November 2009


Right now, in the window of the Whole Foods Market in Union Square, there’s a giant man holding a green bag.  He’s got standards and he’s having them for dinner.

Now I appreciate a good standard — and have a few of my own — but what if someone can not afford the high standard prices of Whole Foods?  Shouldn’t everyone be allowed the standard of pesticide-free food?  Or the pure nourishment of food, rather than the filler calories of food science?  High fructose corn syrup may make a food cheap, but it doesn’t make a body healthy.

On Saturday, December 12th, these issues and others will be addressed at the “NYC Food and Climate Summit,” hosted by New York University, Just Food, and the President of the Borough of Manhattan.  Clean food is a right for all, and more and more, it’s an imperative for our planet.  So, how will we get there?  I’m excited for this day-long event because the organizers have lined up both practical topics, i.e., “talking to reporters about meat practices” and public policy issues such as, “The Food Collar Economy.”  I’d love to know if you plan to attend – what do you think?

Note: The WTF sticker is not part of official Whole Foods marketing

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Whenever I’m in need of a Jell-O mold shaped like the human brain, I head over to The Brooklyn Kitchen on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg.  Turns out they are in demand for so much more.  In the past few years, their classes on cooking, canning and butchering are routinely booked to capacity.  As more and more people become interested in where our food comes from — and what better way to learn than to cook it ourselves — this little shop is our epicenter.

Starting today, The Brooklyn Kitchen is opening a new space called the Brooklyn Kitchen Labs in conjunction with the butcher shop, The Meat Hook.  The space will begin with classes to teach beer making and cheese making skills.  They are also going to sell the supplies needed to practice these arts at home.  According to a press release from The Brooklyn Kitchen, they have sold $20,000 in canning supplies alone thus far in 2009.  With a big new space and people clamouring for more classes, I can’t wait to see what this place becomes for local cooks.

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Let Class Begin: The New Space for Brooklyn Kitchen Labs & The Meat Hook

Professor Dickson Despommier is a dreamer and I applaud him for it.  So do many others.  Since I first posted in August about Despommier and his vision of growing food in urban skyscrapers, this blog has gotten hundreds of hits a week under the search term, “vertical farming.”  Sometimes it comes up as “vertikal farming” and I know that the Germans are curious, too.

Last night, before a sold-out crowd, the professor and other experts presented a panel entitled, “Designing Urban Farms to Feed New York” by the Municipal Art Society.  In addition to Despommier, the panel was moderated by the Washington Post columnist Neal Pierce, and included:

  • Colin Cathcart, a Brooklyn-based architect with a deep portfolio in sustainable building.
  • Jenn Nelkin, Greenhouse Director for Gotham Greens, the first hydroponic rooftop farm in New York.
  • Nevin Cohen, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the New School.  From the event literature: “His current research focuses on urban food policy, particularly innovative planning strategies to support food production in the urban and peri-urban landscape…”.
  • Dan Albert, a landscape designer out of Seattle who was part of the team that developed the conceptual Eco-laboratory, a self-sustaining building that produces its own energy, food and water.

From the evening’s discussion I learned that we are going to address our problems of food supply and climate change in many different ways.  While Despommier advocated for vertical farming, Nevin Cohen suggested growing food on urban public lands, among other ideas.  What if cities grew fruit and nut trees in the parks that the public could harvest?  Later in the talk, Cohen got cheers when he said that he still likens farming to soil, not purely hydroponics.

Jenn Nelkin offered a conciliatory acknowledgment that the answer is going to be in some of all these solutions.  (And there were many more.)  In fact, Nelkin continued, for experts in these topics, the nuances are still very much in development.  Often when she’s in a conversation about her rooftop farm, she’s asked, “Which type of hydroponic system are you using?”  The answers are evolving on many levels.

The tipping point will come when the financing solidifies.  All the panelists agreed there is a growing demand for safe, sustainable, urban food production.  We’re still searching for ways, however, to make the food affordable to the broad population and provide a good living wage to workers.  Regretfully, one of the audience questions that did not get discussed was, “Can urban farmers afford to live in New York City?”  I personally believe their role will be as important as doctors dispensing medicine, so I would hope so.

The theme of the night was big vision.  Let’s imagine what the future can hold:  Blooming verdant skyscrapers, apples from down the block, factory rooftops full of produce, and a good portion of the urban population ready to have our hands in the dirt.  As my friend Michael Beneville says when he hears a good idea, “Let’s dream that into existence.”

The French take on vertical farming for Paris. Courtesy of verticalfarm.com

The French take on vertical farming for Paris. Courtesy of verticalfarm.com.