Organic Sense

A Look at Local

by Chef Mary Cleaver  on April 12, 2011

Chef Mary Cleaver is President and Founder of The Cleaver Co. catering and The Green Table Restaurant in New York City

To me, great food means local, seasonal food, and knowing the people who grew it or raised it. During more than thirty years in the food business, my understanding of the superior quality of local food has become an emphatic and politicized mission to support healthy, regional agriculture and cuisine. 

I spent my childhood summers on the coast of southeastern Massachusetts. There was a local dairy where we watched the cows being milked. Bountiful farm stands provided high quality, fresh produce. We had a favorite fisherman on the New Bedford docks, and often picked our own mussels and dug our own clams. Growing up, it was clear to me that food came from the land and from the sea – I inherently understood the connection and appreciated it. This appreciation carried over into college in Vermont where I met like-minded friends: we loved to cook and eat big dinners together, picked our own apples and harvested green tomatoes to wrap in newspaper for ripening through the fall.

Following college, I aspired to buy a farm and make goat cheese, but without money to purchase land, I headed instead to New York City. To support my art, I started washing dishes at a café uptown, and then prepared salads and other food. I discovered cooking was my most marketable creative skill, and my catering business was born. Another, though sadder, realization soon followed: the local food I intended to use as the base of my business was virtually impossible to find. Though one could buy a pint of imported raspberries in the dead of winter for $7, when summer rolled around I couldn’t find a single local tomato or ear of corn. It was a mystery to me, given the rich farmland of the nearby Hudson Valley, the north and south forks of Long Island, and the neighboring “Garden State” of New Jersey (where I was raised). 

In just decades, the food system of New York City – what had been bustling markets filled with fresh, local products in the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s – had given way to an industrialized food system, dependent on shipped, processed food and commodity crops.

The longer I worked in the food world, the clearer it became: our food supply was in serious danger. I began devoting much of my time as a business owner to getting regional farm products into our kitchen and ensuring the money we spent in the market place contributed to the preservation of land and fostering smaller, family farms. Small to mid-size farms that use sustainable farming methods and organic practices are better for the environment, better for the local economy and better for all of us eaters. 

Through the years, I’ve made it a point to know where all our food is coming from and to develop relationships with farmers and producers – this is a large (and rewarding) part of my work. The Union Square Greenmarket provided me access to local farmers, and the first organic farmer I worked with was Guy Jones at Blooming Hill. Fast forward to 2011, and we have the 35th anniversary of GrowNYC/Greenmarket, New York City’s farmers’ market system. From a dozen farmers tucked under the 59th Street Bridge, Greenmarket now has more than 50 markets across the city, with literally hundreds of farmers and producers supplying us with fresh, healthy, local food. And thanks to Greenmarket, more than 30,000 acres of New York State has been kept in agricultural use and saved from development.

The boom in farmers’ markets is just one example of the increasing interest in the provenance of our food.  From the widespread publication of the beautiful Edible magazines, to the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, to Mark Bittman’s move to the New York Times opinion pages—food issues are definitely moving front and center.

In my business, we’ve always aimed to support a regional food and farm economy in our work. Whether or not the customer realized it, they’ve been getting “green” values with their food. But, over the past five years or so, I’ve noticed an increase in people coming to us specifically for these reasons. A couple planning their wedding recently asked if we could work with the farmers they know from their local market. Another summer wedding will take place on the family farm and the farm manager is growing what’s needed for the dinner menu we’ve created. More customers are hip to the notion of seasonality, and more accepting of sautéed kale instead of asparagus in winter.

For me, these are especially gratifying moments, and signs of hope that more of us understand the importance of being a stakeholder in the food system and that the system is changing for the better.

This is not to say there are no challenges today.  Because small farmers have been sidelined for so long, the most basic infrastructure is not in place, especially around processing and distribution.  For example, getting locally raised meat to market is a great challenge. A mobile slaughterhouse effort is underway in upstate New York to make slaughtering more available to smaller producers.

Institutional food, including school food (of which I am most familiar through a program called Wellness in the Schools) is generally composed of unhealthy, processed food heated up out of boxes and served on Styrofoam. And miles of red bureaucratic tape make it difficult to make the changes our kids desperately need. 

And while demand for organic food has exponentially increased, there is still a major price discrepancy with processed food—based on corn and soy subsidies— remaining cheaper than fresh produce and local meats and dairy. It’s a challenge for many small farmers to make a living, and it’s difficult to get fresh, healthy food into low income communities.

Our work is cut out for us, to be sure.  But just as spring brings signs of rebirth and hope (and ramps….and peas….and asparagus!), all the energy, enthusiasm and work being done in the good food world give me hope for a healthier food system in the future.

As my friend and fellow food warrior Brian Halweil (editor of Edible East End and senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute) likes to say: “Food is the solution, not the problem.”

Those words, to me, are good enough to eat.


About Chef Mary Cleaver

For more than 30 years – long before “locavore” became part of the lexicon – Mary Cleaver has been bringing the freshest, most flavorful, local food to New York City diners. One of the country’s foremost authorities on sustainable food and agriculture, Mary is the president and founder of The Cleaver Co. catering and The Green Table restaurant in Chelsea Market. The Cleaver Co. and The Green Table are widely recognized for supporting a regional farm and food economy and healthy food system by utilizing local farms and purveyors in order to obtain the best-quality products. Mary is a founder of the Farm to Chef Network and a board member of Food Systems Network NYC and Local Infrastructure for Local Agriculture, among other professional affiliations.

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Comments

Bill from from Central CA on April 14, 2011 at 07:00:39 PM
Mary, your early experiences outlined here uncannily parallel my own coming of age in California's Great Central Valley. Our bounty of products traverse the country and the world, yet finding that great, fresh produce locally was incredibly difficult.
In the past 11 years it's been my mission to grow for local eaters and 100% of my tiny farm's production is marketed within 40 miles of the garden gate. Thankfully, awareness has grown on the consumer side as well, and a strong market continues to develop for high quality, fresh, local food.
Growers, home gardeners, chefs and home cooks are all part of the much-needed change that's happening in our food system.
Yes, our work is cut out for us, but we are working hard for the change!
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