Tag Archives: local food

The Joys of Local Fish

The other week, I got a whole porgy from Blue Moon Fish at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. The fish was smallish, about 3 pounds, certainly smaller than a lot of the other whole fish they had, and more manageable for a single dinner.

The man in the photo above is Alex, one half of Blue Moon Fish and Manhattan native, who has been fishing since 1977 and selling at the Greenmarkets since 1988. He and his wife, Stephanie, have been selling almost their entire catch through the Greenmarkets in the early 1990’s.

They sell all kinds of fish, year-round except for a few months off in winter, at the Union Square, Washington, Tribeca and Grand Army Plaza farmers’ markets. And their fish is wonderful, and ridiculously fresh. I’ve had their mussels, clams, oysters, swordfish, scallops, skate, tuna, and now this porgy, my first venture into whole fish, and they’ve always been impeccably fresh and delicious. I’ve never seen fresher fish that wasn’t still alive. Moreover, the fish sellers are always happy to suggest a preparation for that particular fish, or advice and instructions.

The fish just look surprised, not dead. Look how clear their eyes are, and how shiny their scales are.

I bought the whole porgy, and I was really excited about it. Porgy (aka scup or bream), is on the Monterey Aquarium’s “good alternatives” list, meaning that the population is sustainable and can be safely fished. I’d never cooked a whole fish on my own before, and I wanted to reprise a cool recipe I’d tried with my friend Justin, a former poissonier, or fish chef. The recipe, similar to this one, called for stuffing the belly cavity with lemon and thyme, and baking it in shell make out of a salt and water paste. Ideally, the fish would turn out steamed in the shell of salt, which would make it easy to remove the skin and separate the fish into fillets without getting salt all over the flesh. As a bonus, you have the flesh that’s not in the fillets, like the cheek meat, tasty and accessible.

The tricky part was going to be prepping the fish to go into the oven. The fish looked alive, sitting on my cutting board, all shiny and glistening and clear-eyed. I almost thought that it would start flopping around wildly if I touched it. I’d never bought a truly whole fish before, scales and all. But I figured that it couldn’t be too difficult to remove the scales.

Wrong. The fish was spiny, and slippery, and the scales were devilishly hard to get off. Lacking a scaler, I ended up with the fish on a cutting board in the sink, holding the tail with one hand and scraping the scales off with the back of a utility knife with the other. At least I wised up enough to cut off all of the spiny fins with my kitchen shears about about the third time I stabbed myself.

It took at least forty-five minutes, and my the time I was done, scales were everywhere but on the fish. In the sink, on the stove, on my shirt, arms and hair, scattered onto the floor around me. See, the force needed to separate the scale from the skin meant that the scales ricocheted wildly when the broke loose. By the end, I didn’t care if I ate the fish any more. I was tired of it. In comparison, the gutting was easy. I just cut from the ventral fin with the shears, grabbed the organs inside, and pulled them out. Luckily, the preparation was so simple that I decided I might as well go through with it.

It came out amazingly well. This recipe does best with really fresh fish, and the porgy from Blue Moon Fish clearly passed. I flubbed the separation of the fillets from the skeleton, so it didn’t look pretty, but it tasted of clean fish, with a moist flakiness and just enough lemon and thyme. It was so easy to pull out the skeleton and bones, and the skin came right off. I would certainly make it again.

The only catch is that apparently you don’t have to scale the fish. I wish I had noticed that part of the recipe before I tried it!

Local Foods Project in Scotland

Local Highland cattle in Scotland

Ed Harris, a postgrad researcher at the Institute for Geography in the University of Edinburgh, is making some really interesting inquiries into the role of local foods in alternative food networks. As he puts it:

‘Alternative food networks’ is a term used to describe the wide range of food production-consumption options which are presented as alternatives to ‘conventional’ food networks – globalized agri-food businesses.

Localization of food systems is often advocated as a way to reestablish connections between producers and consumers, and as a way to achieve specific social and environmental goals. Advocates of local food systems often state that:

  • Eating locally reduces the food miles (and therefore carbon emissions) of food
  • Eating locally will support the local economy and help reconnect consumers with the producers of their food

A local food system is often represented as intrinsically ‘good’, compared to a conventional globalized food system which is ‘bad’.

It is this idea of the ‘local’ as automatically ‘good’ or ‘better than the non-local’ that this research examines. [emphasis added] (here)

As part of his research, Ed is interviewing people involved in Scotland’s local and alternative food networks, ranging from “consumer-activist groups engaging with eating locally, through small-scale producers on local farms, to community groups working to improve access to local food.”

