Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow of the Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett help Kathleen Masters and Jess Engle of the Amagansett Food Institute load squash into boxes at the farm on Tuesday.
By Emily Weitz; Photography by Michael Heller
The Amagansett Food Institute (AFI) is a not-for-profit that supports farmers and food producers on the East End. With more than twenty members from local farms, beverage producers, bakeries and salt mongers, AFI is constantly looking for new ways to contribute to a thriving local food economy. They have helped in creating farm apprenticeships, education initiatives, and are currently working on establishing a commercial kitchen incubator locally. But one recent triumph came when AFI partnered up with Long Island Cares to close a gap in the food system, bringing fresh local produce to people who really need it.
Long Island Cares is the Long Island food bank that distributes food to pantries across Long Island. They receive both state and private funding, and they just agreed to spend up to $100,000 over the next year purchasing food from local farms and delivering it to food pantries.
“The genesis of this project began about three years ago,” says Kathleen Masters, who is the executive director of the Amagansett Food Institute. “A number of local farms, including AFI member Amber Waves, had been collecting surplus food produce and donating it.”
Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow, of Amber Waves in Amagansett, always saw it as a priority to make sure healthy food was available to all. But most local farms don’t have the kind of margins to give away so much fresh food. So AFI began to ask how they might be able to purchase that produce instead of asking the farm to take the hit.
“Part of our farm’s mission is to make sure everyone has access to locally grown organic food,” says Baldwin, “so this program creates a new access point for us to serve more food pantries on Long Island.”
That’s where Long Island Cares came in.
“They receive funding from the state,” says Masters, “and they buy food in bulk and bring it to the food pantries. The state requires them to buy a certain amount of fresh produce with that money. Long Island Cares has a produce buyer who likes to source truly local.”
Peter Braglia is the director of facilities and procurement at Long Island Cares, and he’s the guy who likes to buy hyper-local whenever possible.
“Long Island Cares exists not only to help feed the hungry,” he says, “but to help find the root cause. If economics is a key factor, why purchase product elsewhere when it is available here?”
Braglia appreciates that a large part of his spending capital comes from a grant from New York State.
“So, I like putting the money right back into our local economy,” he says.? In addition, Braglia believes that Long Island farms do the job right, from the large to the very small.
“I want to do all I can to help this particular industry,” he says. “Therefore, whenever possible, I will make available to my food pantries locally grown produce.”
While AFI members couldn’t provide the kind of bulk that Long Island Cares requires on their own, when bundled together, these farms have enough.
“The idea is that our members pool their surplus,” says Masters. “We had our first pickup last week, and we have 700 to 800 pounds of eggplant from just two of our farms.”
Long Island Cares pays AFI, and AFI pays the farmers. People at food pantries get fresh local produce, and small farmers get paid the wholesale rate.
Of course, there are certain items that don’t make sense for Long Island Cares. One of the local farms grows very high-end baby eggplant, and what they would ask for the bulk rate would be too much for Long Island Cares to pay. So that farmer chose not to participate in the eggplant pickup, and saved the delectable baby eggplants for the farmers’ markets.
What this arrangement strives to do is resolve the conflict between more food and better food.
“There’s a big struggle when feeding poor people,” explains Masters, “a tension between more food and better food. Some food pantries felt that their mission was to buy more food. So instead of buying fresh produce, they were buying canned.”
That’s when the state stepped in and said that with the money they were providing through organizations like Long Island Cares, a certain percentage needed to be spent on fresh produce from New York State.
“It keeps the money in the state,” says Masters, “it helps local farmers, and it puts good food in the hands of New Yorkers who need it.”
This initiative is meant to serve farmers in more ways than just economic.
“The farmers we work with,” says Masters, “very much believe that the beautiful produce they grow should be available to everybody. They recognize that people on the margins are not coming and joining their CSAs. They aren’t shopping the farmers’ markets, because it’s pricy. That’s why this project is appealing to the farmers. They don’t want to feel like all of their food is targeted at an elite few. They believe that everybody should have good food.”
Baldwin, of Amber Waves, echoes that sentiment:
“Everyone deserves to have good, clean, fresh, local, organic food,” she says, “so we are thrilled to be contributing to this program that is working towards that goal.”