By Len Maniace
Despite a wind that can feel more like March than May, there’s cause to celebrate at New York’s Greenmarkets, the first local produce of spring is in. There’s broccoli rabe, spinach, asparagus and ramps – sometimes called wild leeks – which are the first to appear.
“The broccoli rabe and asparagus – when I show up at the market and they are there, a smile comes across my face and I know it’s spring,” said Michael Hurwitz, director of the Greenmarket, which promotes food from local farms and fishing operations.
The spring produce is about two-three weeks later than last year because of the chilly spring, said Hurwitz, but peas should not be far away. Thirty markets are open and the rest of the 54 will be opening soon. And though spring produce arrives every year, there are new things down on the farm this year. More on that later.
Founded in 1976 with a site at Second Avenue and 59th Street, the Greenmarket may be New York’s most important institution connecting city folks with the surrounding countryside.
The markets provide an opportunity for New Yorkers to meet and talk with their food producers and to purchase fruit, veggies, fish, meat and goods made from those products, that are far fresher than what’s shipped from distant farms.
Greenmarkets are part of the city health department’s strategy to get New Yorkers to eat healthy, especially those in poorer neighborhoods where fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce. Health department staff give healthy cooking lessons using Greenmarket fruit and vegetables and market vendors participate in various federal food-subsidy programs. The Health Department stretches those benefits by offering $2 in “Health Bucks” for fruit and vegetable purchases for every $5 spent using electronic benefit cards.
Shopping at Greenmarkets has profound environmental and economic effects far beyond the city. It provides livelihoods for 230 family farms and fishing operations, the people who work for them, and the chain of suppliers who provide them with the needed seed and equipment. It keeps 38,000 rural acres from the hands of builders who would throw up shopping malls and office parks, the type of sprawling, auto-dependent development that causes congestions, air-pollution and contributes to global warming.
“Our farmers tell us they would be out of business if they did not have the opportunity to sell directly to the consumer. The wholesale marketplace just is not viable for these farmers,” said Hurwitz, who’s headed the Greenmarket since 2007.
The Greenmarket works hard to make certain that the produce sold at its stands is local. It inspects farms to determine that what they’re selling in the city is what’s in the fields, not only the type of product but also the quantity, and it also checks with local agriculture agents. In the last seven years about 13 operations were after they were found selling food they did not produce, Hurwitz said. “We are not embarrassed by that at all. We take it very serious and we make sure it is addressed as soon as we can.”
Now as promised, what’s new at the Greenmarkets:
* The first Greenmarket app – Allows you to check out what’s available at each of the Greenmarkets, not hypothetically, but in real time.
* The New Greenmarket Cookbook – With 100 recipes from chefs, food writers and farmers, the cookbook is to be published at the end of this month.
* Greenmarket Wheat beer – Now in its second year, with 80 percent of ingredients from the region. The Brooklyn Brewery, with operations in Brooklyn and Utica, N.Y., produces the beer.
* The Regional Grain Project – In the second of a five-year program, it encourages local grain production in order to bring more variety, higher quality, and non-GMO grain to the Northeast, its bakers, brewers and distilleries.
The Greenmarket may be most prominent, but it’s just one of the programs operated by the nonprofit GrowNYC. Along with environmental education programs, it has two other big citywide operations:
* Recycling – GrowNYC handles a big part of the education effort for New York City’s recycling program; it also runs textile recycling and composting programs, both of which are often at Greenmarkets; and it holds Stop & Swap events to find users for items owners no longer want.
* Community gardens – GrowNYC has created or rejuvenated more than 70 community gardens, working with schools, public housing associations, and neighborhood groups.