Food Systems Network NYC’s Interview with Nancy Romer

Reposted from Food Systems Network NYC

In anticipation of the second Brooklyn Food Conference on May 12th, Rosalin Luetum touched base with Nancy Romer (pictured left), the General Coordinator of the Coalition, to learn how the ‘movement’ has made strides and what the priority areas are now.

Rosalin Luetum (RL): The Brooklyn Food Coalition effort has been an impressive grass roots movement since it kicked off with the 2009 conference. Lots has happened in Brooklyn around food in particular over these last 3 years. As you anticipate and plan for this next and much bigger conference, we have some questions about the developments in this ‘movement’ from 2009 until now. Over the last three years:

RL: What would you say are the most significant developments in the ‘good food movement’ in Brooklyn?

Nancy Romer (NR): The biggest change has been in people’s consciousness. It has been a huge leap forward in the food movement. With that change has come the cross-fertilization of ideas in areas such as urban agriculture, providing access to healthy foods for all, sustainable agriculture, school food, and justice for food workers.

Awareness has been the biggest and most important piece, and there are a lot of other smaller pieces under that. For example, in terms of urban agriculture, more people are growing food at home and tending home gardens. The anti-fracking movement is exciting and powerful. With food workers, there are important campaigns shining a lot on sweatshops working to change current work conditions. The food co-op movement has been growing, and parents are working to improve the food in their kids’ schools.

RL: What in your view have been the short term ‘successes’?

NR: In addition to what I mentioned earlier, other short term success are less quantifiable. In the last five years, there has been an attitude change towards food. People are eating and thinking differently. There are people who don’t have access to healthy food and others who don’t seek it out. What’s important is to have people that are able to work with each other toward the shared goal of a better food system. Legislatively, two new pieces of legislation are coming up this week in City Council, one on improving school food and the other on living wages for workers—both key demands in the food movement. We’ve also had some small successes around farm to café and local sourcing in the last Child Nutrition Bill. The US Farm Bill will likely support some more small farm initiatives.

RL: What are the most difficult challenges that lie ahead? (Read the whole article.)

Official Conference Program Released

It’s finally here!! Thanks to our amazing Programming Committee the official 2012 Brooklyn Food Conference Program is available for download on our website. This beautifully designed 92 page document is packed with information on the workshops, cooking demonstrations, film screenings, Youth and children’s activities as well as plenary speakers and all our sponsors!

New Leadership at Bed Stuy’s Magnolia Tree Earth Center

Brooklyn Food Coalition volunteer Abby Sherer visited the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in Brooklyn to talk to their new leader, Beverly Johnson. Come to the 2012 conference and find out more about what else community organizations like Magnolia Tree are up to and get involved!

Beverly Johnson

Green campaigners in Brooklyn celebrated a venerable survivor on February 9.  The Magnolia Tree Earth Center, housed in a brightly renovated brownstone on Lafayette Avenue in Bed Stuy, welcomed its new executive director Beverly Johnson with a packed to the gills party of gardeners, youth organizers, and other community minded folk who toasted the 40-year-old institution.

“I know that our founder Hattie Carthan is looking down and saying, yes, that’s what I was talking about,” said David Greaves, editor of the weekly newspaper Our Time Press and president of the Magnolia Tree center’s board.

On hand was State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a supporter of the center’s Tree Corps, an environmental education program for twenty middle and five high schoolers that is relaunching this month. Also celebrating were members of the Association Blacks in Energy, partners of the Magnolia Tree Center and, with Our Time Press and Bacardi, sponsors of the party.

“It’s funny because I’ve never been an outdoorsy kind of girl,” said Ms. Johnson, the new director. But she joined Magnolia Tree after retiring from NYU-Polytechnic of NY where she supported students of color in their effort to earn engineering and science degrees, and saw the connection. “Imagine us bringing opportunity for the community of Bed Stuy. If we have people from business, from education, gardeners, food specialists from all walks of life, the Society of Black Engineers (a sponsor of a key summer program of the center)… we all get together and bring whatever you have is good to the table.”

In the fall, she aims to provide tutoring for middle and high school students in math, science and engineering. This summer Magnolia Tree is bringing the National Society of Black Engineers’ Summer Engineering Experience for Kids to the neighborhood.

Hattie Carthan

Nancy Wolf, one of the founding members of Magnolia Tree and vice president of the board, remembered the community group’s beginnings and Mrs. Carthan.  Mrs. Carthan was already an activist in late middle age when she saw a lone Magnolia grandiflora growing on Lafayette Avenue, much further north than is comfortable for it but protected by the surrounding buildings.   “She learned a parking lot was going to be built – it’s always a parking lot that’s going to be built when you raze trees. … She coined a slogan, Save a tree, save a neighborhood.” Through her organizing, the now 127-year-old tree was granted landmark designation in 1970, and the brownstones followed seven years later.

The Center’s actual incorporation was in 1972, the year of Earth Day. “Earth Day happened,” Ms. Wolf recalled. “It was one of these blockbuster things. People’s lives were changed. I know mine has.” Ms. Wolf was at Pratt when she learned “there was a lady at Bed Stuy who’s trying to do something.” And indeed she did, rallying around the Magnolia tree to launch environmental programs and consciousness in the neighborhood, and the Magnolia Tree Earth Center.

