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Like Food? Be an Advocate! Here’s why and how!

15 Sep

Hello Locavores!  We’ll dive right in, as this is truly a long read.

What has Sarah been up to this week with her kids?  After being sick last week, she and her kids went out for some fresh air, and discovered a pick-your-own orchard not far from her house!  Check out this Locavore-positive experience she tells us about.  “We drove down a rocky dirt road following the U-Pick signs. My kids always enjoy a bumpy ride, and I know it usually leads to a place I want to be, so we already knew the day was on the right track.  I knew the hustle and bustle of the street was not very far behind us, but distance hid it from our view.  We were surrounded by water, trees, pasture and some scattered farm equipment. The sky looked so big, I remembered our activities are often at its mercy.  We had no company other than the insects.  I handed my kids their bright orange Locavore bags and started walking. We saw the apples hanging from trees on our right, but we could smell the peaches to our left.  My kids waited for the okay to start picking, almost like they couldn’t believe something so fun was mom approved. With a smile and a gentle “go on” from me, they ran down a row of peach trees. Watching them, I could see they were struggling to make the decision whether to hoard the peaches for later or taste every one they saw.  Later, when seeing the peaches on our dinner plates, they were visibly proud of their achievement.  While we don’t often roll up our sleeves and grow or harvest our food ourselves within my family, we should.  After all, I want my kids to understand that ‘doing’ is a part of eating. I know that if I continue to let my kids interact with food at its source, they will respect and advocate for our environment’s health, amongst other thing as they grow.”


Sarah’s final thought is a perfect segue into this week’s upcoming blog theme: Take Action!  We’ve all been testing our abilities to use lots of local and organic foods, engaging with others, encouraging friends and acquaintances to do the same, and we’ve had an introduction as to why that’s going to help our communities in the long run.  This week, let’s get into it more deeply.  Each of us can find an initiative to support, or even one to start!  Food activism starts in your shopping bag, on your cutting board, in your kitchen, and at your table (read this for an interesting take on anti-GMO culinary protest).  This is a real and good and important part of changing the accessibility of organically-grown locally-farmed foods (simply by creating more demand and thus allowing farmers to be in business).  Good job to you for being a part of it!

Let’s go beyond the plate.  If Sarah’s children, both under 5 years old, are getting involved by appreciating their food, then there’s no reason the rest of us shouldn’t ensure they will be able to do this in the future!  NOFA-NY spends a lot of time working behind the scenes to advocate for organic farming and food-access policies.  There are the more public issues, such as GMO labeling, that affect farmers and consumers.  But there are other questions and policies that need your support.  Beyond policy, local food just needs liaisons and catalysts.  Later this week, you’ll hear from a member of the 18-25 year old demographic who’s having a huge impact in her college’s community in New York.  You’ll learn what motivates NOFA-NY staff to continue to read policy briefs and why calling your government representatives is so important.

The on-farm situation, and what farmers have to put up with because agricultural policies don’t favor small-scale, diverse farms, needs work.  Beyond the fields, there are blockages to distribution.  It remains a huge challenge for smaller-scale farmers to provide food to their communities outside of the farmers’ market and CSA methods of distribution.  Often the issue of scale means a farmer can’t guarantee a certain crop at a certain time; while organic farmers work hard to prevent crop failure, they don’t have the safety of spraying something to kill whatever is eating their crop.  It’s a riskier way to farm, and that risk means that it’s also harder to market food to certain channels that demand consistency and a low wholesale price.  Supplying to restaurants and local grocers is becoming more common, and we want to lift up the chefs and farmers who are making that happen.  (That’s a fun way to be a food activist–dine at a restaurant that supports local farms, and then write an online restaurant review, or Tweet or post something on Facebook praising them for doing this and including key words like “farm to table” or “local produce”).  Policy change needs to happen on many levels–local, state and federal–if more farms are to have hope of supplying food to their own kids’ schools, to hospitals, to nursing homes, and to programs that allow for low-income households to eat as healthily as higher-income households.