I find his research fascinating, and look forward to hearing about his results. I also appreciate his sensitivity towards the perception of local foods as something just for the elite. As he says,

It is important that local food systems are socially inclusive, and do not simply operate alongside conventional food systems as an alternative for those with the means to buy into them. It is also important that we do not jump towards local produce to reduce food miles without recognising the effect that seasonality and energy-use in production can also have on the carbon emissions related to food. (here)

In addition to his on-going research project, Ed also has a well-maintained and informative blog, which covers local foods, policy, and news in both the US and UK, with an intellectual bent. Don’t miss the weekly local food news round-up! Some of my recent favorite posts:

A summary of how much food is wasted in the UK annually. It’s really a shocking amount.

Are GM foods the Answer to the Global Food Crisis? A thoughtful analysis of the possibility of using genetically modified crops to increase yields.

A look at an awesome project by UW-Madison undergrads who made an online map of foods within 100 miles of Madison, Wisconsin.

Go check it out!

NYC Food Deserts: Talk and Action

The folks over at Slow Food USA recently highlighted this blog in their recent post about the troubling incidence of food deserts nationwide. You can see my previous writing on both rural and urban food deserts here.

They mentioned two articles from last week’s New York Times that I’ve been meaning to talk about. The first, The Lost Supermarket: A Breed in Need of Replenishment, has an awkward title but is a good article. Instead of just chronicling the distressing lack of supermarkets in areas that need them desperately, talks about why supermarkets are conspicuously absent in neighborhoods such as East Harlem. The article, a by-product of a recent study by the New York City Department of City Planning, shows some shocking numbers:

According to the food workers union, only 550 decently sized supermarkets — each occupying at least 10,000 square feet — remain in the city. [The study] estimated that as many as three million New Yorkers live in what are considered high-need neighborhoods — communities characterized by not enough supermarkets and too many health problems. Within those dense, urban areas, the study estimated that 750,000 people live more than five blocks from a grocery or supermarket.

“Many people in low-income neighborhoods are spending their food budget at discount stores or pharmacies where there is no fresh produce,” said Amanda Burden, the city’s planning director. “In our study, a significant percentage of them reported that in the day before our survey, they had not eaten fresh fruit or vegetables. Not one. That really is a health crisis in the city.”

The study, which was released last Friday, found that there is enough need in the city to support another 100 groceries or supermarkets.

That’s a lot of new grocery stores – nearly 20% more. That’s also a lot of people who are un- or under-served by neighborhood grocery stores, more than a third of New York city’s population, according to the 2000 census. That’s an unacceptably high number. And it’s a safe bet that it’s the elderly, poor, and people of color who are the ones left holding the short end of the stick. Even if you’re mobile and well off it’s a pain to get to a supermarket that might be several miles away, but it’s even more challenging if you can’t walk far, or have to take the bus, or have to work so many hours that it’s very difficult to get to a far-away store before it closes. All of those factors make frequent grocery shopping, and hence eating perishable things, like spinach or fresh tomatoes, much less likely.

It’s unsurprising, really, that the lack of supermarkets and high rates of obesity and diabetes would be correlated, and particularly concentrated in minority and poor neighborhoods.

There’s a summary of the study, titled Going to Market: New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage here, and a slide show with more detailed analysis here. All of the above maps were taken from the slide show presentation of the study.

The second article, equally clumsily titled City Farmers’ Crops Go From Vacant Lot to Market, discusses several inner-city farmers and gardeners in New York who grow enough to both provide themselves and sell the surplus.

The city’s cultivators are a varied lot. The high school students at the Added Value community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, last year supplied Italian arugula, Asian greens and heirloom tomatoes to three restaurants, a community-supported agriculture buying club and two farmers’ markets.

In the South Bronx a group of gardens called La Familia Verde started a farmers’ market in 2003 to sell surpluses of herbs like papalo and the Caribbean green callaloo.

At a less established operation, the Brooklyn Rescue Mission’s Bed-Stuy Farm, mission staff members began growing produce in the vacant lot behind their food pantry in 2004, and ended up with a surplus last year. So they enlisted their teenage volunteers to run a sidewalk farm stand selling collards, tomatoes and figs; this year they plan to open a full farmers’ market.

How did this happen? Opportunity and assistance. The farmers and gardeners wanted to grow, and other groups pitched in to help make it possible. But the real drive, the factor that made these small plots a success, was their community. Its hard to farm in a city, but it is possible, and it can work well, as the story of Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes shows.

