Downtown Harvest: Bringing People Together, One Kohlrabi at a Time

Photos: Courtesy of Meg Largey

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Summer/Fall 2009 issue of NEW. You can download the entire issue here.

The volunteers in the garage begin closing up shop at exactly 8 pm. Fold up the tables. Sweep the floor. Load Sister Alice’s minivan, which pulls up promptly at Our Lady of Czestochowa (OLC) on Sussex Street in Jersey City’s Paulus Hook neighborhood. The no-nonsense beige vehicle is empty, waiting to be filled with discarded USPS mail-sorting boxes. But there’s no mail here, just leftover vegetables. Some boxes are overflowing — apparently, everyone’s a little tired of cabbage — and others are haphazardly filled with a motley assortment of beets, chiles and radishes. Sister Alice is deeply grateful for the produce, which goes to an emergency food pantry, and she issues directions with the crisp efficiency associated with nuns. “Potatoes on the floor. Cabbage in the back seat. Leftover herbs on the potatoes. Shove the celery root over to fit the chard.”

By 8:05, Sister Alice and the cabbage are gone, the volunteers say their goodnights, and the garage goes back to being a garage. Other than the stray sprig of parsley, there’s little evidence of the past four hours’ activity: the tables of vegetables, the chatty volunteers weighing potatoes and bagging salad greens, the neighborhood folks arriving and leaving laden with a week’s worth of organic, straight-from-the-farm produce. A single man brings crumpled plastic bags, re-used week after week. A mom’s two toddlers play with the volunteers as she fills tote bags, hanging them from a stroller’s handles. Neighbors try to figure out how to divvy their shares. “I hate mustard greens … ooh, there’s chard again.” “How can you hate mustard greens? And I’m getting sick of chard — you take it.” “Done deal.”

Urbanites Get Back to the Land

From late April to mid-November this scene plays out once a week at the OLC garage and countless other CSA pickup spots across the U.S.

What’s a CSA? It stands for “community supported agriculture” — a joint venture in which people buy shares of a farmer’s harvest prior to the growing season. The influx of money from this yearly IPO helps the farmer purchase what she needs to run the farm — equipment, seeds, labor — while the purchasers are guaranteed a share of each week’s harvest. Farmers get the stability of a guaranteed market; shareholders the satisfaction of a bounty of local, peak-season organic produce. A CSA shares the language of the stock market, but with an intimacy that only grows between a community-supported farmer and the people she feeds. Each shares equally in potential risk (bad weather, pests, poor harvests) and reward (an avalanche of ripe Jersey tomatoes). Shareholders face the additional uncertainty of never knowing what food each week will bring, a prospect that can be both exciting and anxiety-producing. Uncertainty aside, CSAs are clearly an appealing option to more and more people. In 1990, there were only 50 nationwide. Today, there are more than 2200.

Why such exponential growth? Many feel increasingly disconnected from the food they eat and the way it’s produced. Some worry about the energy needed to transport food all over the world — Whole Foods’ produce section may feature heartwarming pictures of grizzled farmers, but we all know some of those January peaches flew in to Newark on a non-stop from Chile. Others simply appreciate seasonality, knowing they’re eating regional foods at the height of their growing season and freshness. Still others just want to know that they’re getting high quality, truly organic produce.

“My 10-month old daughter had just started seriously eating solid foods, so another mom and I decided to join together,” OLC CSA member Suzanne Dell’Orto says. “It seemed like a great way to get fresh, local organic produce while supporting a farm whose principles we agreed with.”

No matter the personal motivations, CSAs mean more local farms, less chemical runoff in our groundwater from fertilizers and pesticides, healthier soil and higher-quality food in our mouths.

Celery Root Comes to Jersey City

The impetus behind the OLC CSA, known as Downtown Harvest, came from Meg Largey and Matt Navarro.

“The idea came from a brainstorming session of the ‘Faith Works’ committee of OLC, in an attempt to find ways [to] put our faith to work in our daily lives,” Largey, a 10-year Jersey City resident, explains. “We loved the idea of promoting stewardship of our earth by supporting sustainable agriculture and providing support to a small farmer. … We named our CSA Downtown Harvest to reflect the urban-rural connection.” (Although veggie pickup happens in the church garage, the CSA welcomes all community members regardless of belief system.)

Largey and Navarro did their due diligence, visiting farms across New Jersey to find a good match produce- and philosophy-wise. It didn’t take long for them to create a partnership with farmer John Krueger of Starbrite Farm in Hardwick, an organic farmer with other happy CSA chapters in Montclair and Bloomfield.

Drumming up members initially took some work — Largey and Navarro visited neighborhood associations to introduce Downtown Harvest and held meetings at OLC featuring Farmer John — but it took root quickly, with 50 members in its first year. By year three, people were writing in asking to join.
Five years in, Downtown Harvest boasts 100 members (myself included, in the interest of full disclosure), with a waiting list for new shareholders. Largey and Navarro continue to spearhead it, along with a group of core members. Some members split shares to avoid being overwhelmed by produce. A few people buy shares solely for donation to the emergency food pantry. Hundreds of pounds of vegetables now arrive in Paulus Hook for distribution every week.

