Local food movements generate ethical food and build community
As a city that claims to have more restaurants per capita than New York City, Ithaca is steeped in food culture from the designation of Apple Fest and the Farmers Market as rites of passage by seasoned Ithacans to the variety of local products found in restaurants and stores around the city. These ubiquitous institutions and practices, in addition to its central location in the Finger Lakes, have made local food a major part of Ithaca’s identity. While the products vary, the goal of building community and raising awareness about the food system is evident throughout the city.
Local food movements have many faces around Ithaca, and each brings people and local food together in a different way. The primary focus in the region is on fruits and vegetables: GreenStar and Wegmans both feature produce and baked goods from local farms, and Healthy Food for All helps subsidize community subsidized agriculture shares from nine farms for low-income families.
Despite the emphasis on plants, meat programming is thriving as well. A new community initiative starting in Ithaca in November is the Finger Lakes Meat Project and Meat Suite from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, in which consumers buy meat directly from farmers in seven counties and store it in communal freezers. Matt LeRoux, agriculture marketing specialist for the Tompkins County branch, said the idea came out of a 3-year economic analysis, in which the freezer trade was both the most efficient and the most profitable option for farmers.
“Meat Suite serves both the consumer and the farmer by getting the two of them together,” LeRoux said.
Because of high demand in Ithaca, the first 140ft2 freezer will be installed downtown in November. The second will be installed in Corning in December. LeRoux labels the Meat Project as “locally raised meat made easy” because people who may not have the storage space for a quarter of a cow’s worth of meat can team up with other individuals and families to purchase the meat and divide it accordingly.
In addition to matters of practicality, LeRoux also said that communal freezers, CSAs, and similar programming emphasize the importance of social interactions over food, an aspect that is important to the organization as well. Consumers will often see the same people each week, converse, and share recipes for cuts of meat they may not be familiar with. “All that socialization over the food supply is a great thing, and we’re creating and opportunity for people to do that once again,”LeRoux said.
Before the food gets to the consumer, however, farmers have to cultivate it, and Ithaca food culture starts with farmer education. The Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming, an initiative of EcoVillage at Ithaca run by Joanna Green, teaches collaborative courses in sustainable agriculture for beginning farmers using a local network of farmers for peer-to-peer learning.
“We usually have a lot of Wednesday evening workshops, and we run them 5 to 8 p.m. for people who have jobs or school or whatever and they can fit them into their schedule,” Green said. A summer practicum held at Tompkins Cortland Community College attracted local students, as well as a few from outside New York State.
Downtown, GreenStar has been working to get the community together and talking about aspects of the food system as a whole, such as workers’ rights, poverty and self-reliance, rather than the individual products. Gary Fine, a long-time member of GreenStar’s council, said that while the Ithaca co-op and events like the annual Food Justice Summit don’t focus on teaching people about topics such as food justice and sovereignty, their goal is to team up with and support local organizations and partnerships that do in order to build a stronger system both locally and externally.
“It’s all about how you take control of the food system, create jobs that are sustainable and pay a livable wage, and do it all in the community so the money stays in the community rather than flowing out,” Fine said. “GreenStar Community Projects was created to address these bigger social issues and keep a conversation going that has been going for years.”
Green said that while there isn’t as much collaboration between organizations as there should be, Groundswell is beginning to work more directly with Ithaca Community Harvest and the Crop Mob.
“We’re all part of a network,” Green said. “I would say that there’s probably not as much coordination and collaboration as there really should be in the local food system, but we’re also doing our individual pieces of the work that we hardly have time to sit down and strategize together.”
While local food movements in general are expanding to serve a larger consumer base – Wegmans often carries lettuce from Binghamton farmers, and many locally based CSAs deliver to Endicott and Syracuse – Ithaca remains the hub for local food, and food culture remains engrained in the city’s identity.
Amanda Hutchinson is a junior journalism major who likes her collaborative communities with a side of brussels sprouts. Email her at ahutchi2[at]ithaca.edu