Saturday, March 24, 2012

City Harvest Feeds New York

New York is food obsessed.

We enjoy more food-as-culture rituals, artisanal food-making swag, celebrity chefs and world-class restaurants than anywhere.

But there is the other side of the street.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that a foodie like me would choose food as a powerful weapon.
The war? 
Hunger and malnutrition.

Real food and nutrition are the best defense to wield a fair fight against an enemy that is rather like a "menu" of ills that afflict our fellow citizens.
Illnesses from heart disease to obesity to Type II diabetes, to lack of performance in school and on the job mark this killer.

For years I volunteered with The New York Junior League – my most enriching passage was time I spent working with the children at the Foundling Hospital.
I was very fortunate to have made life-long friendships there.

In recent years I searched for a food-based enterprise to lend my time and passion to.
Last year, I had a "duh" moment – realizing City Harvest was ideal for me.
The City Harvest mission signature, “Rescuing Food for New York’s Hungry” tells the story.
And I’d seen their trucks at the Greenmarket where I shop most every day that it's open.
Sadly, the timing was off.  I missed the required pre-season training due to schedule conflicts and then, when I was told my book, “The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook” needed to double is size, well… The volunteer work just didn’t work…

Not that the schedule has opened any new space this year, but my cousin Mary Ann and I eagerly agreed we both very much wanted to work with City Harvest and could carve out the time. 
Conceived in the loss of beloved family, Mary Ann and a friend are co-producing a cookbook, filled with family recipes that are meant to heal the heart and the palate. I will write about this work of passion soon.

City Harvest
Truth be told, we weaseled our way into the February training session! 
I was going on vacation – the same time the other two trainings were to be held -- making February the last available opportunity for the season.
City Harvest doesn’t allow volunteers to work in the field without the orientation.  

I pleaded/begged Kristen Kehoe, Manager, Volunteer Services & Community Affairs, adding “I am a very small person and wouldn’t take up much room.”
Kirsten got the giggles via email and was swayed.
Mary Ann is equally diminutive and so, just like that, we were in.

Along with the roomful of other fervent volunteer wanna-be’s, we learned more about hunger in New York than we could have imaged.
It’s a piercing tale…

Did you know there are more than 1.5 million hungry people in New York City? 

Kirsten welcomed the group, saying she has a passion for nutrition and for the cause.  
Last year, City Harvest distributed nearly 30 million pounds of food, with the volunteers moving the food to where it’s needed most.
“Lots of hungry New Yorkers look forward to a City Harvest truck pulling up,” she said, adding they also have a bike transport that clocks in some 30 miles a day.

City Harvest deals in only fresh produce, provides training to create demand for healthier food and instructs how to make meals.  
The distinction is that City Harvest is not a soup kitchen or food pantry kind of operation where people come to eat. 
Rather, the operation provides the whole foods and the recipes so recipients can learn to make their own recipes filled with nutritious, fresh food. 
It’s proves the adage that if you teach a man to fish…
This is especially critical for those urban neighborhoods that are now referred to as “food deserts” meaning there is virtually no access to fresh food. 
Can you imagine? Now, can you imagine such places are right here?  Near all of us?

Good, nutritious and whole foods should be available to everyone, not just those who can afford it. I often repeat the notation “poor farmers serve rich people and rich farmers serve poor people.”
And so it goes…

For 30 years, City Harvest has been providing access to good food for those underserved populations, feeding more than 300,000 people every week utilizing “food rescue.”
They aim to end hunger and promote food education, urging citizens to practice nutrition and shop responsibly for food ingredients every day.

Restaurants, supermarkets, food wholesalers and farmers, along with Greenmarkets supply City Harvest.

Doing it by the Numbers
City Harvest is the lead organization for food rescue in New York, delivering more than 300 pounds of food in 25 years (I can’t help think what a waste it all would have been if not for City Harvest.)

Presently, they provide approximately 83,000 pounds of food per day, 50-60 million pounds per annum.  Food that otherwise would be going in the hopper…
City Harvest also now boasts more than 600 community partners. 
They have 17 trucks, a tractor trailer that hauls 20,000 pounds of food and three tricycle carts whose pedalists log more than 25 miles a day.

