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Posts Tagged ‘farmers markets’

This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City.  Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.

The farmers market at Union Square comes to life four days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  Everyone who knows that and hears about my job wonders within five minutes – Where do you go the other three days of the week?  And while there are more than fifty farmers markets in the five boroughs, I visit only a few others, only on occasion.  My regular market routine revolves around Union Square.  The reasons for this are many, and include habits and logistics on both sides of the equation.  We, at the restaurant, have a relationship with the farmers at Union Square, we are accustomed to the market’s schedule, it’s the most convenient of the greenmarkets, and it has the most products and variety of all the Greenmarkets in Manhattan.  That said, we might meet new farmers, adjust to the scheduling, and broaden our definition of convenience, if the benefits would justify the effort.  For now, they don’t.

For over twenty-five years, Greenmarket has built up a network of retail farmers markets for city consumers.  These markets – with their distinct regulations, cooking demonstrations, and vibrant atmospheres – are by far the primary source for local food for individuals and families in New York City.  As more and more restaurants have begun to focus their menus on local, seasonal products, farmers and chefs alike have come up with new systems and venues for collaboration.  Farmers like Guy Jones at Blooming Hill Farm take orders from and deliver directly to chefs in the city; delivery companies like Upstate Farms and Basis Farm to Chef bring in products from several farms without losing track of each product’s origin; local purveyors, including Saxelby Cheesemongers and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, offer wholesale quantities of regional meats and cheeses to chefs throughout the city.  But many chefs focused on regional food still go to a Greenmarket and pick out fresh, local products themselves.  This allows them to speak with the farmer, to see what they’re getting before they get it, to learn about the variety each farmer is offering, and to buy products that have truly been harvested, produced, or processed  not more than a day or two in advance.

As a representative of a restaurant, shopping at the Greenmarket in Union Square, it’s important for me to know which farmers will be at the market each morning, what products they’ll have available, what their wholesale price or discount is for restaurants, and what they have coming into season.  Several farmers allow chefs (or foragers) to call in their orders a day or two before, so we exchange phone numbers, discuss what we’ll be looking for, talk about what will be available one week to the next, and coordinate harvesting, packaging, and pick-ups accordingly.  There’s a sort of a system, but one that’s frustratingly inefficient, if endearingly homemade.  The new website What is Fresh is a great (independent) guide to the greenmarkets, and helps me stay informally conscious of who has what where, but otherwise I have very little way of keeping track of the farmers at more than one market.

The improvement I imagine does not cut out personal relationships and conversations, nor the ability to pick out produce as you buy it, nor the education and collaboration that comes of marketplace interactions.  The system I seek requires a bigger regional market – still a public, physical place where buyers and sellers gather and exchange, but one that is established to accommodate wholesale quantities of food and to offer much more information to buyers and sellers alike about what to bring, expect, and request.  It is a market of a different scale, open every day, during the day, in a reasonably central location.  It isn’t the Hunts Point Market.  It isn’t a place where messy commerce is hidden, conducted at night, made ruthlessly efficient and large-scale.  It would be a place where farmers could be in touch with consumers without having to be present at the marketplace all the time; where they could sell a lot more than they would ever bring to a Greenmarket; where they could come if they wanted to meet people with whom to collaborate, as well as compete; a place where they could talk about the things they need, and find some of them.  The labor, schedule, and delivery systems necessary for such a market will require complex, new infrastructure and management, but it is high time we took this step to strengthen our local food system. 

The last New Amsterdam Market of the season is on December 20th.  I will be there.  And if it ever does one day grow into the market I describe, the market I imagine, I will be there every day.

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This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.

 

Brant Shapiro probably doesn’t get interviewed very often.  He is a true purveyor, a grocer, a man whose work is rarely appreciated in today’s food system.  Consumers don’t necessarily consider the products in one grocery store as any more difficult to source than the products of a more “healthy” food shop.  And one might assume that Brant’s store, The Health Shoppe, could get large quantities of organic produce as easily as any non-organic items.  Even if we’re aware that it is more difficult, we all know Whole Foods isn’t struggling to put food on the shelves, so who’s to say Brant’s business is any different from Whole Foods? 