Admittedly, policy reading doesn’t seem as interesting as recipe-browsing.  But if your education today sparks you to understand and react to the next challenge to farmers’ ability to grow organic food at a scale they enjoy and can manage, then that’s where the chain of activism takes off, and that’s what could secure your ability to have such great food to cook in years to come.

Local and organic food makes us smile.

Local and organic food makes Nancy, NOFA-NY’s Finance and Human Resources Manager, smile.  She lives in an area outside Rochester situated between many old farms, and she’ll keep smiling if more people get involved in protecting those great farms!

Challenge yourself to think of one local-food or organic-food question you’ve been wanting to learn more about, and spent the next 10 minutes researching it–even just bookmarking pages to read later.  Heck, we’ll even give you a free pass to eat some bananas and avocados (but keep them organic and fair trade, please) while you look up this stuff.  Be careful to find information that is grounded in research, facts and true events.  Watch out for claims and personal accounts that may not check out (because while they may support what you want to be true, the truth and facts are way more powerful).  Here are some suggestions:

Read about NOFA-NY’s official policy initiatives.  The information there should give you a taste of how we work and point you to many more reputable sources of information.  Note: becoming a NOFA-NY member gives you the freedom to vote on farm policy resolutions at our annual meeting in January.  Wondering how else, besides political action, NOFA-NY supports farmers from our office headquarters? For example, take a look at the list of organic farming programs and projects we are involved in.  Please do consider donating and joining as a member–your support is essential to help us continue to do our work effectively.

The National Organic Coalition (NOC) has a list of resources and media for you to get into.  Browse around all their site has to offer–they’re the real deal (disclosure: NOFA-NY and all the NOFA chapters in the Northeast hold membership with NOC).  Subscribe to their e-mail alerts for the latest on organic policy happenings (and action alerts to get involved–based on the zipcode you provide, they tell you who to call, and when, and what to say).

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is another group doing fantastic work to explain the laws, bills and policies that have such power (to do good or to harm) in our food system.  Keep up to date on the latest Farm Bill news on their blog, and browse their resources, too!

If mapping out local food systems and doing a local foods feasibility audit interest you, check out Farm to School Evaluation Toolkit  and Mapping School Food: A Policy Guide.  Don’t forget to read our blog post on Tuesday for a great example of youth stepping up to better the local food system.

Subscribe to the Northeast Food System e-mail listserve, devoted to the topic of food systems in the Northeastern states.

Worried as you watch land turn into big development lots for more houses, malls, and chain restaurants?  There’s some policy work you can read about, plus great organizations like American Farmland Trust (go to their website if only to watch the animated cow plod across the screen) and local land conservancies and trusts that can show you how you, while not a farmer, can help keep land in agriculture, can open up new land for new farmers who can’t pay the going rate versus rich developers, and more.

This is what we want in our communities...not more malls.

This is what we want in our communities…not more malls.

Wondering what challenges aspiring farmers face?  Look at this comprehensive national study  published in 2011 from National Young Farmers Coalition.  They can use your support, and are another trusted resource on farmer-forward policy, with a specific focus on how policies will impact the chances of new farmers.

Feel inspired already? Do you think you have the guts to start or get involved with food policy?  Mark Winne is a respected name in the food policy world, encouraging groups large and small to work for better food policy.  He says, “Broadly defined, food policy is a set of collective decisions made by governments at all levels, businesses, and organizations that affect how food gets from the farm to your table. A food policy can be as broad as a federal regulation on food labeling or as local and specific as a zoning law that lets city dwellers raise honeybees.”  You can download an entire Food Policy Council manual from Winne’s website that takes you through all the steps to starting a Food Policy Council to influence food policy like this, now that you know some of the issues and stakeholders!

