Breuk: Ditmas Park Food Security

The Ditmas Park neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn, has been getting a lot of press lately. Articles in New York Magazine and The New York Times fawn over the new restaurants and bars that have been opening on commercial strips Cortelyou Road and Church Avenue over the past five years, and some of the brightly painted Victorian houses that make up “Victorian Flatbush” have become iconic images. But in any renaissance there are those who are left behind, without the resources to take part in the new economy. Like the widening income gap across the nation, and exemplified in NYC, there is also a food quality versus cost disparity playing out in Ditmas Park, which can be seen in restaurants, and supermarkets.

Many families don’t have the time, nor desire to cook every night, so restaurant options should be considered when discussing food security. In addition, eating out is a large part of NYC food culture that all residents should get to enjoy occasionally. The Farm on Adderley, a farm-to-table restaurant on Cortelyou Road, has a page on the website Real Time Farms (www.realtimefarms.com). Every menu item links to the farm that it was sourced from. A serving of organic chicken and vegetables sourced from Lancaster Farm Fresh will run you $25. An equally filling meal of chicken from who-knows-what farm and most definitely not organic, and french fries from Crown Fried Chicken, located a few blocks down Cortelyou Road, is much more affordable at about $5. It is hardly news that fancy restaurants are more expensive than fast food holes-in-the-wall, but the same food quality versus cost disparity is found in the local supermarkets. Fresh produce is available all throughout Ditmas Park, with large supermarkets placed on nearly every other avenue, but local organic produce is significantly more expensive than non-organic.  Options are even more limited for people living in extreme poverty, who have to choose between tiny quantities of healthy food, or larger quantities of junk food – some cannot afford either option.

CAMBA (https://www.camba.org/) is a non-profit located on Church Avenue and East 18th Street. The organization runs The Beyond Hunger Emergency Food Pantry with an emphasis on distributing healthy meals and groceries to people in need. The majority of the food pantry’s clients live in Brooklyn, and up to 60% are immigrants, many of whom have large households, and don’t yet speak English well enough to qualify for most jobs in New York, says Lucila Santana, CAMBA’s food pantry coordinator.  Ms. Santana speaks about her work with a contagious enthusiasm. She explains that the food pantry’s goal isn’t to simply fill the bellies of hungry New Yorkers, but to provide exemplary nutrition. “They only receive healthy items,” she says. The food pantry’s approach is multi-pronged – the clients are fed only healthy food, and they are also educated and engaged about how to eat healthily, so that when they are able to support themselves financially, they will enter the grocery store with the knowledge of what is healthful, and of how to prepare the food in an appetizing way. Some clients are hesitant to try new foods that weren’t a part of their upbringing. “For example, a lot of clients are turned off by pasta that isn’t white,” says Ms. Santana, continuing “It’s about appearance, but I tell them that it’s really about the spices, and to try it.”

The food pantry’s most exciting and innovative addition is a hydroponics farm located right inside the entrance, accessible to all who visit the pantry. Clients participate in the care of the farm, and schools are invited to tour it. Among the organic vegetables being grown are romaine lettuce, bok choy, cilantro, basil, and butterhead lettuce. At first, clients weren’t accepting of the new style of farming, says Ms. Santana. They were used to soil-based farming, and the hydroponics system seemed odd to them, but she says, “It’s hard to resist when you see the the beautiful lettuce growing. They get up close to it, breaking off a piece of lettuce when it matures…it brings a smile to everyone’s face who goes in there.”

CAMBA is currently holding a drive to raise funds to supply their urban farm for a year. The total cost for one year is $2,500, and Ms. Santana says the farm will serve “well over 84,000 individuals.”

Urban hydroponics farms like the one at The Beyond Hunger Emergency Food Pantry play a role in sustainability, as well. Because the food is grown and distributed locally, there are far fewer miles for transport trucks to travel, so carbon emissions are greatly reduced, and they are capable of being powered by solar panels. The city’s first commercial indoor hydroponics farm, Gotham Greens, is run entirely on solar panels.  Solar panels are commonly viewed as an expensive upgrade that won’t pay for themselves for decades to come – a hard sell in today’s profit driven, get-rich-quick economy. However, there are now two options that drastically reduce the initial cost of solar panels. I first learned about leasing solar panels from my Aunt. The electricity in her home is powered by solar panels leased from Sungevity. She paid $6,000 for a twenty year lease, and her electricity bill is now a couple of dollars every month. Leasing is very affordable up front, but there are some drawbacks. The energy your panels collect belongs to Sungevity and its investors, so you are not allowed to sell it back to your local energy provider. You are also not eligible for tax credits or rebates – Sungevity’s investors collect on those. (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/sustainability/why-buy-solar-panel-when-you-can-lease-it) The second option is to make the large initial investment ($20,000 or more) to purchase and install solar panels, then take advantage of the 30%  Federal tax credit being offered until December 31, 2016. (http://energy.gov/savings/business-energy-investment-tax-credit-itc)

Ms. Santana says that her clients love knowing where their food comes from, and it occurrs to me that most city-dwellers don’t even think about where our food comes from. The pleasure that CAMBA’s clients get from engaging with their food in its growth process suggests that we may all be missing out on an enriching psychological and physiological experience, but with the advent of space-efficient, cost-efficient indoor hydroponics farming, knowing the source of our food doesn’t have to be a rarity much longer.

In an ideal future, public schools would grow their own healthy, organic vegetables year-round, and students could gain valuable experience tending to their farms – students would develop a sense of stewardship to their community and environment when they play a direct role in farming their own crops. One day “community hydroponics farm” may be listed next to “washer/dryer”, and “elevator building”, in real estate ads. The initial investment in urban hydroponics farms will pay for itself in savings over time, and importantly, to paraphrase William E. Rees, FRSC, New York City would have a greater structural diversity for self-reliance which would better serve its needs for enhanced socio-economic resilience (The Post Carbon Reader: Managing The 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, pg 29). We would be less susceptible to collapse if we have the capability to grow our own food instead of depending solely on outside sources, and perhaps a city of 8 million should have a back-up plan.

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