The Wilkses’ return to farming began in 1990 when their daughter planted a watermelon in their backyard. Before long, Mrs. Wilks, an administrator in the city’s Department of Education, was digging in the yard after work. Once their ambition outgrew their yard, she and Mr. Wilks, a city surveyor, along with other gardening neighbors, received permission to use a vacant lot across from a garment factory at the end of their block.

They cleared it of trash and tested its soil with help from GreenThumb, a Parks Department gardening program. They found traces of lead, so to ensure their food’s safety, they built raised beds of compost. (Heavy metals are common contaminants in city soil because of vehicle exhaust and remnants of old construction. Some studies have found that such ground can be cultivated as long as the pH is kept neutral.)

They wanted their crops to be organic, a commitment they shared with many other farmers in this grimy landscape. They planted some marigolds to deter squirrels; they have not had rat problems, which can plague urban gardens; and they abandoned crops, like corn, that could attract rodents. They put up fences to thwart other pests — thieves and vandals — and posted signs to let people know that this was a garden and no longer a dump.

There were also benefits to farming in the city. The Wilkses took advantage of city composting programs, trucking home decomposed leaves from the Starrett City development in Brooklyn and ZooDoo from the Bronx Zoo’s manure composting program. They got free seedlings from GreenThumb and took courses on growing and selling food from the City Farms project at the local nonprofit Just Food.

“The city really has been good to us,” Mrs. Wilkes said. “All of the property we work on, it’s city property.”

The Wilkses now cultivate plots at four sites in East New York, paying as little as $2 a bed (usually 4 feet by 8 feet) in addition to modest membership fees. Last year the couple sold $3,116 in produce at a market run by the community group East New York Farms, more than any of their neighbors.

Clearly it will take more than a couple of small plots in formerly-abandoned lots to turn things around in terms of access to fruits and vegetables. But the example of the Wilkses and the other people growing appealing and nutritious produce for their neighbors, and working across all sorts of groups, offers a hopeful start.

Free Markets and Food Markets: The Bad

Unsurprisingly, free marketeers and locavores will not agree on the answers to any of the thorny issues surrounding the trade in foodstuffs.

One article in Saturday’s New York Times, Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World, examines another aspect of the above: the carbon dioxide that shipping and flying food all over the world causes.

Increasingly efficient global transport networks make it practical to bring food before it spoils from distant places where labor costs are lower. And the penetration of mega-markets in nations from China to Mexico with supply and distribution chains that gird the globe — like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco — has accelerated the trend.

But the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food. Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures. [emphasis added]

I find it rather startling not only that fuel for air and sea freight isn’t shipped, while rail and truck freight is, but that air and sea freight are lumped together like that. Sea freight is actually very efficient, because so many shipping containers can be loaded onto a single ship, so each container requires relatively little fuel to move it. In contrast, airplanes burn a lot of fuel and carry much smaller loads, so the fuel per unit cost is much higher.

Europe is poised to change that. This year the European Commission in Brussels announced that all freight-carrying flights into and out of the European Union would be included in the trading bloc’s emissions-trading program by 2012, meaning permits will have to be purchased for the pollution they generate. Proponents say ending these breaks could help ensure that producers and consumers pay the environmental cost of increasingly well-traveled food.

This is a pretty good example of an attempt to quantify an externality than had previously gone unaccounted-for, and build its cost into the price of doing business. But why is so much of Europe’s produce imported by air, anyway?

Reason one: Efficiencies of cost

“If there’s an opportunity for cheaper production in terms of logistics or supply it will be taken,” said Ed Moorehouse, a consultant to the food industry in London, adding that some of these shifts also create valuable jobs in the developing world. The economics are compelling. For example, Norwegian cod costs a manufacturer $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia.

Reason two: Climate restrictions

Britain, with its short growing season and powerful supermarket chains, imports 95 percent of its fruit and more than half of its vegetables. Food accounts for 25 percent of truck shipments in Britain, according to the British environmental agency, DEFRA.

Reason three: Customer preference

Mr. Datson of Tesco acknowledged that there were environmental consequences to the increased distances food travels, but he said his company was merely responding to consumer appetites. “The offer and range has been growing because our customers want things like snap peas year round,” Mr. Datson said. “We don’t see our job as consumer choice editing.