The idea in giving you these resources is not to overwhelm or depress you.  It’s to show you that you can find some way to get involved off the plate.  Also, like our guest blogger Lea mentioned in her post on September 3rd, everyone gets involved somehow.  It’s not that some of us were born into a career of food and farm policy work (some of us find law easier to understand, sure).  Each of the organizations and initiatives mentioned here is run by regular people with a passion to help.  You don’t have to run an organization to help, but you should and can get involved and take action.  You can find something that means a lot to YOU, and devote yourself to learning about that.  Knowledge is power, as the old saying goes.  Where will your knowledge-power take you?  It’s so important that you, a local-food-eater, understand the challenges farmers face in starting and maintaining their organic farms, because you clearly know the reward is a better food system with tastier food!

This duck-egg-with-radish greens quiche made possible by a CSA share (and all the policy support allowing that farm to succeed), lovingly made by a food justice and food access crusader, NOFA-NY's own Nicky Dennis.

This duck-egg-with-radish greens quiche made possible by a CSA share (and all the policy support allowing that farm to succeed), lovingly made by a food justice and food access crusader, NOFA-NY’s own Nicky Dennis.


Capturing the Locavore Spirit on the Road

21 Sep

[From Rachel]

I have traveled a lot this summer, and it has truly been great.  Each of the NOFA-NY on-farm workshops I have been to (and which I have planned) included a shared meal, and since there were farmers involved, the food was naturally sourced from nearby.  Additionally, when I travel, I tote meals, ingredients and just about anything I can to avoid relying on restaurants, though I do seek out natural foods stores with prepared foods, or restaurants with an organic and farm-to-table perspective about ingredients sourcing.  Chains are out of the question for anything besides stay-awake emergency coffee.  Mostly, I stick to my stash of fruits, homemade bread, and whatever leftovers I’ve boxed up for the trip.  I’d like to take some time to tell you how this went for me on a recent trip to Long Island, New York City and Poughkeepsie.

This trip presented me with a challenge to being able to control the food I’d consume on the road.  I was faced with a significantly long trip for which I could not pack enough to supply each meal.  This was hard for me, but I was comforted knowing that I’d be near farms and farmers’ markets and staying in houses, not hotels without kitchens.  I packed ingredients to make cornbread for my first stop–a field day and potluck at Quail Hill Farm (all the way at the tip of Long Island).  After an 8.5-hour trip (I drive slowly and take frequent breaks), I arrived at the house of two of the farm’s apprentices.  I was a bit road-weary, and I thought I’d have to break my local-foods vow with a scoop of ice cream (but I crossed my fingers for a locally-owned scoop shop, at least).  Never fear, they told me, they had half a pint of Ronnybrook ice cream that they had to save from melting during hurricane Irene’s power outages at the farm.  So I guess it never hurts to ask, and I was glad to have that to calm me down after the trip, while I stood in the kitchen and chatted about recent goings-on with the farmers.

The next day I had to find lunch.  Being in the Hamptons, there was not a shortage of delicious food that I could have spent money on, but would it satisfy my desire for a simple, local meal?   The fields were right there, and there was a kitchen available–why would I step off a food-producing establishment to get food from far away?  So I got the full Quail Hill Farm CSA member experience.  I harvested what was left over after the members had gone through and picked a few days prior, according to the very nice directional signs.  Quail Hill Farm’s CSA is almost entirely pick-your-own, a neat concept!  I got a little greedy gleaning off the plants and from the storage cooler (with everyone’s blessing) and was soon toting a bag of radishes, turnips, kale, spinach, herbs, peppers and tomatillos.  A weird mix, and I was really hungry, and a little disconcerted by the beachy humidity and wind.  I knew exactly what I was going to do when I got back to the kitchen.  Wash, slice and steam those veggies.  With food that fresh, it’s all I would need to do.  While the veggies steamed and released incredible smells, I chopped up some herbs.  I dotted a little Ronnybrook salted butter into the hot steamed veggies, and poached an egg for protein.  It was pure meditation on vegetables…and it was delicious.  It made me laugh when people passed by and commented on the wonderful look and smell of the food.  I couldn’t really take credit for much of that–the quality of my meal was a direct reflection on the skill and care taken by the farmers in raising healthy and vigorous plants bearing beautiful edible products.  And to think I had not prepared any of this ahead of time!

