For Proust, it was a madeleine that revealed the truth of involuntary visceral, sensory memory—for me, it was a tomato I plucked from the back of van coming from a farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Eating local food in Brooklyn certainly constitutes something quite different than what I was doing growing up in Provence. Back then, colors were intertwined with smells—the blue of the sky with the fragrance of the Pins Parasols burnt by the bright yellow sun. The chirping song of the grillons would serenade me as a foraged through my grandmother’s vegetable garden, eating straight from the vine. Obviously, it’s impossible to get that same rush at the produce aisle of the supermarket—not even Whole Foods.
However, in navigating the NYC landscape for the past 14 years and learning how to source local food here, I managed to find a similar kaleidoscope of senses, and, more importantly, realize the impacts on our community.
In NYC, local farming means urban farming. My tomato revelation happened a few years ago when we got our first delivery from Added Value, an urban farm in Red Hook. That day, as one of the farmers unloaded his crates of collard greens, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, and more, I was blown away by the incredible bounty and couldn’t even resist—I plunged my hands into the crates and started devouring vegetables by the handful. Juicy tomatoes still hot from the sun, crunchy radishes, it had all traveled only three miles after being harvested not even an hour before. With every bite, I could feel my belly dancing—this food was live.
Besides supplying our restaurant, farms like Added Value or the Brooklyn Grange serve an important role in the communities they serve, with markets, volunteer days, composting, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, youth education and so much more. In other words, they bring people together, around something that everyone can relate to: basic food.
As they serve, and even create, community, these farms raise awareness. By showing people how food is supposed to be grown, and how it has always been grown, it makes it easier to forge a connection to that food. By contrast, the destruction of our food system and planet by industrial agriculture is revealed, and people often realize their deepest instincts on how to relate to the earth and take care of it have been shut down in such a system. My own children often ask me questions that amaze me, because I forget that they weren’t also raised in the countryside, but rather a city that is 70% paved, without the same reflexes around plants and dirt. Urban farms help to bridge that gap.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
I mentioned CSA groups before, which represent another way to connect with food in a very special way. The way they work is simple: you give a certain amount of money to a farm at the beginning of a season (or cycle), and each week, the farm delivers whatever is available to a location in your neighborhood. It’s like a harvest club, if you will. Not only do you get fresh food delivered, but on the abstract level, I like the concept of CSA because it challenges our obsession with control over everything in our lives—to me, there’s a deep quality to not knowing precisely what you will get each week. It’s a true reminder that nature cannot, and should not, be bent to our whims and desires by any means necessary.
I’m always excited to go pick up my share, and it’s one of my boys’ favorite days as well. The last time I went with Lucas, we were strolling home with armfuls of turnips, apples, kale, onions, eggs, and honey. I asked him why he seemed so happy, and his answer was plain and simple: “I don’t know, Maman, it just feels right.”
I think the best and easiest way for anyone to connect with locally grown food is by visiting a greenmarket. Greenmarkets have popped up more and more around the city, and at the same time, the diversity of the vendors has steadily grown, improving the selection tenfold over the past several years. There are now more than 54 markets supplied by more than 230 family farms and fishermen!
Not only do you get great local food by buying from your local green market, but by patronizing them you are playing an active role in preserving and boosting local agriculture, and keeping the New York food shed alive and growing. Plus, they really do provide access to good food for the communities that need it the most, in addition to providing youth education programs.
These avenues to obtain and support local food don't just bring the community together, they build community.