Members seem to think that any potential risk has been well worth it.

“You can often choose between produce that looks like what you’re used to … or another variety,” Dell’Orto says. “And that vegetable has been picked when it’s ripe, so you know you’re trying it at its very best. I figure if I don’t like a vegetable when I get it at the CSA, then I just don’t like it.” Others have been introduced to new vegetables — rattlesnake beans? mizuma? — that are now household favorites.

Maria Connors, for one, is just glad to have a source of quality produce closer to home. No more hauling bags home from one of New York City’s Greenmarkets after dragging herself there at the crack of dawn to snatch up peak seasonal items before restaurant buyers descend.

But CSAs aren’t just about the food — they’re also about people. Downtown Harvest’s most obvious human connection is its relationship with the emergency food pantry, which allows members to help the less fortunate obtain high-quality, healthy produce. The CSA is a social space, where members grow community ties amongst themselves, and often with the farmer. Downtown Harvest works to foster these connections through farm volunteer days and local get-togethers.

“I have seen new babies born to some of our members,” Connors says. “We had a wine tasting/tapas party and I got to meet a lot of the members and taste their wonderful tapas using some of our produce. I [also] really like the volunteering days. How many people can say they have met the person who grows their food?”

Not many, for now. But at their growth rate, that won’t be the case for long.

OK, Great. But What Do I Do With This?

The CSA is a great way to go seasonal and organic, though it may seem daunting for fridge control freaks or picky eaters. There’s no shortage of easily-identifiable herbs and vegetables: lettuce, tomatoes, string beans, peppers, broccoli, basil, zucchini, summer squash and more, along with root vegetables and winter squash later in the season.

Then there’s the next tier: red and rainbow chard, kale, bitter greens like mustard and specialty varieties of familiars, like striped heirloom tomatoes, Peruvian purple potatoes and gaily colored chioggia beets, swirled magenta and white like a Starlite mint.

Finally, there are the specimen most non-foodies would never think of picking up: garlic scapes, rattlesnake beans, celery root and kohlrabi. These are vegetables we’ve never heard of; vegetables we haven’t the faintest idea how to approach; vegetables that are a little scary looking; vegetables that look like vegetal defense mechanisms.

Here’s where things get interesting, and where the benefits of being part of the group start to pay off. Sure, you could just throw the unfamiliar vegetable into a sauté pan and see what happens, but there’s bound to be another CSA member who knows it, loves it and can give good advice.

Was everything beautiful? No — this is freshly harvested, organic food. There’s dirt; there are bumps and bruises and pits.

Did I manage to eat and love everything I got? Not at all. Sometimes I left things I knew I wouldn’t like for the food pantry or foisted it on my share partner (I split a share with friends). Other times, I was just a poor strategist. (“If you’re going to be in a CSA you must have a plan of attack,” Dell’Orto emphasizes.)

But am I ready for the next season? Bring it on.

Baby Steps

For those not ready to jump into the unpredictable world of CSAs just yet, there are plenty of other ways to get on the path to local, seasonal eating.

Restaurants are increasingly using and touting local ingredients — patronize them and let them know you appreciate their efforts. In warmer weather, Jersey City hosts farmers’ markets across the city from Van Vorst and Hamilton Parks to Newport, Harvest Square in Greenville and the Journal Square and Grove Street PATH stations, many including more than just vegetables. The New York Greenmarkets — Union Square is the biggest — are always a quick PATH ride away. Whole Foods has local items (Farmer John sells to them); just read the signs carefully. Grocery delivery service Fresh Direct is getting in on the act, with local dairy and eggs, Long Island produce and seafood and Hudson Valley fruit; and more and more conventional grocery stores are starting to carry organic produce, some of it local.

For those who are ready, Downtown Harvest’s 2009 season is likely to be full by the time you read this, but there are other options. Catalpa Ridge Farm CSA has drop-offs in Hamilton Park and 4 Hoboken locations. Get on a waiting list for 2010. Find another CSA with an accessible drop-off point in New York or another New Jersey town (you can use Local Harvest to search by zip code). Join a co-op.

CSAs create a connection to the land that many lost long ago, but it also creates connections between people. You’ll find neighbors you may never have met and people of all different ages, backgrounds and interests, all working to help the planet, bring their neighborhood together, and trying to figure out just what to do with all that bok choi.

a lapsed Catholic, lapsed vegetarian and lapsed lawyer, currently working in communications for the nonprofit sector and happily consuming bacon again. A highly experienced eater and Jersey City resident since 2001, she is the founder and editor of Thursday Night Smackdown, a food blog beloved by dozens.