NYC Foodscape: From Lawyer to Chef to Urban Farmer and Local Food Maven by way of Chicago (and a few other major cities)
Loving food inspired me to eat well and begin cooking at home. But leaving the law in New York City and going to chef school in San Francisco was inspired by three other food lovers: 1) Alice Waters and her emphasis on seasonal and regional cuisine, the culinary precursor to sustainable agriculture; 2) my mother, a Texan who embraced my father’s Italian heritage and started growing much of our own food in a wonderful garden; and 3) my parents’ Italian gardener, Johnny Frattaroli, who lived as we would now call “sustainably” by living as he had in Italy, growing almost everything he ate, making his own wine, and curing his own prosciutto, while his wife rolled pasta and bread daily. You may hear more references to each in future blog posts, but together they embody the celebrated, the everyday and the cultural aspects of what good food means to me.
My initial enthusiasm was food’s obvious culinary and nurturing aspects, not a particular vision of my role in the food system or its effect on the environment or global warming. Indeed, after three years in the food industry in San Francisco, including some food writing and recipe testing for the San Francisco Chronicle, I moved back to New York City for another round in the legal world, this time in legal publishing, where the money was more comfortable but the work a tad dry. But another move in 2004, this time to Chicago for love and marriage gave me the chance to dip my foot back into the food world, and without the financial vulnerability that earning $10/hour in a kitchen looms over a single female as it did my first foray into culinary exploration.
NYC Foodscape’s blog is not intended to be a resume or memoir, though this particular post will be intentionally personal. The point is less to talk about myself than to feature some of the organizations and activities that have helped build a growing appreciation for our farmers and a sustainable local/regional food system and/or reduce the negative public health and environmental impact of our current industrial food system. The following gives background about the path and formative influences that took me from New York to Chicago and back and shaped the mission and focus of NYC Foodscape.
Part I: Local Farming Creates Unlikely Friendships
My first job after moving to Chicago was director at Chicago’s Green City Market in Chicago. Green City Market was founded in 1999 by Abby Mandel, who was already a local name as a food columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Green City Market was one of the first sustainable farmers markets in the Midwest. The region, Illinois in particular, was corn and soy country. It still is to a great extent, but at the time, there was virtually no real connection to a local food system before Abby set out to create a true local food market like those in France. At first, even finding farmers that grew the kind of food she wanted to feature was difficult, but 14 years later, the market has over 50 farmers and producers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Abby died in 2008, but her market was a major force in launching the local food movement in Chicago and create demand for more regional produce, meats and artisanal products. When I started working with these local artisan farmers, I was instantly struck by their connection to and role as stewards of the Earth, their ways of feeding people that give back to the soil–and how growing food organically and sustainably isn’t just good for our bodies, but also for the earthand for our collective souls.
One of the most colorful sources of this inspiration was Illinois farmer Stan Schutte from TripleS Farms,who I met at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service farming conference in January 2006. Stan was the conference’s Organic Farmer of the Year, who after years of conventional farming, relying on commodity crop subsidies, finally realized the way to profitability was to convert his farm to organic vegetable and pastured-raised meat. He really got it when it came to how food should be raised, but at that time hadn’t quite made the urban-rural connection that many farmers and consumers have made today. Somehow our fates aligned one evening of the conference and I ended up going to a country bar with him and a group of farmers, activists and educators, where, after a bit too much “joy,” I earned my rural street cred and dissolved some of Stan’s distrust of big-city foodie folks like me by getting on the bar and dancing to country music (along with a completely sober woman from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, so it seemed like a normal thing to do at the time).
