Power Player: Market Value
Marcel Van Ooyen is leading GrowNYC into its next 50 years.
by Noemi Florea portrait by Ryan Liu
FIFTY YEARS AGO, you had to be pretty dedicated to find locally grown produce and craft makers of artisanal foodstuffs in New York City. But in 1970, the same year as our first Earth Day, the first version of GrowNYC organization was born, with the mission of providing New Yorkers the tools to “be the change.” Initially named the Council on the Environment of New York City, what was originally a think tank inspired to push the environmental agenda became a coalition of farmers’ markets spread throughout the five boroughs. Seeking to prove that New Yorkers would want local and healthy food, the first Greenmarket was opened in Union Square in 1976 to crowds who shopped the varieties of locally-grown produce, meats, cheeses, and breads. Today, with Marcel Van Ooyen at the helm, GrowNYC has expanded well beyond lettuces and beets. “Back then, everything you got at the grocery store was on a styrofoam tray, covered with cellophane wrap,” says Van Ooyen. “Or you got three green tomatoes shipped from thousands of miles away, and you were basically told this was what a tomato was supposed to look like.” He continues, “When people saw, smelled, and tasted the product that was available in their own backyard but they didn’t really have access to, I think it changed the landscape when it came to food in New York City.” 44 years later, Union Square Park has become a foodie destination, its Greenmarket surrounded by gourmet groceries and restaurants.
Yet what the Greenmarkets have to offer is much more than another niche grocery store. Van Ooyen’s operations epitomize a sustainable food system that promotes local production, organic practices, and distributional resilience. The organization’s continued support has lowered the regional carbon footprint through reduced transportation emissions, protected animals from endangerment by pesticide, and instituted a food system unthreatened by delays in production from distant lands. The farmers you can find here live and work within 200 miles of the city, which plays a key role in keeping the system resilient. “Every dollar you spend at a Greenmarket translates into an investment upstate, into communities that protect our water and grow our food, and create a sustainable food system.” Shopping directly from farmers also allows you the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about ways to cook the food. “We want consumers to be able to have a conversation with the people who grow their food, and ask them pointed questions and build a relationship.” There is a real sense of community at a Greenmarket, and that is built on the part of us which seeks to enjoy food with others. “It’s part of human nature to want to be around other people and enjoy food with your community, and I think that’s why people are so happy at farmers markets. You’re outside in the fresh air, talking to your neighbors, surrounded by the sights and sounds of all this wonderful food, and you’re going to be able to buy better products and hopefully expand your palette a little.” The engagement increases because of the different events held at Greenmarkets, including cooking demos, scavenger hunts, and foodie tours. There is even a “farmer tan” competition in September where farmers roll up their sleeves and show off their tans.
Sustainability doesn’t stop at saving the environment or supporting local businesses. A key aspect of any sustainable food system is ensuring equal access to healthy food for all. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allows low-income households to purchase Greenmarket food through their EBT cards, while Health Bucks give SNAP users a 40 percent increase in purchasing power by providing two dollar coupons for every five dollars spent with SNAP.
Beyond the markets, GrowNYC also pilots a number of recycling programs, including for food waste and for clothing. Collection is organized in cooperation with the Department of Sanitation, and bins can be found in a number of public and residential buildings, including all New York public schools. Educating children on the importance of recycling is a key aspect of Van Ooyen’s work, and is done in the classroom, at the market, and in the gardens. “Everything we do involves providing all New Yorkers the easy tools to make both the city and the world better.”
FERTILE GROUND Top and Middle: Composting programs are one part of what GrowNYC does. Bottom left and right: A bird’s-eye view of GrowNYC Teaching Garden on Governors Island. GrowNYC Youth Development participants with coordinator David Saphire.
Food, which comprises nearly 21 percent of New York City’s waste stream, is turned into compost to be used in green spaces and local urban farming and gardening projects. (For specifics about what can be composted, visit grownyc.org.) The network of community gardens helps transform the city into a safe and beautiful place to live. Green spaces improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, and provide a sense of community. “For some folks, the gardens are really the only access they have to an open space or the only ability they have to grow food or to relax and enjoy nature.”
Textile donations are divided into a number of different uses: items in good condition may be resold in secondhand stores or overseas, while other pieces may become rag fiber used for industrial parts. These donations help reduce food and clothing waste, which are the largest two contributors to overflowing landfills.
Finally, to support local farmers and make their products more widely available, GrowNYC will break ground this year on the NYS Greenmarket Regional Food Hub, a wholesale distribution center designed to work with supermarkets to encourage the purchase and sale of fresh, local food. “It’s more important that we work with supermarkets to try and help them find ways to support local farmers and participate in the food system that we are trying to create.”
Van Ooyen’s plans for GrowNYC are not limited to the Greenmarkets. “Certainly, the lack of focus on renewable energy is frightening when it comes to climate change, and the necessity to reduce our carbon output.” By acting as a platform for policy initiatives, working as a key player in implementing new ideas and testing innovation, the organization strives to show policymakers the way forward. “We’re a ‘roll up your sleeves, get stuff done, grow a garden in the middle of your backyard’ kind of organization,” says Van Ooyen.
GrowNYC, under Van Ooyen’s leadership, encourages people to make small changes that can pay off in a big way, ultimately creating a new generation of environmental stewards. grownyc.org DT