The turnips (red skin) look like radishes, and the radishes (watermelon variety) look like turnips!

At the potluck dinner, it was clear that we were in fall mode.  We enjoyed cornbread, baked pasta, squash and pasta salad by a fire, while we watched and felt the cold front move in.  I think everyone in New York felt that shift at about 6pm last Wednesday.  Songs were sung and company was enjoyed…then we all ran to our cars to get warm again.  It was such a low-key moment, when locavorism was unspoken and assumed.  As I left, Scott Chaskey, the 22-years-running farmer at Quail Hill, former NOFA-NY Board President, current Board member, presenter of our field day, and superb writer and amazing human being, sent me off toward the next leg of my trip with a jar of the farm bees’ honey and another pint of ice cream.  The generosity of the farmers’ gestures is an example of what makes local food work, and why it’s worthwhile.  I had no food for lunch, and there was the easy route of going to a restaurant.  But I would have sat there alone and eaten.  End of story.  But at the farm, there were kale and other veggies to be gleaned and radishes and turnips were sitting in storage.  From that, I got a meal so simple and elegant it would take Alice Waters’s breath away.  I still ate alone, but in the company of the spirit of generosity from the farmers.  Farmers want to feed you!  So give them that opportunity!  Visit their stands, their stalls at market, join their CSAs, attend their events.  You’ll end up with a feeling of sublime satisfaction, both emotional and physical.  

That was only days 1-2 of my trip!  Over the next few days, I was hanging out with my college friends in the city.  Normally I try to eat all the exotic foods that I can’t cook for myself when in New York City.  This time I wondered how I would fare, given a tighter budget and a commitment to seeking local foods (there are some great but upscale local-ingredients restaurants in the city, but I wondered if I really had the energy and funds to go that route for a few days).  It ended up that I didn’t go totally locavore in what I ate, and I am okay with that.  Here’s why:  I was MORE of a locavore than any recent NYC trip in my recent memory.  I was outspoken about my commitment to eating local and organic–I remained true in spirit, if not in actual action.  For starters, I ate both dinners in my friends’ apartment.  I can’t remember the last time we had not chosen to go out to celebrate my being in the city.  The first night, it was a simply meal that my one friend prepared (not using local ingredients, but the care and emotion taken in a meal came from within a 250-mile radius, and I accepted without judgment or hesitation).  I declared that I would cook for Saturday’s dinner.  We invited another friend living in the city, and my plan hatched.  I discovered a tiny new Greenmarket in the Socrates Sculpture Garden, several blocks from their apartment.  I scoped it out and scored plenty of beautiful produce to add to the growing stash.  I reported my findings and gave the market my seal of approval.  I think my friends will start shopping there (I advised them to start there, THEN go to the supermarket if you need more stuff.  It’s a great piece of advice to help people wrap their heads and finances around buying local food).  Then I went to Manhattan to enjoy a lunch with a dear old friend at Angelica Kitchen.  The restaurant is legendary for using local producers and for making very beautiful plant-based foods, before it was hip.  It was extremely enjoyable and I was glad to introduce my friend to this concept that I am so passionate about.  My friend learned that she likes non-spicy kimchee, and was impressed by the vegan butternut squash soup.  Before leaving Manhattan, I stopped at the huge and famous Union Square Greenmarket.  It used to overwhelm me with its booth after booth of loaded tables and pushy (sorry, NYC, but it’s often true that you can be a bit hasty at this market instead of enjoying the interaction with the vendors) customers.  I no longer feel this way…I have met many of the farmers at field days, the NOFA-NY Winter Conference and the NOFA Summer Conference.  I just went and visited familiar farm stalls, even if the people staffing them didn’t know me.  And for all you who live in NYC and are throwing up your hands at not knowing where to buy local flour: Cayuga Pure Organics sells whole grains (rye, oats, wheat berries and freekeh) and farmer-ground flours, beans and polenta.  Now you know–you don’t need to settle for bulk grains across the street at that national big-name expensive food store!  For dinner I made: bean soup with canary beans from a New Farmer Development Project farmer selling at Socrates Sculpture Garden’s market, roasted root veggies and potatoes, roasted winter squash, and freekeh.  It was actually my first experience cooking the roasted green spelt grains, and I was nervous since I didn’t know what sort of flavoring to put into it.  I threw a few golden raisins (not local) and apple cider vinegar into that pot, and that was all it needed.  What a flavorful and complex grain!  My friends (non-vegetarian boys who are adventurous eaters…but still…boys who may not have appreciated hippie girl food) were SO into the Freekeh.  They loved the whole meal, and to think we didn’t have to leave an apartment!  We even polished off a pan of apple-pear crisp after our starchy and lovely turn-of-the-season dinner.  It wasn’t all 100% local, since I didn’t have my pantry of local versions of the standard items, but it easily could have been.  I didn’t worry about that aspect at all: the spirit remained.  In fact, I was not stressed at all, like I usually am when trying to find the perfect NYC dinner spot to enjoy company of my best friends.  I cut out the middle man: the other cook,  and I think we created a new standard for my visits.  I cooked, showed off what I love about seasonal and local eating, and remembered how much I love my friends, especially because they not only ate, but asked questions about what we were eating (killed the joke that we were eating “roasted green smelt”) and even about farming and plants in general.  Being a locavore enhanced my ability to connect with my friends this trip, that’s for certain.