It was after this conference that Stan started making regular trips to Chicago to build restaurant and other market relationships and soon a strong following started for his products—particularly his heritage breeds of pork–in the Chicago area. His relationship-building bore so much fruit that six years later, his pork, featured in a dish created by Chef Jason Vincent of Chicago’s Nightwood Restaurant, won the Grand Cochon at the 2012 Cochon 555 at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen. As a result of that win and his friendship with NYC Foodscape, he was invited to come to New York, where he helped judge NYC’s annual celebration of all things pork, Pig Island in September 2012 on Governor’s Island. (PHOTOS). Stan is about as opposite to New York City as you get, a bit too conservative for my blood, very religious, and eschews all fancy comforts and festooning that many painted-up wicked city women like me seem to enjoy and represent. But somehow we are simpatico and kindred souls on a very basic level when it comes to food.
Part II: Welcome Possession by the Friendly Gardening Ghost
I had already started experimenting with gardening, which is an immediately gratifying, quite addictive and occasionally frustrating activity, as all good addictions are (as opposed to bad addictions which seem to be in opposite order). Despite my interest in food, I had never had any real interest in gardening until my mother, who was an avid gardener, died within a few months of my move to Chicago in 2004. As a youth, I would turn my nose up at her garden-fresh romaine and plead for “real” iceberg lettuce. I think her gardening spirit entered my body because by the spring following her death, I found myself turning the earth and planning the food I wanted to put onto our plates, along with some traditional and native landscape gardening as well.
This blog will focus on a lot of gardening in New York City, so I won’t dwell now on the process of creating my past gardens in another city. Suffice to say, it took a few years to get real production going while I amended the soil, learned how to mulch and water correctly, figure out where the sun really hit the longest (e.g., I got a lot more sun and thus peppers when we somewhat sadly lost an old elm to Dutch Elm, a silver lining to say the least). At the time, I still did most of my shopping at Whole Foods or the Evanston version called People’s Market (which got bought out by…Whole Foods). But as these types of transformations often happen, local started outweighing convenient, and I started shopping more and more at the farmers market. So my gardening goal was to get to the point where going to the farmers market was more to supplement with things I couldn’t properly or didn’t want to grow, like strawberries, or do large purchases for freezing or cellaring certain things I couldn’t grow in quantity, like potatoes, onions or beets.
Living in a house has its good points and its bad, but one thing I surely miss besides the garden itself is the extra freezer we had in the basement, where I stored bags and bags of blanched collards, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, Michigan blueberries, and the basement itself (which I otherwise HATED—think of that basement in Silence of the Lambs) as our perfect dark, dank root cellar for storing during the winter. The luxury, if you will, of reaching into your freezer and pulling out greens that taste as fresh as the day you (or the farmer) picked them does beat out the luxury of a doorman or cab rides. I am a New Yorker through and through, and love the apartment lifestyle on a certain level, which is why I induced my husband back, but this is one aspect of house living that I have not been able to replicate in any meaningful way.
Part III: Growing Gardens into Farms
The culmination of this horticultural and culinary “transformation” happened when I met a group of fellow residents of Evanston where I lived at the time, who had founded the Evanston Food Policy Council. I joined the group and amidst a laundry list of food policy items and goals, I saw one idea that seemed the most compelling: the idea of growing food on a meaningful scale within our own city’s limits as an obvious and key component of a healthy food system and a healthy environment. Though I am a food policy wonk at times, the actual food can get lost in the dense discussions about policy and any actual progress is often painfully slow. So starting a farm seemed like the most doable, action-oriented way of getting the idea of healthy local food right out front on people’s minds and plates.
With that idea, I instantly had a vision of my life, my career and why I loved cooking to begin with. I left my full-time paying job to work full-time to create The Talking Farm as its founding president. With my fellow board of directors, we set out to provide “access to fresh and locally grown food, job training and environmental education by operating an urban agricultural enterprise.” The urban farm we envisioned was three acres of land to provide organic food to the entire community, while embodying a living classroom of sustainable practices and a long-term commitment to sustainable green development.
