largest wholesale fish market in the world. We’ve just finished up the school year with two trips in one weekend: to a commercial rooftop greenhouse on the Upper East Side, and to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island.
The trips have been glorious fun for us two. We keep it simple. No classrooms, no preaching. We invite anyone to join us, ask no one for money, and let our destinations work their magic. We’ve led city girls in kitty heels to meet the weeds of an urban farm. College boys have shown up late night to see the wholesale source of the fish that’s sold throughout the city where they live. A journalist for the Washington Square News noticed the piles of the school newspaper on the conveyer belt of the recycling facility where NYU sends its paper waste. Two film students imagined a documentary staged in the compost heaps of Vassar’s composting facility. One of our students has begun writing a book proposal about the meat industry, and suddenly some of our adventurers are having dinner
parties where their cheese shop is a topic of conversation, and they can name the farm where the cheese was made. One of our participants took the recipe for egg salad posted on our site and made her first meal from scratch in years. This weekend, one of the students on our upstate trip, standing in the kill-room of a small-scale slaughterhouse, asked (clarified, really) that “this was the sort of place where the meat in the supermarket comes from?” In response, Jake Dickson, the meat purveyor who’d accompanied us on the trip, explained the big differences between a local slaughterhouse and a factory operation, the price differential of the resulting meat, and the ways in which local vs. factory meat products are distributed. I can’t measure the enthusiasm with which that girl scrawled her notes, but it is that sort of learning that makes our trips worth the work. It is that pen on paper that means “field trips” are worth every penny.
Carla and I hope Radishes and Rubbish might continue, of course, and that we might continue to have the privilege of introducing students (and ourselves!) to the small places where we produce good food, and the huge places where we send all our leftovers. We are working on a funding arrangement for the coming year. We are open to funding suggestions. If all goes well, we promise another year of trips, and very much hope you will join us!!