One in five New Yorkers lives with hunger, have difficulty feeding themselves and their families, and seniors and children, especially, are “food insecure.”

Overall, 20% of the population is struggling to feed themselves. 

We were told that metric is the equivalent of filling Yankee Stadium. 
It’s mind boggling to think this group exists at all, much less in our own backyard. 

And not meant to be weighted in the same sense, but rather to show how out of whack things are—a hot dog at that same Yankee stadium that would be filled with the city’s hungry, can cost just south of a walloping $10.  And they sell a lot of hot dogs…
Things are just crazy, out of whack -- topsy-turvy.

My First Day Volunteering
I was keen to get working out in the field and when I received the email with possible venues and dates, I chose a 9 am to noon-ish food distribution market in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood.
I didn’t have a travel partner on the way over from Manhattan but did on the return.
I served as judge for the greening contest held every year in the borough but because the vans took us to the judging locations, I hadn’t use public transport and didn’t know how to get there.
But a quick Hop Stop research directed me to the M – which travels up over the bridge after the Essex street stop, and like a good air traffic controller, City Harvest’s Pedro guided me to the location once I disembarked and got me to the unfamiliar spot in no time.

The line was already around the block by 9 am, with citizens queuing up, pony carts at the ready, like the cars at the starting gate of a race.   
We later learned there were more than 250 people who shopped at the market that overcast but warm spring day.

Early on, we watched the City Harvest team unload the trucks. 

Then we waited for all the food to be brought into the market, aka a Bed-Stuy playground, visited by City Harvest bi-monthly.


Soon enough, following a brief, on-site orientation admirably conducted by Pedro,

we were instructed to set up the tables and were told to place two or three scales on each table.

Notice sheets were taped on the table in front of us, identifying how many pounds of the produce were to be given to the people, using an alphabetical categorization.
This day the food was red bliss potatoes, cabbage, onions, sweet potatoes, and carrots.

The people registered a table up front and given paper sheets with their food allocation noted by need, designated by a letter.

For example, one sheet could read:
            Potatoes; B (that is 8 pounds)
            Carrots: C (4 pounds)
            Cabbage: D (2 pounds)

And so on.  The letter system and the sheets facilitate the distribution.

I was first in the line of distribution so I felt a bit like the greeter too, welcoming people and smiling a lot. 
My un-designated City Harvest partner was a Japanese-national, a woman I met there, who lives in downtown Brooklyn.
Her name is Sakura.  That means cherry blossom in Japanese!  So a lively discussion with her and City Harvest’s newest special events staffer, Joanne, about cherry blossom celebrations ensued.
It seemed natural to pair up.

We thought we’d get ahead of the game, and started filling the plastic bags provided with potatoes.  We ran out of those pretty darn fast but it was a good idea.

There was a City Harvest staffer on site to help us lift the 50-pound bags of food. However, when we were crunched -- around 10 to 11 am – we needed to move -- and couldn’t always wait for him, so I heaved quit a few of those big bags to the distribution table, ripping them open in order to fill the bowls used for weighing and then dump the weighed potatoes into the bag.

There were some rotten potatoes too – ones that had turned to mush, and we tossed them discretely as we were filling the people’s food bags.
A few of the women, also picked out some of the unholy looking produce.
We had been advised during that morning’s orientation to mitigate this progress because, understandably, it took time away from the line’s progress.
I said I think it’s a sign of love – especially for women – to shop by picking through and choosing the best for their family.
I allowed this shopping selection at my station… It was no problem.

More often than not, I was also bringing the bags to the people’s pony carts, exclaiming to them in what I hoped was a fun, respectful way, that this was a better shopping experience than Whole Foods.
Heck, they don’t bring the bags to the cart!  Smiles all round.  

And when some citizens who were picking up for neighbors or family members were receiving two B size bags – we’d say laughing, “Two B’s – To B or not to B, that is the question!”
Who doesn’t like to hear a bit of Shakespeare at moments like this?!