After a year of “talking” the farm, we were on the ground in 2008 with our Mini-Farm, an outdoor classroom and demonstration site to launch our educational mission while negotiating our permanent site. Each stage of this project, digging methods, soil health, seed starting, mulching, pest management, harvesting was an educational opportunity for the community. We created a micro farm, with living fencing, composting, sustainable and permaculture practices, diverse produce, etc. — the idea of our permanent farm to come. [PHOTOS]
In my three years as president, we got our 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit, launched mini-farm and then later, the Edible Acre at Evanston Township High School, attracted and managed volunteers and funding from individuals and foundations, a host of community partners, including the Healthy Schools Campaign, local schools and the Chicago Botanic Garden, and a growing email newsletter subscriber base.
These were the first years of my marriage, and though my husband and I have no children together, The Talking Farm was and remains to date my greatest creation. Since I moved back to make my permanent home in New York City with my husband, The Talking Farm has found its permanenthome in Skokie. As my future as NYC Foodscape focuses on becoming a voice in New York City’s food and gardening scene, I am proud to look back on my grown “child” and see how it has become an important voice in Chicago’s local food and gardening scene.
You can find more information aboutthe farm, its history and its current status at www.thetalkingfarm.org. And for more farm and garden photos, including ideas for your own garden, visit NYC Foodscape’s Facebook page:
Part IV: An Urbane City Lawyer Returns to NYC All Countrified
I moved back to New York because after September 11, I had made a vow to the City that I would never leave it. A couple of years later, I broke that vow to make another by moving to Chicago to marry my husband, a fine reason, but not before I got him to agree that we would one day move back. So once that opportunity presented itself, we took it and he joined me in renewing that vow I made 12 years ago to never leave this remarkable city.
But it’s true that you can’t just move back and expect to pick up your previous life, so like many people who leave and come back, I brought a little bit of the Midwest back with me. New York was not a farmers’ town in my mind when I lived here previously, but now local food and connecting to farmers ingrained in my mindset and lifestyle, so now every market is potential to expand demand for local food, every lot or green space is a potential urban garden and our city and state’s food policy rife with opportunities to support a local food economy.
Thanks to the extraordinary people I met and worked with in Chicago, I was fortunate to have some introductions to equally as extraordinary food advocates, farmers, journalists, leaders, farmers, etc., that I would not have otherwise met if I had not done the work I did in Chicago. But despite what I consider to be groundbreaking work in Chicago, I was blown away by the sheer number of organizations and people working on this issue in New York, how much more infrastructure exists here v. in Chicago and how visionary and forward thinking New York City has gotten in the six years since I left it.
Almost as soon as I returned, I set out to establish NYC Foodscape, initially as a way to get to know this vast foodscape, if you will, learn from new mentors and have some degree of credibility and identity when I approached someone. Some of the contacts led to other contacts, who then led to or provided me with opportunities, to work with truly impactful and cutting edge organizations. Some of the remarkable organizations I’ve been involved with as an employee, consultant, board member or volunteer include:
- Battery Urban Farm. A one-acre educational farm, located in the historic Battery, with over 80 varieties of organically-grown vegetables, fruits, flowers, grains, and companion plants. I had the great honor of serving as technical consultant to the Battery Conservancy’s urban farm and helped plan and install it during its inaugural 2011 season. For photos from the Battery farm, including NYC Foodscape garden work, visit NYC Foodscape’s Facebook page.
- Communities IMPACT Diabetes Center. IMPACT is a REACH U.S. Center of Excellence for the Elimination of Disparities, housed in Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Department of Health Evidence and Policy, funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which ended in October. My job was to bring a food systems and policy perspective to a community-based public health organization and oversee specific food and nutrition initiatives, such as the Food for Health Business Plan Competition and our well-received Save Half for Later restaurant portion control campaign. The Food for Health competition aims to address the lack of affordable, healthy food choices in underserved communities by bringing local business students, social entrepreneurs, and community members together with professionals from the public health, business, and public policy sectors to design informed, innovative, and sustainable business plans to market and supply healthy food choices to populations with the greatest unmet need. Save Half for Later was accepted and presented as a program (and eventual paper) at the 2012 American Public Health Association conference:
- Food Systems NYC. A membership based organization designed to foster communication and cultivate community amongst various stakeholders and professionals working across the food system. I currently serve as co-chair of the Policy Committee and have co-written policy papers, such as the Recipe for the Future of Food in New York City to engage 2013 Mayoral candidates and other local elected officials, as well as voters, about key food policy recommendations to benefit our city’s food system through continued, coordinated legislative initiative and executive action. I have written blog posts (see, www.foodsystemsnyc.org/blog/11-10-10, www.foodsystemsnyc.org/articles/worldwatch-institute-innovations-2011 and www.foodsystemsnyc.org/blog/food-almanac-2011-recap) and have contributed to food policy and sustainability proposals to include in the recent PlaNYC 2030 revisions. I wrote position testimony for the Network and for NYC Foodscape for hearings on City Council food policy legislation.
