Food Justice: Connecting Farm to CommunitySunday, 30 June 2013 13:06 By Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds | Harvesting Justice Series Just Food in New York City is nimbly doing just what its name suggests: building food justice. It does this, first, by making community supported agriculture (CSAs), farmers’ markets, and gardens, accessible and affordable in the city. Second, it helps small farmers survive, and even thrive, in the process.
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Co-founder Ruth Katz says the group grew out of a contradiction. “In New York City, we had these growing soup kitchen lines of people who couldn’t get food and, at the same time, nearby farmers going out of business because they couldn’t sell their food anywhere. It seemed strange that you couldn’t match farmers selling food with people needing food.”
Just Food connects urban communities interested in bringing CSAs to their neighborhoods with nearby farmers who can truck their goods into the city. They have developed different payment systems to make this food affordable, including helping CSAs and farmers’ markets accept food stamps. They also work with CSAs to set up financial-aid programs. For example, higher-income members can contribute extra to subsidize other members within their own CSA, or two CSAs from different neighborhoods can be paired so that the members in the higher-income neighborhood pay higher costs and members in the lower-income neighborhood pay lower costs. “We always fear that everyone will want a lower-priced share, but in fact it’s often the reverse. People are really willing to help out,” says one Just Food staffer.
So far, the organization has helped launch 100 CSA programs throughout New York City’s five boroughs, bringing fresh food to an estimated 30,000 people. To stock the CSAs, Just Food partners with about 100 farms outside the city, which bring in vegetables, eggs, fruit, grain, meat, and other products.
Some formerly struggling rural farmers now have a viable outlet for their goods and make close to a 100% profit, as opposed to the 20% or so they would otherwise make through standard wholesale markets. As a result, a number of farmers have even been able to leave the second jobs they held to supplement their farm incomes, or to secure land on which they had a tenuous financial grip.
Ruth Katz says, “It can be frustrating because the scale of what we’re doing is so small. People say, ‘You have to scale up to make a bigger impact.’ Well, in this particular case, scaling up would defeat the purpose: farmer-to-consumer relationships that are creative and nimble enough to meet the unique needs of each neighborhood. Their smallness is part of their strength. That being said, we can scale up through replication, rather than super-sizing.
“Imagine that every tall building in NYC had a CSA! If one tall building or building complex has 500 families, then only 10% would need to become CSA members to support a small farm. And that 10% would be a lucky, well-fed group.”
Just Food also supports city dwellers as they grow their own food. The group offers a range of workshops including seed starting, raised-bed building, food preservation, season extension, and pest management. Their City Chicken Project trains community garden groups to build chicken coops. Each group agrees to use its newfound skills to help another group build a coop the following year.
Just Food also helps community gardens start farmers’ markets, and currently provides ongoing support to 18 markets in the city. While each market functions independently, Just Food assists with logistics like record-keeping, accessing supplemental food from rural farmers, and tapping into helpful state and federal programs.
Just Food also aims to empower people to change city-, state-, and federal-level food policy. They have created an NYC Food Justice Action Guide, which covers a host of issues such as the city’s climate footprint and local food policies, as well as information on how to organize community campaigns and pressure lawmakers. In 2009, Just Foods convened the NYC Food & Climate Summit, bringing together community members and government leaders for workshops and policy sessions. In 2010, they won their two-year campaign to legalize beekeeping in the city.
“It’s Like Dealing with Family”
One of the farmers helped by Just Foods is Jay Dines, who runs Dines Farms in Oak Hill, New York. Jay and his family struggled to keep the farm afloat, but now the operation has a new lease on life as part of the Just Food-assisted network of farmers’ markets and CSAs who are bringing fresh food to the city.
“We’re selling primarily retail. We do two CSA’s and a farmers’ market. On Saturday we have two markets in Brooklyn, then drop to a CSA in Queens. This keeps the electric on during the week. It’s madness.” That’s a rugged schedule for a little money. But Jay says he can charge people less than a store would, and “I still take home more because I’ve eliminated three or four people in the process. I can give people what they want, and I’m able to keep it fresh. Nothing I have has preservatives. There’s very little waste.
“I got poultry, beef, and pork. The lamb’s not cut up yet. It’s all natural. We’re about to start glatt kosher poultry. At Thanksgiving we sold 600 turkeys; that was great! We do our own processing, and manufacture our own chicken sausages. Our red meat goes to a USDA plant, but we’re going to be buying our own USDA-approved processing plant.”
Jay speaks to us from a Just Food-affiliated CSA in Queens, as he showed people his meats, said hello, and shook hands. “I don’t have to wait 90 days for my money, and I don’t have a billing department. Here people are happy to pay me. But if they come and they don’t have the money, I tell them to pay me next week. It’s part of the connection of dealing with people on a daily basis. The whole concept is totally different. You’re obligated to the people because they’re obligated to you. They come out to support you rain, shine, whatever. I watch their kids grow up. It’s like dealing with family. You can’t put a price on that.”
Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.