The next day, I went to my final field day for the season, up at Poughkeepsie Farm Project.  And guess what!  We ended with a fantastic filling potluck heavy on the potatoes and apples.  We were all hungry after 3 hours of learning about cover crop rotations.  It was blissful to sit and continue to talk and form friendships at those picnic tables (while being eaten by mosquitoes, who have a taste for local farmer blood apparently).  Through local eating, I connected with SO MANY people on my 5-day trip, had enlightening self-aware experiences, and realized, once again, that food breaks barriers if you let it.  Use the locavore challenge as the catalyst to connect with your spiritual self, your friends, your family and your farming community.  If that’s not reason enough to host or attend a potluck as part of our Potluck Across New York on Sunday, Sept. 25th, I wonder what could convince you!

Checking in with the NOFA-NY Staff

12 Sep

At almost the half-way mark for the month, we thought we’d share how we here at NOFA-NY, Inc. Headquarters are doing.  We are in an ideal spot for farming, with the Western New York Dairy and Fruit Belts to our West, the Finger Lakes to the East, fabulous livestock farmers to the North and dairy and grains to our South towards the Pennsylvania border.  Still, taking this month to be even more mindful of our farm-to-table habits has provided us with new experiences and a few difficult moments.

Matt (Education and Outreach Coordinator) has been hitting up his garden plot hard for some local produce.  He plans to bring a fiery salsa to a friend’s potluck supper tonight (which reminds us…have you found a potluck for September 25th? Don’t forget to tell US so we can count your participation!):

We’ve got a lot of tomatoes that need to be picked, as well as some very hot peppers. With the garlic and onions that are available at the markets right now, this is a perfect way to enjoy the season’s bounty.

Tomatoes- 3 lbs., diced. Mixed varieties if available. We’ve got lemon drops, gold medals, and a few mystery heirloom varieties growing in our garden.
Hot peppers- 2 or 3 (depending on size, heat, and your tolerance level), minced. We’re growing Joe’s Round this year, a small, cherry bomb-looking guy that is very very hot.
Cilantro- ½ – ¾ cup chopped. Cilantro is something I used to detest, and have grown to love. Ours didn’t do too well this year, so we’re buying from the market.
Garlic- 3 cloves, minced.
Onions- 2 or 3 smaller ones (roughly ¾ lb.)

Chop up everything, combine in a large bowl, and add a little salt and pepper to taste. If it weren’t Locavore Month, I’d suggest a little lime juice as well. Nice for dipping, but also delicious over eggs, on top of chili, etc.