“This was a survivor organization,” recalled Ms. Wolf. “Many groups were born after Earth Day. Very few organizations that were born out of Earth Day excitement survive. Magnolia Tree did, one of the first growing out of an African American community.” Nearby, a massive community garden with Hattie Carthan’s history posted on the fence tells the story that is still in the making.

- written by Abby Scher for the Brooklyn Food Coalition
Contact Abby at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @abbyscher

Cooking Demonstrations Announced!

For all you food lovers and chef’s at heart, we just posted the Cooking Demonstrations page on the website. Here’s a sampling of what’s in store and please visit the website to see a complete list of all the demos!

Wilted Dandelion Greens with Hot Garlic Dressing and Garlic Chips
Bryant Terry, Eco Chef, Food Activist
Bryant will prepare Wilted Dandelion Greens with Hot Garlic Dressing and Garlic Chips recipe. Dandelion greens offer a high amount of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. This recipe is a health-supportive twist on the southern/ African American classic “Wilted Dandelion Greens with Hot Bacon Dressing” found in Jessica B. Harris’s book The Welcome Table.

Whipping Up Healthy Meals with WIC
Callista Falsia, Public Health Solutions, Neighborhood WIC
Calista will share simple recipes for active families, on a budget, using low-cost foods that can be purchased with WIC Vouchers.

Healthy Substitutions to Support Allergy-free and Vegan Diets
Juarline Stavrinos, Allergy Free Cooking, Baby! Inc.
Juarline will demonstrate how to use healthy, organic, alternative ingredients to substitute dairy, gluten and eggs while making crepes.

Snack Happy: Healthy Snacks for Growing Kids
Trina O’Boyle, Happy Family Organics
Learn to make easy, healthy delicious snacks for kids. Will also cover: using organic ingredients and whole foods, importance of exposing children to variety of foods/flavors, snacking tips and healthy snacks on the go, non-food ingredients to avoid, getting children involved in cooking.

State Assemblyman Jim Brennan

State Assemblyman Jim Brennan

State Assemblyman Jim Brennan’s Park Slope storefront office is bustling. A concerned  citizen (with dog) shares a community complaint with a staffer in the front while Brennan talks with a constituent on the phone about the challenges of getting a speed bump installed. I’m here to talk with him about what the statehouse is doing (or not doing) to improve our food and water systems.

Brennan was the first political representative who contributed discretionary funds to support the big Brooklyn Food Conference in May.  He gets it. His own passion at the moment is to block fracking, the toxic extraction of gas, so it doesn’t destroy upstate lands, including areas not far from NYC’s watershed.  He’ll be talking about that effort at the Brooklyn Food Conference and I will write a separate column about that part of our conversation.

But he is a true policy wonk with wide interests and knowledge, so we also talk about strengthening the link between upstate farms and city markets of all types, including farmers markets and coops.

“Obviously within 50 miles of the NYC metro area there’s been tremendous loss of farmland,” Brennan said “Land trusts, land preservation banks, support for protecting farming is strong.” Local governments have acted on their own by adopting a 2% transaction tax on the sale of land to fund trusts to purchase forest, open space and farmland.  But the state can do more to support the economics of farming by limiting property taxes, provide loans, helping manage pests and developing markets, he argues.

This last item is where NYC comes in.

“I also view this as an important economic development tool throughout the city, giving people better access to good food, bringing in local farmers,” he said. “It’s important for job creation and sustainability for the environment as a whole.”

Brennan isn’t just talking about local farmers markets. He means huge wholesale hubs like Hunts Point where farmers meet retailers. But , he explains, “Hunts Point is a regional and national market.  The food is not necessarily on its way to NYC.”

“NYC needs substantial additional [outlets for local distribution].  Brooklyn has a small number of wholesale markets, [the city-owned Moore St. market in Williamsburg and a small one in Sunset Park. A market in East NY closed down].  So farmers in Long Island, New Jersey, and upstate NY need government to fund additional facilities so you can get produce in at a wholesale level, so more wholesale and retail markets can be developed. Your weekend farmers’ markets are great but you need additional institutions to strengthen the farmer-consumer connection.”

The city and state governments realize this. But sufficient funds and wherewithal have yet to be brought to bear.

“Everyone’s paying lip service these days. Let’s hope in the next year or two we have money to do more.”

But improving distribution isn’t enough to achieve the environmental goal of shortening the journey from farm to table. In NY, NJ and Connecticut, much of the farming is “specialized and probably not sufficient to feed the 30 million people in the tristate area.  Pennsylvania is maybe closer to self sufficiency.”

Brennan had plenty of kind words for Food Coalition activists and their broad vision.

“What the Food Coalition is doing is generating substantial public interest and concern about the direction of society,” he said. “ And state and local policymakers have taken notice.”  - Abby Scher

Abby Scher
[email protected]
I’m on twitter @abbyscher