The Health Shoppe is smaller, for one thing, and isn’t considered “gourmet.”  But the biggest difference, in fact, is the shop’s dependence on an individual like Brant.

In the 1950s, Brant’s great uncle established the first health food store on Long Island.  His father and uncle worked there until 1969, when they opened their own store, The Health Shoppe, in Morristown, New Jersey.  They expanded the business to include four locations, each of them sites where one could find a selection of vitamins, supplements, and minerals.  By the time Brant came on the scene in the’90s, a different sort of health food store was a spreading phenomenon.  Bread & Circus became the largest natural food retailer in the Northeast, before it was bought by Whole Foods in 1992.  And it was around this time that Brant decided to convert The Health Shoppe into a store where customers would find a selection of produce and food products, in addition to the former vitamin-rich inventory.  Brant is responsible for sourcing that selection.

All the produce at The Health Shoppe is Certified Organic, as well as all the poultry, milk, and juices.  The shop sells no products that contain corn syrup.  Brant bases his supply choices upon his own experience and education.  “I used to love fancy foods and fancy wine,” Brant said, “but the more I got into that stuff, the less fancy it got…until I hit the soil.  I know the best of foods have a lot more to do with dirt than anything else.”  This knowledge may be spreading, but the unique products Brant seeks to supply are still difficult to source.  Brant buys cheese for the store from Mateo at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, and Karen at Three-Corner-Field Farm in New York; yogurt from Patches of Star Dairy in Pennsylvania; bread from Kathy at Bakehouse; and eggs and produce from John at Runnin’ Free Organic Farm in New Jersey.  “Local farmers get dibs on the market,” Brant said, “but it takes a lot of coordination.”  For example, Runnin’ Free Farm delivers four times a week, but other suppliers are less consistent, and may not normally sell their products to wholesale customers.  “Sometimes I have to sit down with farmers and establish what they’re going to charge me,” Brant explained.  “It’s sort of a big experiment.”

Experimenting or not, Brant manages to keep a lively business in Morristown, New Jersey, a town not known to be particularly progressive.  “We try to educate people on the ethics of food,” Brant said, “but in general all I can do is make sure I’ve chosen carefully what to sell in the shop.”  All the prepared food in the store is made from scratch, and there’s not a Heinz Ketchup or Mayonnaise bottle to be found.  “We boil the chicken for the chicken salad from the bone,” Brant elaborated.  “We make everything at the sandwich bar except for the hummus.  And all the produce, grains, and beans are Organic.”  As Brant described it, The Health Shoppe is sort of a mutant store – the busiest hour is lunchtime, and the place has a co-op feel, though it’s not cooperatively owned or operated.  “It’s the way I want it to be,” Brant said, “and the way I think it has to be.  For me…Well, running the store this way is exactly what I want to be doing.” 

The Health Shoppe sponsors a weekly farmers market just outside the store and participates in an annual New Jersey farm tour event and open house.  Morristown Hospital recently asked Brant to set up a market on the hospital grounds.  While the community of New Jersey farmers and food producers is growing in strength and popularity, Brant said many customers still don’t know or ask much about the connection between the store and the local farmers, and don’t always appreciate the products or the prices.  “People complain sometimes about our prices,” he said.  “But if they only knew!  If I took into account the time and logistics involved for getting the yogurt for example: my purchasing yogurt from the Greenmarket, carting it through the city in my cooler, to my fridge, then back to the cooler, into the store…this stuff could cost $70!  But that’s where it’s at right now.  These are the foods I want in my shop.”

Brant admitted he suffers from a bit of a professional identity crisis.  “I’m not a producer, or a butcher, or a cheesemonger,” he said, “and I’m not just a guy who buys and sells things to make money.  That’s why, really, it felt good to be at the New Amsterdam Market.  It gave me some identity.  That Market gave me a place as a purveyor.”

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