Fresh Food Box: How NYC Is Investing in Locally-Sourced Produce

One way residents in Bushwick — a Brooklyn neighborhood dotted with brownstones — are getting their hands on affordable, fresh produce of organic and conventional varieties is through Fresh Food Box, a food source initiative run by GrowNYC.

carton of eggs, apple, garlic, potatoes

This nonprofit offers fruits and vegetables — along with special add-on items — from local farms in upstate New York and New Jersey every week. With 11 locations spread across Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, it significantly impacts the way many New Yorkers eat and think about locally-sourced food.

Brittany Jones, who works in music licensing, walks to the Bushwick location every week to pick up her Fresh Food Box. During winter months the program runs out of Mt. Lebanon Baptist on Decatur Street. In the summer it sets up shop at the community garden on Halsey Street.

Depending on the season, farms are sourced according to what is available. By paying $14 ($15 at workplace sites) in advance, Brittany is able to select an array of locally-sourced items: garlic, onions, potatoes, leeks, apples, tomatoes, chili peppers and spinach.

“They even have some of the more exotic vegetables you wouldn’t probably find at the store,” Brittany said, “like celery root, rutabagas and broccolini.”

Anyone can participate in Fresh Food Box and can do so by paying one week in advance at his or her local participating location. This system allows the program to know how many root vegetables, potatoes, apples, and other items to order and ensures that food does not go to waste (people who pay in advance are more likely to show up).

With a tote bag slung across her shoulder, Brittany enters Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church every Saturday between its hours of operation, 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon (each location’s hours vary). Tables are lined with various fruits and vegetables, along with signs indicating how many to take: “pick two,” “pick three,” “pick four.”

Everyone is to collect the same number of items. At the end of the line, individuals can swap out items in the exchange box. Brittany, who does not like cilantro or celery, always trades them in for extra beans or plums.

She cooks all her meals with the items she picks up, making healthy lunches to bring to work. By not having to buy from the expensive eateries near her office in Manhattan’s financial district, she saves at least $50 a week.

Since participating in Fresh Food Box, Brittany has become more adventurous in the kitchen, too.

“I add spinach to my eggs in the morning. Normally I would never do that” she admitted. She also learned how to cook a turnip (just as you would a carrot) after receiving a couple in one of her weekly shares.

In October Brittany picks up pumpkins from Fresh Food Box and makes pumpkin soup. Once, after receiving a rather large amount of cranberries, she Googled “cranberry recipes” and whipped up a perfectly sweet and tart cranberry pie with cream that left her co-workers asking for second helpings.

close up of cranberry pie

Another great feature about GrowNYC’s Fresh Food Box, Brittany explained, is the add-on items she can purchase. Fresh, cage-free eggs, $6 jars of golden honey, and maple syrup — all from the particular farms of that week. The Kitchen Garden, a salsa company, usually has a table set up on-site with homemade salsas and tomatillos while companies such as Hot Bread Kitchen of Bronx, NY, sells authentic multi-ethnic, soft and chewy challah, peppita and rye breads.

Elena Tinschert, who coordinates the Mt. Lebanon/Halsey location, sends out an email to program participants and potential customers that specifies which farms the week’s produce comes from, along with recipes. Prior “This Week’s Items” have included hot pink watermelon radishes and an accompanying recipe for watermelon radish soup, Empire apples, thyme, pears and a recipe that uses all three to make a savory butter.

Those who are interested in volunteering at the Mt. Lebanon/Halsey location are encouraged to sign up through Tinchert’s weekly email. Volunteers are offered flexible hours and will be compensated with free vegetables. As a nonprofit, the program is supported by the altruism of people.

Got any food scraps? Bring them by; this site is one of the few that collects scraps for compost that will be converted into quality soil to be used on the trees that line streets and gardens that color neighborhoods, as well as other “local urban farming and gardening projects.”

By accepting government-assisted benefit programs such as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps) and Health Bucks, Fresh Food Box ensures nobody is marginalized from purchasing fresh, healthy produce. On its website, GrowNYC promotes produce that is “the best of what’s seasonally available.”

If for any reason Brittany is unable to pick up her box, she may have someone else pick it up on her behalf. If she plans to be out of town on vacation and therefore does not need produce for a week, she simply does not pay for that upcoming week.

Last year Brittany’s friend, Abbey Ley, a graphic designer, moved into her building and within a week became a member of GrowNYC’s Fresh Food Box. The two of them are always cooking delicious recipes, delivering them up and down the stairs to each other’s apartments.

Brittany has recently made miso roasted Japanese turnips, roasted rutabaga with maple syrup and thyme, baba ganoush and stuffed acorn squash topped with hazelnuts, quinoa and kale. Abbey enjoys cooking a unique dish of cabbage, carrots, homemade tomato sauce and organic ground beef.

coked vegetables in glass tupperware

Sautéing the cabbage softens it to the likes of an egg noodle, coated in garlic and oil. All the crevices of the cabbage act as perfect chambers to lock in bits of browned, seasoned meat and chopped carrots. A sprinkle of parmesan reggiano on top adds a perfect sharpness. But the greatest element of the entire meal is knowing exactly where the ingredients come from.

There are a number of reasons why people are gravitating toward local initiatives such as Fresh Food Box and avoiding supermarkets. An article titled “The Dirty Secrets of Supermarket Produce” points out that the average grocery store apple is over a year old. Because they only ripen between August and September, apples obtain longer shelf life by being doused with harmful chemicals and “kept in cold storage. In a warehouse setting, they often sit at least 9 to 12 months, and one investigation showed that, on average, apples are 14 months old.”

Coupled with the cringe-worthy knowledge that 72% of grocery store shopping carts are infested with traces of fecal matter from infants or traces of raw meat, it is obvious why local initiatives are a safe and cleaner option when it comes to the fruits and vegetables people want to eat.

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