Just Food Brings the Farm to the City

Jacquie Simone Aug 6, 2009

Fifteen years ago, before it was hip to be green and before most people thought about organic vegetables, a few New Yorkers decided to take action and increase the availability of fresh food in urban communities. Since then, Just Food has been educating people throughout New York City and helping them access food from nearby, small-scale farms.“Food is fundamental to life,” said Amy Blankstein, Just Food’s Grants and Communications Manager. “If you look at obesity rates and the rate of health issues in this country, we all know that there’s something really wrong with what’s going on in terms of food.”

Kathy Lawrence, Ruth Katz, Peter Mann and Joan Gussow began discussing the need for a food justice group in 1994. The founders noticed that small-scale regional farmers were struggling and that people living in New York City had poor access to fresh food. In an effort to find a solution, they began establishing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups.

Today, the organization has 80 CSA groups in all five boroughs. Just Food started 20 CSAs this year alone, compared to 12 CSAs in 2007. Through Just Food’s CSA program, farmers deliver a supply of seasonal produce to central neighborhood distribution sites from June through November. Members, who purchase shares in winter and spring, collect weekly food shares, which typically feed 2-3 people. This model helps support small farms and increases the accessibility of fresh food in urban communities.

While organic farming techniques are not required, eco-friendly practices are encouraged. All farms in the program are small-scale and within 250 miles of New York City.

The organization estimates that 98,000 people have been involved in or impacted by their programs. Throughout the years, Just Food has been supported by private foundations, federal and state funding, and anti-hunger and environmental groups.

Blankstein said that in recent years, people have become more interested in where their food comes from because of food safety issues and the economic crisis.

“I think there is a growing mainstream awareness of food sustainability issues,” Blankstein said.

In addition to gaining staff members, the group has also created new programs. In 1998, Food Justice launched City Farms, a program that trains people in community gardening and urban agriculture. Through City Chickens, Just Food helps city residents start chicken coops so that they can have fresh eggs.

In 2002, Just Food created the Fresh Food for All program, which currently supplies 38 food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the city with fresh food from regional farms. People living in low-income communities often cannot afford fresh food, which results in higher obesity rates in these neighborhoods. Just Food also organizes trips to local farms and trains pantry and kitchen staff to do cooking demonstrations to help educate people about healthy eating practices.

“I think one of the things underlying all of our programs is the idea that you can bring food to people, but if people don’t know what to do with the food, it’s not really going to help,” Blankstein said.

The organization often hosts workshops and conferences, such as an annual CSA Conference and biennial Food Justice Summit.

Just Food also advocates for political change. They are currently pressuring the city government to incorporate local and sustainable food programs into PlaNYC. They are also calling for the legalization of beekeeping in New York City.

Blankstein said that even though people are more aware of food justice issues than they were 15 years ago, there is still progress to be made.

“We need to make it possible for people to make good food choices,” Blankstein said. “Looking at communities that don’t have healthy food access is really vital.”

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