Small Food Biz Funding, Ag-as-Economic Engine, and All This Year Will Bring

A couple weeks back, Food Systems Network NYC, the de facto local food policy council for the Big Apple, brought together a few movers and shakers in the Empire State food realm to throw down some predictions for 2011. As one of the organizers, ubercaterer Mary Cleaver, explained The Farmers Almanac has provided remarkably accurate weather predictions for a couple of centuries–“Useful, With a Pleasant Degree of Humor,” according to a 2011 edition I saw in a bookstore–so why not try the same at an event dubbed Almanac.

The mix of predictions shared at the beautiful and thought-inspiring building at 632 Hudson tended to be more serious than humorous, but they were plenty useful, as you can see in the video short by  Letitia Productions. This was the second “Food for Thought” event created by The Cleaver Co. and The Green Table, and hosted at 632 on Hudson, aimed at provoking discussion and raising funds for groups working to improve the health of our food supply. Each speaker offered an “accurate” prediction (something they strongly felt would happen) as well as an “aspirational” prediction (something they strongly felt should happen).

For my part, I predicted that we would continue to see conflicts between food safety rules and the evolving eating and farming habits of New Yorkers. It’s the sort of conflict that we glimpsed in the city’s concern about restaurant-made charcuterie and only-recently-legalized rooftop beekeeping, and that we are beginning to glimpse in health department barriers to getting kids into gardens and kitchens. (As Bob Dylan suggested–“Union Sundown,” on the album Infidels–“I can see a time coming when even your home garden will be against the law.”) The resolution for these conflicts may come in a sort of two-tiered food safety system, which acknowledges that small-scale food production for the regional market doesn’t carry the same risks and shouldn’t be held to the same standard as large-scale food production for a national or global market, where shipping and long-term storage introduce all sorts of risks that don’t exist on a local level.

And, for my hopeful prediction, I suggested that the in-discussion redevelopment of Hunts Point Produce Terminal  in the Bronx might carve out a significant space for the local and regional supply chain, and become a national model for integrating food from nearby into wholesale distribution. (Here’s an analysis from Karp Resources of the costs and benefits of thinking about Hunts Point in this way.) This prediction ended up provoking a heated debate among folks in the room, including some representing the Mayor and City Council members, who argued that a local supply chain was already part of the rebuild plan (even beyond the current Wholesale Farmers Market there), while others suggested it wasn’t a big enough part or that there was no guarantee it would be a part in the end. I tried to wrap up the demand by arguing that demand in this realm is  growing so rapidly that it would be a grave missed opportunity to ignore the needs of local/regional supplies and buyers–and that if New York City didn’t do it at its wholesale market, then Boston or Philadelphia or Toronto would, and would grab market share from us anyway.

David Haight of the American Farmland Trust was among those who offered food-related prognostications on Hudson Street. Courtesy of Anna Mumford, Letitia Productions.

Other speakers talked about food emerging as an engine for jobs, the need to garden unused pieces of land in cities, the renaissance of dairy (“the forgotten stepchild of New York ag,” according to one speaker), and continued hope that the Farm Bill discussion (the 2012 bill is just around the corner) will effectively harness all the non-farm state voices which in fact represent the majority of our nation. And, small-scale food entrepreneurs take note–there is a massive amount of low-interest loans and grants ($400 million) to support your work that may go unspent. (Check out the New York healthy Food and Healthy Communities Fund.)

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.