{interview} Mark Izeman of the NRDC

A few months back Jillian and I got to participate in a webinar put on by Mark Izeman of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Laurie David, author of The Family Dinner, Great Ways to Connect to Your Kids, One Meal at a Time. The webinar focused a lot on food and the environment and I was so thankful we got to be a part of it. During the Q & A at the end, I posed the question,

“For people who already feel like advocates of local, safe, sustainable food…what more can we do?”

Photo courtesy of NRDC.org

The answer Mark gave was that you need to be a bit of a “squeaky wheel” about the issue. I wanted to dig deeper though so I emailed Mark and asked if I could talk to him, and being the incredibly nice guy that he is, he said “yes.” What I found out is that the NRDC is doing some incredible work in regard to local ag.

First, let me tell you about Mark. He’s the Senior Attorney and Director of the New York Urban Program in Manhattan for the NRDC. He’s worked on some amazing projects that promote a more sustainable future, such as pushing NYC to use “greener” taxis, and also working to improve New York’s recycling programs.

One thing that he’s focused on at the moment could potentially impact everyone in New York State who supports local farms…as well as children in our state’s schools. If this works, it has the potential to bring about incredible change, and could serve as a model for other states. It’s about making small-scale farming BIG.

Right now in the Bronx at Hunts Point, sits one of the largest food distribution centers in the country. The market is a major food hub, although many people have never heard of it. Thousands of pounds of food come through here every day.

Image from nyscfp.org.

Compare that to all of the great products coming to the 53 different greenmarkets in NYC each week from all the wonderful farms Upstate and on Long Island. A lot of it is grown organically and sustainably, but is also completely out of the price range of many residents of the city. It makes sense that these farms price the way they do though; their products cost more to produce, and even more to haul several hours to the city.

What Mark and the NRDC (among others) are looking at, is the possibility of getting more access for midsize farms to sell their produce at Hunts Point. This is no small task, and could take years to make into a reality. Currently only 4% of the over $2 billion (annually) worth of products that come through Hunts Point is from New York state.

There is a lot of pushback from the Hunts Point center though, and that is just one of many hurdles there. Another problem is the ability to get enough of certain products into the city. The hope is for Hunts Point to serve midsize farms (farms under 300 acres), that can bring in several tons of individual crops (like head lettuce, artichokes, squash, etc.) to market each time.

If you belong to a CSA, chances are the farm is fairly small and diversified. They might not even be able to afford the cost of trucking their produce downstate. If they can get it down there, they may sell at a greenmarket or to individual CSA members or even restaurants.

All of those things are great, but what about someone who has additional acreage where they could grow a larger amount of a few crops, in addition to their current operations? When these farmers factor in diesel costs for a 6 hour round trip drive, it could completely undo these efforts before they even begin.

Mark says one way to solve this problem is to offer smaller food hubs upstate with even smaller satellite hubs. This would allow a farmer in Washington County to get wholesale crops into the city at a reduced cost.

Mark and the NRDC have already partnered with Catskill Mountain Keeper to look at the Western Catskill region as a prime expansion location of NYC’s foodshed. You can read the research report here. The report is very in-depth and shows the absolute demand for farm-fresh food in the city, including areas such as farm-to-school programs and SNAP benefits.

If these goods were more available in the city, not only could they be purchased more easily by restaurants, but it increases the likelihood of the schools being able to purchase them for school lunches. NYC does source some produce and milk from the state, but there is definitely room to grow.

Currently the city feeds a million kids in their schools each day. The NRDC has already helped encourage schools to purchase more sustainable items (like recycled paper), but imagine what it could mean for nutrition, and the New York economy, if farmers could get their food into school lunches!

It’s not unheard of, it does happen at some schools, but considering how much farmland we have in this state, it could stand to be a lot better. The voices of a community are powerful. Remember how the clamoring of parents got “pink slime” out of schools? Well, couldn’t our same voices get healthy, local food into schools?

What Can I Do?

~Farmers need our voices, our dollars, and our action. At the very least, we need to keep buying from local farms, and encouraging our friends and neighbors to do the same. Talk to the farmers you purchase from when you can. In doing so, you’ll feel a stronger bond with them, and can be better equipped to promote what they are doing and why you feel good about supporting them. Plus, if these farmers don’t have enough money to expand, it won’t matter how many satellite food hubs there are.

~Check out the NRDC’s Food & Agriculture page (and be sure to sign up for their newsletter while there). If you are a NY resident be sure to also check out their page dedicated just to the efforts taking place in New York (you can also sign up for e-alerts for NY there). This way you can keep updated on the Hunts Point efforts and get notified of any online petitions put out by the NRDC.

~Write your Congressperson. Yes, you hear it all the time, but for good reason. Very few people ever do this. In fact, since so few do send letters, it can be very effective for a legislator to even receive 10 letters about any specific cause. Many people in government are working to promote local, sustainably grown food, so be sure to say “thanks.” For example, Manhattan council member Christine Quinn has backed many initiatives for city residents that support local agriculture.

Also, funding often depends on the work of legislators. If they feel they don’t have enough support for an initiative, it can be tough for them to back it or fight for it. If we are to see smaller food hubs around our state, we absolutely will need funding.

~Talk to the school district where you live. Find other parents who feel the same, see if you can speak at the next board meeting (they are open to the public) and propose local sourcing. This will be more work that any of the other suggestions, but you never know where it could lead. Perhaps many parents are dismayed with the food their kids are being served, and might be willing to back you if you talk to them about it.

It may feel very uncomfortable to be political about what you serve for dinner. For some, it may never be a reality, and that’s understandable. But, for the rest of us, Mark says, “getting political” is the “single most important thing right now” that we can do for local food.

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I’d like to thank Mark Izeman for taking time out of his very busy schedule to speak with me. I’d also like to thank him and the NRDC for the incredible work they do on a daily basis.

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