- Harvest Home Farmers Market. I currently serve on the board of directors of Harvest Home Farmers Market (HHFM), New York State’s largest operator of farmers markets in high-need, low income communities, is a NYC non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to local, farm-fresh produce, educating the public about health and nutrition, supporting regional agriculture and providing job opportunities during the market season. Founded in 1993, HHFM currently manages a network of eighteen (18) markets in the culturally diverse sections of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, reaching 180,000 shoppers a season.
- American Farmland Trust (AFT) New York. I was recently named to AFT’s Farmland Advisors program to work on farmland preservation and access options for farmers and landowners in New York State
- Partnership for a Healthier Manhattan at Mount Sinai. The Manhattan borough-wide coalition for the Partnership for a Healthier NYC, an umbrella of borough coalitions that brings together community groups, organizations, and individuals to significantly reduce chronic disease in New York City—for everyone—by supporting proven, community-level efforts to change the environments in which people make decisions that impact their health, including healthy eating and active living. I specifically serve on the Healthy Eating/Active Design subcommittee, working on active design, social justice, food access and how they intersect and are creating a toolkit featuring cases studies of diverse models of urban agriculture and community gardens.
- Chefs for the Marcellus. A group of food professionals united to protect our regional foodshed from the dangers of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas (fracking). NYC Foodscape has joined over 150 other chefs and food professionals and signed on to the organization’s mission.
- NYC Food and Farm Bill Working Group. It is a group of diverse organizations and individuals from multiple sectors, including the anti-hunger, public health, faith, agricultural, and food justice communities, organized to give New York City, and its region, a voice in shaping the next Food and Farm Bill.
- Nourishing NYC/Nourishing USA. A community based food program in East Harlem. Serving as its Urban Agriculture Planning and Education Director, I supervised its urban garden and helping teach Junior Chefs about growing and cooking healthy food, including using a “Veggie Van” to distribute healthy produce in a quasi-flash-mob style. The organization also asked me to help it scale up its community food program into a national organization that uses urban gardening to help educate and connect low-income families to nutrition and the environment and currently serve on its board under its new name, Nourishing USA. For photos from this project, visit NYC Foodscape’s Facebook page.
- TEDxManhattan. TEDxManhattan, “Changing the Way We Eat” is a TEDx conference, sponsored by the sustainable food and farming nonprofit, Glynwood designed to create new synergies, connections and collaborations across disciplines, to unite different areas of the food movement, and to introduce the TEDx audience to the exciting and innovative work being done in this field. It was thrilling to help TEDxManhattan director Diane Hatz plan the first 2011 TEDxManhattan Conference and attend it again in 2012.
- Camp for Food Professionals. A two-day camp in upstate New York dedicated to strengthening the connections between rural agricultural producers and urban-based food professionals by providing an in-depth view of how food is produced, marketed, and distributed through farms tours, discussion sessions, and hands-on demonstration activities. This was a blast, as well as being meaningful and at times emotional, including the rather difficult, but important, opportunity to kill your own chicken, which I brought home and had the honor of cooking for my husband.
As a result of these experiences, I am more inspired than ever to use and share my knowledge and expertise of growing food and understanding how our food choices support our local farmers, our health, our economy and our environment.