Turnips and Tatsoi: A Farm Comes To Flatbush

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When landscape architect and Boerum Hill resident Amy Seek attended a workshop on how to start a community supported agriculture (CSA) collective last fall, she envisioned the undertaking as part of a bold research project aimed at increasing organic food access for low- and middle-income residents.

“I believe that good food has to be financially sustainable, and so it was kind of like an experiment in creating a sustainable economic and food system,” said Seek, 32, who helped bring a system of “edible forests” to the University of Pennsylvania campus as part of the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative. She rounded up several other friends with similar interests and met with Just Food, a nonprofit group that assists New York residents who want to start CSAs.

But while the desire to expand quality food access across socioeconomic classes was there from the start, the major question of where to locate the CSA remained.

“A lot of people live in Park Slope, we have people who live in Clinton Hill and some of us are in Flatbush,” says Unity Kull, a friend of Amy’s who hosted the group’s first meeting with Just Food in her Flatbush apartment. “We were open-minded and they said what they were looking for was this low-income outreach model and we were all really interested in that so it was sort of a unique circumstance.”

In a CSA, also called a “farm share,” a group buys “shares” in a local farm ahead of a grower’s harvest season from June until November. The organically grown produce is then distributed weekly – on Wednesday evenings at the Flatbush Reformed Church, in this case – over the course of the season in either full or partial share allotments. An upfront payment to a farmer can range from $300 to $600 depending on the size of your share – which may seem prohibitive to many lower- and middle-income prospects without the disposable income needed to pay a farmer for his goods ahead of time.

The interest of Seek and friends in starting a CSA dovetailed with the efforts of Just Food and several other organizations to bring quality organic food to the neighborhood of Flatbush, where 26 percent of residents are likely to be obese (compared with a citywide average of 20 percent), according to a 2006 community health profile by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Thanks in part to a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, the Flatbush Farm Share is the third destination in a pilot program aimed at establishing CSAs with a greater number of lower-income participants. It’s coordinated by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and the Hunger Action Network of New York State. Past destinations for the program include the neighborhoods of West Harlem and Long Island City.

This year, the Flatbush farm share will be one of only eight new CSAs in the city that includes a flexible pricing model of some kind, where lower-income members can elect to participate in the farm share without an advance payment and pay for their shares through a combination of food stamps and increased volunteer hours.

“We really designed this program with low-income, food-insecure and hungry people in mind,” says NYCCAH executive director Joel Berg about the initiative.

But several core group members involved with setting up the Flatbush farm share acknowledge that making the case for lower-income participation where members are expected to commit food stamp payments for a share of exotic vegetables they’ve never seen before can be somewhat daunting. The Flatbush provider, The Farm at Miller’s Crossing in Hudson, NY, plans to deliver everything from tomatoes, beets and lettuce to tatsoi (a green also known as spinach mustard), arugula (a peppery green also called “rocket”) and bok choy (Chinese cabbage).

In this effort, the farm share is also getting support in its outreach efforts from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization CAMBA, which is partnered with the CSA to provide scholarships to low-income participants who meet the poverty threshold.

CAMBA food programs director Janet Miller says that so far, 20 applications for scholarships to participate in the CSA through CAMBA have been received.

But Miller notes that the biggest challenge in getting people to participate in the Flatbush CSA has less to do with navigating issues of income eligibility and immigration status as it does with explaining how the program works – an obstacle she says applies to staffers in addition to clients.

But, she says, once she has someone’s ear, they tend to get excited. “Once they come to a meeting and I start talking about a CSA, they are really engaged and interested … if you can get to people and actually talk to them about what the program is, they get very enthusiastic about it.”

For Patricia Seino, 43, an unemployed single mother and Long Island City resident who will be participating in her neighborhood’s farm share for the second year in a row, the benefit of getting an interesting selection of fresh vegetables at a fraction of the cost she would pay at a supermarket outweighs any disadvantages.

“When I picked shares in my CSA [last year] I noticed products that my local wholesaler does not have, and it gave me a chance to try new things. Some people don’t like to try new things, but the vegetables aren’t as expensive as it would be at a local grocer, and fresh is a nice change.”

– Nekoro Gomes