Some of these reasons for shipping lots of food all around the world are malleable, and some aren’t. People can stop expecting to be able to buy fresh strawberries in January. You could have domestic fish-processing plants, provided you were willing to raise prices and could find local workers. You can’t make bananas grow in England.

Right now, people are only beginning to think about all of the hidden externalities of wanting fresh strawberries in January or the cheapest cod. If the carbon used by transporting food thousands of miles shows up in its price, at least customers will have a more accurate barometer of what foods really cost.

For further reading, Dartmouth professor Susanne Friedberg’s book French Beans and Food Scares is an interesting case study of the dynamics of the vegetable trade between Europe and Africa. In particular, she provides a detailed and fascinating analysis of the trade in green beans between Burkina Faso and France.

Orchards in the City

apple-tree.png

As well as nascent re-emergence of the the ‘back-to-the land’ movement, there’s also a parallel ‘back-to-my-tiny-city-plot-or-planter’ movement. People are increasingly moving beyond a few tomato plants and some herbs in some pots, and are increasingly putting in gardens, even orchards, in sometimes truly tiny spaces. In addition to the older, established city fruit trees, more city gardeners are branching out into orchards, as a recent New York Times article demonstrates. Fruit tree sales have increased substantially, around 12 to 15% annually, as more people plant mini-orchards. While that’s not exactly an overnight transformation of each patch of yard in cities into orchards, it’s a big step towards not only delicious and local food, but also neighborliness, as people have more extra fruit to share.

Who is going to eat all of this fruit? Fruit trees, like zucchini plants, can make a lot of food.

silver-lake-fruit-map.jpg

Several small groups have sprung up, mostly in California, which make community maps of publicly accessible fruit trees. These maps enable people to go harvest some fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste. The first to articulate these ideas and provide maps (including the above map) is a group called Fallen Fruit, a Los Angeles-based “activist art project.” They encourage “everyone to harvest, plant and sample public fruit, which is what we call all fruit on or overhanging public spaces such as sidewalks, streets, or parking lots.” Their guidelines on the maps for harvesting public fruit are to “take only what you need; say ‘hi’ to strangers; share your food; take a friend; go by foot.”

Jamie Juantara has also made an excellent map of Echo Park, complete with a color-coded key to identify the various types of tress.

echo-park-fruit-map.jpg

Local Ecologist and Walking Berkeley have also discussed public fruit trees here, here and here.

Languishing fruit trees are also being put to good use by Village Harvest, a nonprofit suburban harvesting cooperative based in the Santa Clara Valley. They schedule regular harvesting of fruit trees in the Santa Clara Area, helping homeowners with too much fruit on their hands channel that extra fruit to local anti-hunger organizations. Village Harvest also provides education on fruit tree care, harvesting, and food preservation.

The Country Farmer from the City

How can everyone eat local? Co-ops, farmers’ markets, and gardening play a big part in the possible answers for that question. But the key part, and one that is often overlooked, is the role of the small, sustainable, multi-crop farm.

To increase the number of local eaters, we need more local farms. It is not going to be possible for large numbers of people to eat locally if most acreage under cultivation are in farms of the gigantic agribusiness mono-culture type. Small-scale farms are incredibly productive per acre, but they also require more labor per acre than huge spreads of wheat.

The obvious corollary, then, is that we need more farmers. And they have got to come from somewhere, so why not the city?

mikeandjillpaine.jpg

Meet the New American (Zen) Farmer, in the Winter 2008 issue of Edible Portland, profiles novice farmers Michael and Jill Paine. Neither of them grew up on farms. Rather, Michael’s interest in farming grew out of a stint in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, which led working on a farm in Costa Rica, which turned into a Master’s in International Agricultural Development at UC-Davis.

So far, their farm appears to be a success. Five years old, their Gaining Ground Farm operates on the CSA model and has a stall at the local farmers’ market. It’s a small operation; Jill has a full-time day job and the farm has a few summer interns. Even with a solid business plan, Michael and Jill still had a hard time getting a bank to lend them money to buy their land. It’s these kinds of structural difficulties which are the hidden barriers to more farms and more local foods.

An related article in the weekend New York Times highlighted several other young, educated, urban people who are interested in local food, interested enough to pack up from the city and start a farm in the country. Are they farming dilettantes or the shock troops of the re-localization movement? Continue reading

Structural Barriers to Local Food Part II: Urban Food Deserts

Crown heights street

It’s simple logic that local food is not only an individual’s choice, unaffected by structural and economic factors. If there are no farmers’ markets or local CSAs, local food is hard to get. If grocery stores are few and poorly stocked, fresh produce of any kind, let alone organic or local, will be expensive and hard to get.

