1:34 pm Oct. 12, 2011
At 7:30 a.m. yesterday, Nathan Forster, who works for the Wholesale Greenmarket in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, was gesturing to a pallet of problematic onions that sat near a truck.
The Wholesale Greenmarket, run by the nonprofit GrowNYC, sells over 100 different varieties of farm products wholesale to small grocers, institutions, restaurants, and distributors in New York; the idea is to find small markets for local growers, insuring that the produce comes "straight from the farm each morning," and that therefore "their products travel a very short distance ensuring premium quality, and greater food safety and traceability," according to the Greenmarket's website.
But the distributor that supplied this pallet of onions had confessed to Forster they'd come from growers in Texas and Mexico.
“This is the beginning of the season and we were like ‘what’s the deal with this?’” Forster said.
He said the distributor told him it would soon replace them with onions grown locally, but Hurricane Irene had ruined the crops.
Forster said the other producers with wares to sell at the market wanted the onions to stay anyway: What if buyers skipped the market altogether for a lack of onions?
“We kind of felt that our hands were tied,” Forster said.
He was speaking to a group that had stopped at the Wholesale Greenmarket as part of a bus tour of New York's local-produce food-chain that included a community greenmarket, a community center, this wholesale market and the much larger Hunts Point Terminal Market. The tour was organized by the James Beard Foundation in anticipation of their James Beard Food Conference, which begins today. (Among the honorees at tonight's $1,000-a-chair dinner are first lady Michelle Obama, California whole-food advocate and restaurateur Alice Waters, and Fedele Bauccio, chief executive of Bon Appetit Management.)
The group included sustainability executives with several national corporations, green consultants and a writer for The Epoch Times.
The Wholesale Greenmarket's mission, to stock local bodegas and groceries and restaurants with better, fresher produce and to create a market for small farmers in the region, was right in line with the Beard Foundation's philosophies. But it's not easy to create an infrastructure for local produce in a city the size of New York.
"The other half of my job is trying to build a clientele, because it's lacking," Forster said.
Some of the farmers' trucks that come here clear as much as $7,500 in sales a day, he said.
Around him, vendors at the Wholesale Greenmarket lazily packed up their produce into four box trucks and a forklift loaded a pallet of crates and barrels of pumpkins onto the back of a truck bound for Brownsville and Cypress Hill.
Irene presented larger problems than onions from Texas, Forster said. The lack of fresh, local produce at some markets here and consequently around the city was partly an effect of the storm tangling vines and throwing over corn as it made its way up the Hudson Valley.
GrowNYC, which runs the Greenmarket, is encouraging New Yorkers to donate money and customer dollars to affected farms.
“When Hurricane Irene came through, there were reports of pumpkins floating down the river,” he said. “It was really bad.”
Later, at 10 a.m. the busiest hours were over at the Hunts Point Terminal Market, another large wholesale market in the Bronx—and without the locavore mission.
Back in June, the Terminal renewed its lease with the city after threatening to move to New Jersey. They'll stay here at least until 2014, but they want improvements like more space, better infrastructure and improvements to the roads leading to the market, factors that keep them from expanding. Now, the volume of trade in local produce that comes out of the place is staggering to any outsider: Every year, $2 billion in produce passes through the market's 105 acres.
The market brags that it serves the largest market of any wholesale produce market of its kind, and the most diverse, and yesterday morning proprietors of Korean grocers and bodegas and fancy and not-so-fancy restaurants alike were picking among the goods to find products to bring to their customers. A café-stand serving the hungry buyers knew its clientele well enough to advertise a menu of Philly Cheese Steaks, Jamaican beef patties and sushi.
One wholesaler, Denise Goodman of M&R Tomatoes, walked the group though a cold-storage room where broccoli was kept at a brisk 37 degrees.
"It's one of the few places where your verbal word means something," Goodman said proudly.
The tour allowed for some of the sustainability buzzwords like traceability (pinpointing the origin of food) and the cold chain (the study of keeping food cold during transport) to mesh with the reality of idling trucks, haggling and produce-laden forklifts.
Before the car headed back into Manhattan down the clogged F.D.R. Drive, the final stop was the POINT Community Center serving Hunts Point.
Sharon De La Cruz, a program director, detailed the benefits of several gardens the organization helped plant in the area helped kids in the neighborhood start eating fresher food and realizing their diets weren’t as nutritious as they thought.
“They were eating healthy for Hunts Point, but was it really healthy? No,” De La Cruz said.
One big impact of the gardens, she said, was that children and residents were now thinking about food. Blocks away from one of the biggest produce centers in the world, residents could connect with what they eat.
“The day this becomes normalized, God bless,” she said.
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