Kids looking in barnKids peer into a hole in the wall of a barn.Photo: Marc Fader of City Limits

The chartered bus pulls up to the 100-acre Hudson Valley farm, after a two-hour drive from Harlem, and stops alongside a row of crates filled with red and yellow onions. Outside the bus, sprawling green fields have come into view. “Oh my God. That’s a barn,” declares a young girl on the bus, her gaze fixed on the two-story building that has appeared in the distance. “I’ve never been in a barn.”

The 52 people on the bus are employees and patrons of seven New York City food pantries. They have come to J. Glebocki Farms to see where local produce grows. During their tour, the farmer, John Glebocki, leads them through a prep house where workers busily scrub dirt off carrots. Later, they ride through the fields in wagons, past rows of onions, potatoes, and sunflowers, stopping every so often for a closer look at the soil and the plants.

“Mom, I took this from the dirt!” squeals Brianna Scavellaio-Lapin, the seven-year-old daughter of one of the trip’s participants and food pantry patrons, as she raises the dirt-covered carrot she has just pulled from the ground into the air.

It’s rare for city residents to spend a weekday at a farm, but the source of the tour participants’ excitement wasn’t just their agricultural outing. The food they saw growing wasn’t reserved for the wealthy or the trendy. Despite the poverty of many of the food pantry patrons, much of this farm’s food was reserved for them.

Alexis Scavellaio-Lapin, 5, snacks on an ear of corn as she picks her way through an area of the field that was recently harvested.Alexis Scavellaio-Lapin, 5, snacks on an ear of corn as she picks her way through an area of the field that was recently harvested.Photo: Marc Fader of City LimitsThe Scavellaio-Lapin family’s trip to the Goshen, N.Y. farm occurred courtesy of a unique nine-year-old food justice program called Local Produce Link. The program supplies 44 food panties throughout all five boroughs of New York City with farm fresh produce harvested from one of seven nearby farms in New York State and New Jersey.

In New York City, and indeed in the country, other programs like it are rare. Most of the city’s 600 food pantries get much of their food from the government-funded Food Bank for New York City, a hunger-relief organization that operates a 90,000 square foot warehouse in Hunts Point, in the Bronx.

Some of the Food Bank’s fruits and vegetables come from farms similar to Glebocki’s, near Albany and Syracuse. But much of it comes from large-scale farms — often in California — via commercial food distributors. The Food Bank also receives donations from produce distributors, wholesalers, the Hunts Point food market, and others.

Because the Food Bank’s focus is providing large quantities of food, quality sometimes suffers. Pantry shelves are often lined with food visibly close to expiration.

The creators of Local Produce Link, United Way of New York City, and Just Food, launched the program because they believed food pantries should offer fresher food. They also wanted to instill in their patrons knowledge about healthy eating choices that could carry over into their day-to-day grocery shopping.

According to the program’s organizers, eating locally grown food reduces the environmental damage caused by transporting food long distances, and is healthier. “There’s a real difference between produce that sits and travels all the way from California, which is most of what’s in our stores, and [the produce that is] grown right here in New York state, an hour and a half away, picked fresh,” says Abby Youngblood, one of the Local Produce Link coordinators at Just Food. John Schmid, a farmer who participates in the program, says that the closer you eat something to when it’s picked, the more nutritious it is. “It might sound a little crazy but a lot of farmers like to know that their food is getting consumed when it’s fresh,” he says.”It really makes a difference.”

Local Produce Link has expanded rapidly throughout the city since it launched at five food pantries in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. And Just Food and United Way — administrator of the funding Just Food receives from New York State — want to expand it further. “Every year we’ve been earmarking more money for Local Produce Link,” says Stacy McCarthy, a coordinator at United Way. “The more money we have, the more we can expand.”

Every Tuesday from June to November, staff members or volunteers from three Local Produce Link food pantries in the Bronx pick up boxes of fresh produce — about 200 pounds for each pantry — from farmer John Schmid’s farm stand in Poe Park. Each of the 41 other Local Produce Link food pantries also receives about 200 pounds of fresh vegetables every week, grown on one of six other Local Produce Link farms. Pantries either pick up their boxes of produce at a designated drop-off site or at a farmers market.