As Blanchard notes, food deserts are most common in inner-city urban neighborhoods and rural areas. That rural areas should be food deserts is not hard to understand; in any small town far from a metropolitan center it’s not shocking that grocery stores might be far away, expensive, poorly stocked, or all three.

Understanding how an inner-city urban neighborhood could be a food deserts is more complicated. Distance and retailer size, two of the key rubrics used to define a rural food desert, are less useful in urban environments. In an urban environment, the 10 mile distance test is largely inapplicable, as there is certainly a grocery within 10 miles. More importantly, a much greater proportion of urban dwellers are likely to rely solely on public transportation, particularly the elderly, poor and near-poor. This significantly changes the idea of what a ‘nearby’ grocery is. One that is two miles away might be inaccessible, if there isn’t a frequent or convenient bus route. Even then, carrying groceries back to an apartment in bags or a cart is significantly more difficult than just placing them in the back seat and driving home. Furthermore, the idea of what a grocery store is undergoes a significant shift in the urban environment. The store is unlikely to be an enormous Stop and Shop or Food Lion, with 50 or more employees, the kind counted as a supermarket in Blanchard’s study. It’s much more likely that the local grocery will be a small corner store, with a greatly limited selection, particularly of perishables like milk and produce.

Bodega

Neighborhoods with limited access to full-service grocery stores also have a high incidence of obesity-related illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. Recent NYC Department of Health studies (available on their website) estimate that while obesity rates among children living in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy are comparable to NYC and the nation as a whole, the prevalence of obesity among teenager and adults living in those neighborhoods is greater than NYC as a whole. More than 9 of 10 adults in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy eat less than 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Obesity rates in Harlem and the South Bronx are also higher than in the city as a whole.

Bed-Stuy and Bushwick also have very few grocery stores. 82% of food stores in Bed-Stuy and Buswhwick are bodegas, while only 6% are supermarkets. This strongly affects what groceries are available: only 33% of bodegas carry reduced-fat milk, only 28% carry apples, oranges and bananas, and only 10% carry any kind of leafy green. Those aren’t good percentages. The restaurant percentages are similar: 75% of restaurants only sell take-out, mostly pizza, Chinese, and Latin American food. 13% of the restaurants are national fast-food chains.

Interestingly, this lack of healthy foods in bodegas is not restricted to all bodegas. Another study by the Department of Health compares bodegas in the Upper East Side to those in East and Central Harlem. Bodegas in the Upper East Side have a 57% chance of having skim milk, compared to 33% of Central and East Harlem bodegas, and a 20% chance of having leafy green vegetables, as opposed to a 2% chance in Central Harlem and 4% chance in East Harlem.

healthy-bodegas-ues.jpg

While bodegas make up about two-thirds of the food stores in East and Central Harlem, they make up only one-third in the Upper East Side, half the proportion. In contrast, 19% of the food stores in the Upper East Side are supermarkets, more than double the 8% of East and Central Harlem. Unsurprisingly, the NYC Department of Public Health considers the Upper East Side a site of much greater healthy food availability than East and Central Harlem.

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The urban food desert is certainly not limited to New York. A 2006 briefing paper by the food-access advocacy group Hartford Food System shows that supermarkets space per capita is by far the greatest in average-income suburban areas, one third greater than is found in rural areas and double the amount found in urban areas. According to their data, 50 Connecticut town don’t have a supermarket at all.

CT town without grocerys

This correlation between poor access to healthy food, obestity-related illnesses, poverty and race is not limited to New York. Consultant Mari Gallagher has conducted a number of studies of food deserts in Chicago, Detroit and Louisville, KY.

Increasing access to healthy food is a tricky thing, full of overtones of central planning and moral superiority. This ‘we know best’ implication is particularly loaded, at least in New York, where the areas with the least access to healthy food also tend to be low-income and non-white. There are a number of initiatives which show promise, including increasing the numbers of ‘green carts’ in NYC neighborhoods with poor access to fruits and vegetables, a rise in city CSAs, and an initiative in Hartford to identify retailers that sell affordable, healthy food. These efforts, coming from disparate sources, promise greater attention to the problem of making healthy food, and local and organic food, both available and affordable for more people. Organic and local food shouldn’t be just for the food snob elite, and thinking about how and where people get their food is a crucial part of making the local food impulse into a broad-based movement.