My favorite, though, was Edith. She is an elegant 92-year old, fashionably attired with a turban, who when asked, told me she’d lost thirty pounds following the City Harvest nutrition education, along with her doctor’s advice.  He also advised her to lift weights, which she does!  
She looks rather fragile, but her wide grin and strong memories of growing up one of 15 children on the too-cold Williamsburg waterfront where rooms were 5 cents and where she still lives was a very special conversation I enjoyed while we were setting up.  She was given extra respect, it seemed, and allowed to sit on the game benches near us while the others waited on line.
She said her two children died early and she raised many of her sibling’s children.  She has always lived in Brooklyn.
She shared some good recipes with me too.

The other nice story came at the conclusion of the market distribution: bookending the day.
The last in was a young mother who was frantically calling out, afraid she’d missed the food.

We reassured her, filling some bags with the last of the food from the big open bags from the trucks -- so she actually made out better, getting more things. 
Big sigh of relief and big smiles from her and her daughter in the stroller.

I named our team the “Spud Studs.” 
By the end of the day, the four of us at our potato table were a well-oiled machine, I daresay.

I also met a swell group of corporate men -- professionals from a Garden State pharmaceutical company, Eisai.  
I came up with a name for them they liked: “The Pharm Food” team. Get it?
They did.  Greg liked it!

The day was filled with hard work, no doubt.  The time went by so fast. 
I met dedicated, friendly volunteers.
I also met proud, grateful and courteous citizens. 

This is the other side of the food coin.  It is one we need to flip and look in the eye.
And experience.


For more information on City Harvest, visit

Monday, March 19, 2012

Exploring the bond between Chefs and their Growers

When this time last year, my book, The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook doubled in size, I felt more than determined to single out those chefs -- and the growers who inspire them – who are the thought leaders and “hustlers” for sustainability and local ingredients, to add to the outstanding roster I worked so painstakingly to realize  -- for what was soon to be the “first phase” of the book.

The challenge was finding those chefs and growers now in the less, how shall we say, less celebrated areas of Long Island. Unlike Manhattan – or other big, bright lights/big city locales, along with the Hamptons where, where there was more of the whisperings of the burgeoning food movement’s pursuit of locally-grown and made foodstuffs.

When I started the book concept in 2003, there were far too few of the master chefs who set their teeth on this farm and fine to table approach to the culinary arts. 
For that matter, there are still far too few…

Even in 2007 and ‘08 when I began the interviews, I needed to really hunt and dig and search for potential chef candidates.  Bear in mind there were no online foodie blogs to speak of, nor newsletters lauding the locavores.
Even in Food Heaven, aka New York City.
My list for Gotham began to grow with the chefs who worked quietly and passionately to build and expand the Greenmarkets and fish markets and coordinate resources and deliveries from upstate food sheds.
Michael Anthony: Gramercy Tavern, Peter Hoffman: Savoy and Back Forty, Marc Meyer:  Cookshop and Five Points; Mario Batali: Babbo and Del Posto and...); and Dan Barber, Blue Hill, were on the premiere list of New York City-based master chefs – and who will be featured in the-next in-the-queue Homegrown book.

At that time, very few, if any, chefs had public relations staff.  After researching and searching the internet and news stories and farmers markets, I called the chefs and restaurants straight away.  Sometimes I needed persistence, and other times I needed to cajole in order to convince the chefs of the importance of their leadership and culinary work.  In my experience, most of the Homegrown chefs are quite humble – usually not aware of their impact, as they are so busy crediting and nurturing the growers who inspire them, not to mention their kitchen and restaurant staffs.