Each farmer supplies approximately equal portions of leafy green vegetables, root vegetables, and seasonal vegetables. Local Produce Link pays all farmers one universal price per pound for all non-organic produce and one universal, but slightly higher, price per pound for all organic produce.

Schmid — who owns and runs Muddy River Farm in New Hampton, N.Y. — sells most of his produce to farmers markets and restaurants in Manhattan. He says Local Produce Link provides him a new market for his produce and reasonable compensation. He is also happy to be introducing farm fresh food to people who may have never been exposed it. “If people get fresh food at the food pantry, they’ll probably come here, to the farmers market, and they’ll probably buy it — once they get accustomed to it,” he says. “Because once you start tasting fresh, you start wanting it. And you find that couple of extra dollars to buy it instead of buying a soda or a Big Mac.”

At Hour Children Food Pantry — a Local Produce Link pantry in Long Island City in Queens — Hannah Goldwater stands beside a table piled high with celery, cabbage, and green romaine lettuce recently arrived from The Farm at Miller’s Crossing in Hudson, N.Y. Goldwater, 23, is a “veggie educator” at the pantry and says that part of her job is convincing her clients to take the vegetables home, since much of the produce that comes in is foreign to them. To help her and the other veggie educators in the Local Produce Link pantries, Just Food, and United Way, along with the farms themselves, provide recipes that correspond to the produce that is offered.

Leslie Aguilar, a 43-year-old mother and one of the 150 people who frequent the pantry in Long Island City, is one client who needs little convincing the vegetables are valuable. Diagnosed with diabetes several years ago, she has since changed her diet significantly, now eating mostly fresh food like cucumbers, squash, greens, and tomatoes. The offerings at Hour Children, she says, have been helpful with her transition because they taste, and are, fresh.

Much of Hour Children’s produce used to be food that was “rescued” from grocery stores and restaurants when it was close to expiration. “Compared to this stuff,” says Christy Robb, the director of the pantry, gesturing toward some Local Produce Link vegetables spread out on a table, “it didn’t even compare.”

“They’re fresh,” says Mahassen Elkatt
an, referring to the vegetables in the bag of groceries she is about to take home. Elkattan is another one of the Long Island City pantry’s patrons. A 48-year-old mother of five, she moved to the United States from Egypt in 1989, and has an aversion to cooking with canned vegetables. “These ones haven’t been in any machine,” she affirms. “They’re coming straight from the farmer.”

The Hour Children pantry, like other Local Produce Link pantries, also offers cooking demonstrations to teach their patrons how to prepare some of the produce that comes in from the farm. Recent demonstrations have included pesto, sautéed kale, pickled cucumbers, carrot soup, raw vegetable wraps, and egg frittatas with collard greens.

This fall, United Way and Just Food will discuss expanding Local Produce Link. They would like to connect several food pantries in East New York with a local farm, and are discussing the possibility of adding a new farm to the program.

Youngblood says they’re considering East New York partly because the New York State Department of Health has flagged it as a neighborhood with little access to fresh produce and one of the highest rates of obesity in the city.

Local Produce Link is funded by the New York State Department of Health through its Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP), which was created 25 years ago to improve the quality of food distributed through Emergency Food Relief Organizations — food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters — throughout the state.

United Way, which administers the grant from HPNAP, has increased Local Produce Link’s funding 45 percent since 2008, granting them $304,595 for the current season. Next season, the grant will increase four percent to $317,000.

If Local Produce Link’s organizers can find a good match between some of East New York’s food pantries and a local farm, considering the logistics of funding, drop-offs, and pick-ups, Local Produce Link will be able to expand there next year. “This really ties into a whole movement,” says Youngblood, “to get healthier, fresher, higher quality food into communities that don’t have access.”

Republished with permission from City Limits, a New York-based civic news organization. In addition to covering increasing access to healthy and organic food, City Limits also publishes news about toxic waste clean-up efforts, public transportation, and the environmental effects of large-scale industrial projects.