SUMANI Trendster: Forever Local?

It’s no secret that Americans have become more concerned with origins of their food over the past decade. You could throw a stone in most American cities, and are likely hit to a restaurant that advertises locally sourced produce and meat, listed on stylish chalkboards, sometimes tallying the various purveyors that supply the business with its food products. If you’ve purchased meat, fish, or poultry at Whole Foods, you might be aware of their rating system, which highlights the quality of the animal through a variety of criteria, some of which include its habitat, diet, and the size of the farm on which it was raised.

“Farm-to-table,” has become a ubiquitous term, popularized by chefs like Alice Waters, Dan Barber, and Rene Redzepi; all of whom have pioneered a focus on local and seasonal cooking, emphasizing the chef’s relationship to agriculture.

This trend has attuned people to the reception of marginally more backstory about the food on their plates. But despite the efforts of grocery stores and restaurants to achieve greater transparency when communicating with the customer, I worry about the scalability and permanence of local and seasonal eating; especially in temperate, urban locations like New York City.

At Noma, Chef Redzepi forages through Copenhagen and the Danish countryside searching for fresh and unique edibles to serve the small batch of customers who will dine at his establishment. Dan Barber’s acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns, costs $218 for a 12-couse tasting menu, not including alcohol. There is an inherent irony to dropping major dough to eat skewers of raw carrots and turnips, but perhaps as the world’s population continues its exponential growth, quality produce will become more analogous to the porterhouse or the five-pound lobster.

A little over two years ago, I accepted an externship to work as a prep cook at Almond Restaurant, a New-American-style bistro in the heart of New York City’s Flatiron District. Having no prior kitchen experience and clumsy with the knife, I was introduced to Chef de Cuisine Geoff Kornberg, who gave me the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong goal and curiosity; to try my hand at a career in cooking. Both Geoff and Almond’s owner, Jason Weiner, were inspiring, as they were just as excited about the raw ingredients they worked with, as they were feeding people delicious food.

I remember the enthusiasm in the kitchen when Geoff ordered mushrooms from a grower out in The Hamptons, who had such a tiny operation that the owners would drive into Manhattan to hand deliver their products to the kitchen. There was also a time when Jason delivered a whole pig – slaughtered that same day – and raised out east on expansive, grassy pastures.

According to the USDA only 1% of the United States’ GDP comes from agriculture. With more than 24,000 restaurants in New York City receiving their daily shipments of meat, dairy, produce and dry goods, it brings a concerning question to the table: how can we supply a large amount of urban food businesses with quality, local products, when the majority of the nation’s domestic crop and animal agriculture is provided by large-scale producers. The remainder of what we consume is imported, traveling far distances by air and sea, emitting tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

The increased prevalence of urban farms like Brooklyn Grange and Gotham Greens LLC. sprouting up in New York City over the past decade, certainly speaks to the connection that many millennials strive for with their food. Whether buying an $18 bag of direct-trade coffee, $14 jar of artisanal pickles, or $6 head of Boston Bibb is justifiable or comical, our generation has popularized and nearly institutionalized the demand for superior food products. Despite the subjective legitimacy of dishing out extra cash to be a locavore, I often wonder whether the target customer-base is growing.

A March 2016 article in NPR states the obvious, that “Most of the world is fed not by the vegetables popular on urban farms, but by calorie-dense crops like grain and potatoes.” There is a real sense of idealism that accompanies the theme of urban farming; the hope of one-day eradicating food deserts in poorer communities and reducing urban dependence on imported food products. But I simply worry whether there is a real and actionable way to scale urban agriculture, so that it is not a luxury reserved for the upper middle class, or even worse; a fad.

That being said, perhaps farmers, biologists and policymakers, along with professionals in the food and hospitality industries need to combine forces to uncover new, strategic ways for cities to contribute to the urban food supply on a more massive scale. According to a 2010 report by the USDA entitled, “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues,” the total distance that, “…a product can be transported and still be considered a ‘locally or regionally produced agricultural food product’ is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.”

While there are plenty of farms located well-within this “accepted” radius of NYC, perhaps we need to find ways to utilize land for agricultural experimentation on Long Island or in Northern New Jersey, where there is simply more of it. Newark-based, AeroFarms, is making meaningful progress in growing nutrient-rich greens, “without sunlight, soil, or pesticides.” And just this past week The Wall Street Journal published an article, capturing some of the struggles that many indoor agricultural start-ups located in urban and peri-urban areas are facing; as the level of experimentation that goes into determining the best seed varietal given the growing technique is both costly and time consuming.

In order to ensure the success of these companies, or more notably to prevent this trend from loosing steam, I believe it is important for urban policymakers to prioritize, and perhaps incentivize technological research in the field of urban agriculture.

Back in the kitchen, Chef Geoff whipped up a dish with mascarpone and parmesan-filled raviolis, topped with roasted Maitake mushrooms in a butter-sage sauce; they were absolutely delicious. Perhaps within the next decade they will be grown in Hackensack, available at your local grocery store.

– Ian Brecher, M.S. Candidate
SUMANI Knowledge Partner, 4/18/2016

*Trendster is a voluntary, crowd-sourced initiative facilitated by SUMA Net Impact. It does not represent the collective views of Columbia University, the Earth Institute or Net Impact

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