Monday, March 7, 2011

Just Food's CSA in NYC Conference

This last Saturday was the 11th annual Just Food CSA Conference in Manhattan. I had heard about it when my CSA sent an email to all its members. I thought ‘That’d be great! But how will I get away from the kids for a whole day?’ I thought it was a pipedream. DH wasn’t too keen on the idea. Running around after them would be tough. And also the even started at 8:30am Saturday. If I went how would I get our milk, which can only be purchased at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings? I filed the event in the back of my mind, thinking it was for the more passionate, and less child-having CSA members.

Then Friday I had a great idea! We could go do our errands in the morning Saturday, and I could take Thing 1 with me for the afternoon sessions! What clenched it was when I got an email from our farmer who raises all our grass fed meat. When she said that she and her husband were going, I had to go!! I wanted to meet them! I figured that missing the morning sessions would be fine. Thing 1 could handle a half day; the email said there would be events for the kids. And if there is ever a reason for missing half a local food conference, it would be going to buy local milk on the only day that one can get local milk in your neighborhood. DH even agreed to meet me downtown with Thing 2 for the closing expo where he knew there would be local food samples complete with wine and beer tastings.

Thing 1 and I left the house around 11 and rode the subway down together. We walked to the High School of Food and Finance on 50th street (yeah—I thought those were two funny things to combine into a vocation school too). The morning sessions were wrapping up and the lunch line was just forming as we checked in. So we walked upstairs.

The food served for lunch was all foodie approved. I chose Catskill trout salad on ale bread and for Thing 1 I selected fresh mozzarella cheese with arugula and tomatoes on ciabatta. I also sampled the most amazing red quinoa and frisee salad and wheatberry salad and a simple baby spinach salad-all of which have inspired me to incorporate these whole grains into lunch side dishes. I wasn’t sure if he would go for it. But I had brought a big container of raw almonds and raw cashews and raisins just in case things went south. And in the back of my mind I knew that if behavior turned south I could always just go home. We found an open seat in the back and chatted with our nice neighbors. Thing 1 did not want to eat his sandwich. But I got him to finish a portion by allowing him a cookie. All in all, he flirted with the ladies seated around us and I promise he was not annoying the other conference goers. I do happen to think that my kid is awful cute, but I hate being that parent that thinks their kid is so cute that they don’t rein them in in public settings. Overall he was kind and sweet and respectful. So we had a really nice lunch. I saved the uneaten portion of his sandwich for later.

Then it was off to the afternoon session. The conference included children sessions where you could actually leave your child and go to some different session. This was mind blowing. I had the intention of staying with him and drawing carrots all afternoon. I didn’t care about anything else. So the idea that I could leave him in safe hands and still make another seminar? Total bonus!

After many kisses to a kid who didn’t seem to care if I stayed or if I went (that is a good thing), I was off to my workshop. I chose a session called ‘Winter Share: What Do You Want to See?’. I chose the session because my farmer Ted Blomgren was listed to be a facilitator, and I really wanted to meet the guy who grows my CSA veggies! Sadly he was not there. But the folks on the panel were fascinating-Jim Hyland from Winter Sun a vegetable processor in New York State who runs a monthly winter CSA filled with frozen local foods for a very affordable $128 price, Chris Cashen-the farmer from The Farm at Miller’s Crossing and finally Jean –Paul Courtens-the farmer from Roxbury Farms in Kinderhook, NY.

The discussion was highly interesting to me because aside from this blog, I am not really involved with the local food movement. I write this blog to encourage others to eat locally and support their local farmers, but I am not attending rallies for farm bills or writing letters to congress. I am just a mom who wants you to eat a little better, so I write about my own aspirations and shortcomings. So being in this conference kind of expanded my mind. Hyland spoke about his multimillion dollar facilities of walk in freezer s, etc and the challenges he faces in processing and storing vegetables all season. The logistics as well as the planning and business opportunities involved interested the geeky business woman in me. I think that it is important that we all know that substantial business effort goes into getting vegetables out of the ground and connecting those veggies with a consumer that wants to buy them. Farming is not just throwing seeds into a soil, it is like owning a business. It is not enough to grow the stuff, you gotta know how to sell it too!

So as the farmers and processors asked us questions about what we would really like to see in a winter share the conversation between the presenters and those of us in the room really turned to kinds of products, rather than individual items. I hate beets, but I would never say to a farmer that I would like to see less beets. The conversation was more about whether things like pickles should be included, or vacuum sealed veggies and the like. But the education too for us in the audience was that there are definite limitations on a farmer for processing. While Hyland owns the facilities to house thousands of cubic feet of high summer veggies and fruit, none of his peers did. And even finding and employing a seasonal staff of carrot washer is a challenge. All of the arrows pointed to allowing farmers to find winter work so that they could employ workers year round and that they could secure income year round. Which is, ironically, exactly what the non-local food systems do. But these men were committed to finding sustainable and ethical ways of keeping their food local and organic without losing the integrity of their product. And the answers seem to lie in working together, or building community. No farmer can build a local food system by themselves. It is different groups that must integrate and help one another. There must be those committed to farmer’s markets, there must be processors willing to buy excess off local farmers, there must be CSA participants willing to wash a dirty carrot because the farmer may not get it as clean as a grocery store, there must also be restaurants willing to purchase weekly in order to sustain local produce. In fact it is a whole system where all pistons must be firing.

So the conversation was eye opening for me. I knew there was a lot involved in local food. But it became much clearer to me during the workshop. I was so thrilled to have been a part of it. And afterwards when I went back to pick up Thing 1, he was playing nicely and the facilitator said nothing about hyperactive behavior or thrown chair or yelling or screaming. In fact he had such a good time he didn’t even really say hello to me upon my return. He even ate the rest of his sandwich which I had wrapped up for him. It’s the little things….

DH and Thing 2 met us for just the expo portion of the conference. This was a lovely tasting event. Dozens of small farmers, artisan cheese makers, local bakeries, and other kitchens and makers of specialty products were around to sell and offer their wares. The wine was delicious!! And to be truthful, I have not been a huge lover of local wines. While I have supported them, I have always found NY State wines to be heavy on the tannins which I think can be too bitter. But the samples I had were sublime. And the Beer from Kelso Brewers in Brooklyn was equally great—but thanks especially for bringing a whole keg and not pretending like we were sampling. They gave out full cups, not awkward sips. It’s the little things…I hope you sell your beer at Fairway because I am so hunting some down. It was very tasty.

The drive home was all of 10 minutes, but Thing 1 fell asleep before we hit the west side highway. I was thrilled with the day for a number of reasons. I love local food. I was so excited to have been in the company of my ‘celebrities’. The conversation made me think, it was both eye opening and intellectually stimulating. But also it was really cool to be among a group of people that shared the same values as me.

Although, on a side note, something that really stood out? I was intimidated. I don’t believe that the intention of the local food to be elitist, but I can see how that might be misconstrued. Something to keep on the to do list for this decade: We have to do better about including those intimidated by unindustrialized food. Fortunately that is just the intent of the organization Just Food. We must remember to meet people where they are today. I am not sure if the goal is to be perfect eaters, only allowing sustainable organic and ethically raised fare to touch our lips. Perfect worlds are for the very wealthy and those who have just graduated from a liberal arts college. I think we need to make local foods less intimidating to the average American. Then I think we can see some real progress in integrating local foods into American culture.

Thank you very much to Just Food for sponsoring the event. I hope you’ll come with me next year!!


  1. Thank you for saying you were intimidated. I would be too.

  2. Sounds like fun! Glad you got to go. :)