I did the interviews live, in the restaurants, with the chefs, recording and writing madly in my notebook, altogether awed to in the presence of such talent and determined drive.
I was extremely honored to have been the first one to interview master chef Dan Barber the day after he was named the James Beard award winner for Best Chef in America.  I was scooting over from the apartment on Fifth Avenue and chef Dan was texting he’d be a bit late
No worries for me, I assured him. 
New York is like that.  Flex time on steroids.
We do so much, and schedules collide.
I got to Blue Hill restaurant and stepping down into the cool dimmed, dining room, noticed the abundant floral arrangements adorning the bar top like a special events tablescape.  It was like the Frank Sinatra ballad, “One for my baby and One for the Road in that the only folks in the place were me, the man cleaning the floor and the woman quietly making order of the phone and operations.   Not long after, she let me know that chef Dan would be arriving soon; he was on the way.  She somewhat conspiratorially shared that he was a tad late because of last night.  Hmmm.  “He won the James Beard award.”  What?? I picked up the NY Times Dining section that I had saved to savor later. (I learned my lesson – I read this Wednesday feature section first, and now I read on Twitter the night before!”)
Soon enough, Dan arrived for the interview.  And you know what, he was so humble; he never even brought up a word about the James Beard award! Why didn’t I?

This remarkable attitude and view toward what it is to be an executive chef and restaurant owner was an inspiring love-at-first-talk/old school manners and humility. 

The fact that these early leaders’ vision was new and filled a need for good locally grown and raised food, in fact, launched an era of inspired attention and passion surrounding food security, and quality and farmer and school children welfare and taste for real honest-to-goodness, homegrown food.

It felt like a tsunami of forces coalescing.
It was exhilarating. To be on the cusp of culinary discovery.
Suddenly it seemed, there were glamorous culinary benefits to raise monies for the greenmarkets, the farmers and the school gardens.
Camera crews were peeking out at the Greenmarket almost as much as the new green shoots were.
TV shows took Julia Child’s on-camera cooking t o new heights of more than cooking. 
Now, cooking shows sprouted up like, well, mushrooms.  Watching chefs cook and compete was a national pastime – not unlike sports.  Top Chef, Master Chefs, Celebrity Chefs – chefs were now rock stars.
There was a palpable thrill.  And I could not wait to showcase and help tell their stories.

It was after completing the nearly 20 NYC-based chef interviews, when I was asked by editor to add in the master chefs of the Hamptons, I thought,
“Why not?"

I soon found myself researching the best of the best on the East End of Long Island and was delighted to discover the half a dozen or so chefs I needed to complete the NYC book.
I learned the Hampton Jitney schedule and the hocus pocus of seeming to wait on otherwise unheralded Manhattan street corners, armed with only what appeared to me as a secret mob-inspired direction like: “Meet up at the corner of Lexington and 38th “ or Third and 47th 

It was a perfectly wonderful way to journey to the land of sea and farms and celebrities though.  And once in Sag Harbor, I landed right across the street from the most charming lodging, recommend to me by Peter Garnham, writer and farmer extraordinaire and my soon-to-be British-born sherpa of all things Hamptons – and a fellow oyster-lover to boot.
The American Hotel was someplace out of Central Casting and it was perfect for me.  The staff there made me feel like I was home from day one.
I’ve written before about how well appointed the place is – like something out of a Ralph Lauren ad.

After greetings and getting the lay of the land there, I quickly unpacked my things, loving the armoire and the big bed and desk – all too perfect for a writer I thought. 
I made my way back downstairs for a dining room lunch – with my Mac – in order to continue writing – and whom do I spot right off the bat?  Billy Joel.
Yes, this is going to my kind of place, I smiled.

I decided that to really appreciate the experience of being there, “in the Hamptons” I would rent a bike to get to my interview appointments, rather than drive around.  This way I could see the landscape, the gardens and the architecture.

I didn’t know until chef Joe Realmuto quizzically (or astoundingly) watched me disembark from the bike at East Hampton’s Nick & Toni’s restaurant and farm out back, and hearing him say, “Did you ride your bike here from Sag Harbor?” that I had the surest feeling that this is not the norm.
“Yes,” I replied.  “Is that crazy?” I added for assurance.  “Well, kinda” he offered.

I was already a bit late, having mis-judged the travel time on bike (I had gotten a bit turned round the day before when chef Michael Rozzi fortuitously happened to be driving with his wife not too far away and he came and picked me up – bike in tow in the back of the SUV for our appointed interview at the Della Femina restaurant.

My next bike trip for the interviews was to the North Fork – via two ferries – to Satur Farms…

Next up:  the adventure trip to North Shore on the bicycle.