Stephanie (Administrative Assistant) enjoyed a visit to the Lexington Food Co-Op in Buffalo, NY (where she used to work and live, respectively).  She also has been cooking and eating a strong foundation of products from her community garden plot and CSA share.

Katie (Membership and Registration Coordinator), through great fortune of living (and working) at Firefly Farm, is a lifelong locavore, but she has been striving to avoid sugar and some of the standard non-local ingredients that are generally at the year-round table.  She tried both maple syrup and honey as her coffee sweetener, and prefers the honey (a personal choice, other members of the office prefer the maple flavor).  She has been happy to rekindle her relationship with the Rochester-area farmers’ markets!

Lea (Assistant Director) learned that her ancestors were some pretty tough Rochesterian urban farmers in the 20’s and 30’s.  We won’t spoil that story today…stay tuned!  One of her frustrations has been waving the Locavore flag at family tables (such as the six-course meal during which she learned of her urban farming heritage) and while eating out with friends: “I have been at nearly 100% when eating at home, but eating out is difficult.  There are a few great farm to table restaurants in Rochester, but they are expensive, and I feel bad asking friends to go out for dinner and the only two restaurants I can go do start at $20 a plate.  I have been succeeding at just going for drinks and apps though.  Thank you NYS wines!”  She has been sharing the experience with all those around her, including intervening in her housemate’s cooking at just the right moment to swap in a local-ingredient recipe on a few occasions.

Rachel (Beginning Farmer Coordinator) agrees, the social aspect is difficult, though she has been mostly eating in at home anyways, and choosing restaurants carefully for those few meals out.  Even though the meals out have not been totally local, the initial where-to-go conversations have caused her to discover a well-kept secret of a Rochester restaurant (through a conversation with a farmer who mentioned how much produce they were supplying to that restaurant) and to realize that there is a bit more local produce being used at area restaurants than she had originally thought, if she just makes the point to investigate.  The no-coffee plan has worked out well, minus a few specific incidences of enjoying expertly-brewed cups from a local coffee roaster/cafe during a Slow Food Rochester event (ok, and on her own a few times).  She misses the grocery store brand ice cream that used to live in her apartment’s freezer, though she knows she could just make her own with local ingredients, if it weren’t for all the vegetables and make-ahead meals she has been stuffing into the freezer.  Cold melon, honey and local yogurt have been an immensely satisfying option.  Rachel has been doing some marathon chopping, cooking, canning and dehydrating of the season’s produce to ensure that she can still enjoy all the Locavore flavors later this year.  She’s also learned that having the shared experience of the Locavore Challenge to chat about with her mother has brought the two of them closer!  Though her mom is in Rhode Island, so the local foods are different, the two of them have been exchanging e-mails about the great meals they’ve been having, and Rachel feels like her mom is starting to really *get* what Rachel is involved in (though Locavore challenge coordinator isn’t technically her job description).

Kate (Executive Director) has been out of the country for most of the month, but we are anticipating her arrival back in the office, full of stories from the country she has been in, which is notorious for its slow-food culture that does not even comprehend using anything but local products for the bulk of your meals.  To be fair, it’s nice when “local” includes olive oil, citrus, seafood and a seriously long tradition of amazing and simple foods.  Stay tuned for tales from her trip later this month.

Brett (Communications and Event Planning Assistant) was thrown into the Locavore challenge right as he started his year-long internship with us.  He has gotten up to speed quickly about what the local food scene is here (he’s not from the area), and has mastered the art of manning an information table for us at some key locavore events!

We hope you see that we are all challenged by this month of consciousness.  Just because our work here at NOFA-NY brings us into constant contact with farmers and our food system does not mean we have it all figured out.  We’ve each taken the challenge to mean something different, and while none of us has totally avoided food from outside our 250-mile radius, we are definitely thinking more about the decisions we make and have enjoyed this year’s twist of the mini-challenges to push ourselves to think and act on our convictions.  Having an office full of support really helps, so if you feel all alone while challenging yourself, reach out to a buddy for support (and make sure they register so we can count them in the movement as well).

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