Q & A with Robert LaValva: A Fresh Perspective on the New York State Council on Food Policy
by Amanda Berhaupt-Glickstein
photo credit: Terese Loeb Kreuzer
On July 18th, Governor Cuomo’s New York State Council on Food Policy (NYSCFP) met for their Annual Summer Meeting at the State University of Albany in Albany, New York (SUNY Albany). Amanda Berhaupt-Glickstein met up with new member of the NYSCFP, and founder of the New Amsterdam Market, Robert LaValva, to get a fresh perspective on the NYSCFP and an update from their annual meeting.
Amanda Berhaupt-Glickstein (ABG): With members from the Food Bank Association, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York State Department of Health, among others, the NYSCFP has the ability to make strides in improving the statewide food system. As the director of New Amsterdam Market in New York City, how did you become involved?
Robert LaValva (RL): State Senator Daniel Squadron has been very supportive of the New Amsterdam Market. He views our mission to preserve and revitalize the Old Fulton Fish Market as an economic and cultural development project both for Lower Manhattan and for the regional farms and food producers our market supports. He recommended me to the NYSCFP and last November, I received an official appointment letter from Governor Cuomo.
ABG: With your experience in developing the New Amsterdam Market, what will you bring to the table as a NYSCFP member?
RL: Our present system produces food that is inexpensive and widely available, but it also depletes natural resources, pollutes the environment, compromises biodiversity, and treats people and animals unjustly. We increasingly realize this system is unsustainable and needs to be reformed, but the challenge is daunting especially given how everything is tied to such powerful industries.
Yet this past generation has seen the emergence of entirely separate, self-sustaining food systems, such as New York’s Greenmarket, which supports hundreds of regional farms and feeds tens of thousands of city residents of all income levels. We should be striving to create constellations of similar, comprehensively scaled food systems. Such food systems can vary widely in scale but the more we create, and the more they overlap, the stronger their impact will become.
As someone deeply involved with building one of these small-scaled food systems, I will bring this experience to the table at the New York State Council on Food Policy. Our unique perspective is that New Amsterdam Market is helping to incubate a new generation of wholesalers, purveyors, distributors, and producers who can provide more sales outlets to regional farms. I look forward to receiving the Council’s input and advice on our efforts as well as to informing them of New York City’s progress in building local food systems.
ABG: Were there any items on the agenda, or otherwise, at the NYSCFP meeting that stood out to you?
RL: Yes, three things in particular:
First - A breakfast was laid out to greet us which included pastries sourced from bakeries from the Albany area. This is not at all typical of such events, so it made me take notice that some effort was being made to engage local small businesses. Conversely, I also saw that the coffee and tea were served with those non-dairy creamers in little plastic capsules, like you get on an airplane. It gave me pause to think that in a state still populated by many dairy farms, the present food system makes it easier to source industrial, artificial milk.
Second - Dr. Mary-Ellen Mallia, Director of Environmental Sustainability at SUNY Albany gave an excellent presentation that highlighted the university’s efforts to convert their food system to local agriculture. It was inspiring, and led me to understand how we were served local breakfast pastries and not local milk – at least, not yet. In fact, SUNY Albany has been able to transition from spending 5% on local purchasing in 2007, to 20% in 2012. It is a step-by-step process in which the dining and catering services contractor, Chartwells, and the university have been successfully collaborating. One impressive example of their success is that they assessed their need for bacon and ham in the cafeterias and now purchase whole hogs on a monthly basis to fulfill the student demand. They purchase their hogs from the wholesaler Purdy and Sons, which promotes and works with small scale, local farms. Dr. Mallia made the point that, “When farmers sell to wholesalers, they can provide more food year round,” meaning they can forecast the type and quantity of food to produce and rely on steady sales. Her presentation emphasized the importance of not only farmers, but also their relationships with wholesalers, purveyors and distributors.
Final - I was inspired when Darrel Aubertine, the New York State Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets and NYSCFP Chair, opened the meeting by stating that “Local agriculture is not a trend; it is here to stay.” He termed the impact of local agriculture as a "3 to 1 multiplier effect," meaning that dollars spent at local businesses are re-spent regionally and therefore have an exponential impact on our local economies. We need to continue hooking regional agriculture back into our way of eating; doing so will help mitigate the harmful impact of chain stores, which are increasingly draining the vitality from our local economies. If we buy more and more from regional farms, and encourage those farms to support locally-owned businesses in their communities, we will set off a domino effect that can help lead us out of the present, broken economy and into a new one that is more resilient and enduring.
ABG: What do you think New York City’s role should be in the NYSCFP?
RL: I think our role should be to explore all options by which New York City can be supporting more regional agriculture; and working with the NYSCFP to facilitate their implementation.
This role is especially relevant because New York City and the surrounding suburbs constitute one of the world’s largest economies, and we are also one of the capitals of the present economic system. This gives us a tremendous advantage in the present global recession-depression; we continue to have resources and the ability to spend them. To me the most important thing we can do right now is to purchase more and more food from our region. New York State might not be able to feed all of New York City by itself; but at the same time, the city can and should be sustaining our region’s agriculture. No local farms should be going out of business; no local farmland should be lying fallow. It’s not about “food miles” – it’s about channeling resources into systems that generate new businesses and new jobs in our region.
The New York City delegation to the NYSCFP should also continue exploring how to make fresh, seasonal ingredients more widely available to people of all incomes. In the present economy, not everyone can afford to eat an all-local diet (though this also depends largely on one’s eating habits); but everyone can and should have access to ingredients that taste best and have the highest nutrition by virtue of their being supremely fresh and therefore sourced as locally as possible. We are fortunate in New York City to have so many organizations already devoted to this effort.
ABG: Do you have any other thoughts about NYSCFP that you would like to leave us with?
RL: Apparently, the Council had not been meeting as frequently this past year, reflecting a period of transition. But that is set to change and the Autumn meeting is already being planned. The Council Members were also all asked to provide input and suggestions for next steps. I find this very exciting because the time for action is now. I think the past thirty years have taught us that it is indeed possible to support local agriculture, even with its present inefficiencies. Again I think of the Greenmarket system and public markets in general, and how they are not at all a trend but a way of life for so many of us. Many challenges remain; but I have also seen tremendous progress since my first involvement with local food systems in 2002. So it’s compelling to think of where we will go from here.
You can learn more about the NYSCFP and the recent meeting at: http://www.nyscfp.org/
Amanda Berhaupt-Glickstein is a FSNYC member, Registered Dietitian, and doctoral student in Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University with a focus on food and nutrition policy.