Aug 27, 2014
How To (Maybe) Hack the Food System
On a sunny Wednesday evening along the Gowanus Canal, inside the very confusing series of warehouses known as the Gowanus Industrial Arts Complex, I attended the second of a now-monthly meetup series called “Food Hackers,” hosted by Farmigo, a San Francisco-bred business that, in short, acts as an online farmer’s market by allowing people to order produce online from nearby farms and bring them home from various pickup locations throughout the city. Farmigo made the jump from DUMBO to Gowanus earlier this summer, and has since used their impossibly beautiful and spacious office as the site of “Food Hackers,” in which Brooklynites in the food industry attempt to “hack the food system” through The Moth–like storytelling. In a room like this, however, it is difficult to envision a food system in dire need of being hacked.
Against the sullen march of black sludge and the rumble of F and G trains at the Smith and 9th St stop, Farmigo’s office, once successfully located, is stunning—its high, slanted ceilings are exploited in the most interesting way possible, through multi-level floors with a stage and wooden pillars on which guests can perch, surrounded by pillows. Up the short staircase are four small conference rooms, each decorated in accordance with a different season. And all around are plants and Christmas lights, creating the illusion that you’re in a somehow bug-free bar backyard (Brooklyn Brewery supplied beverages for the event, while food was brought in from Farmigo farms, so it isn’t an entirely off-base assessment).
Food Hackers, organized through Meetup.com by Farmigo founder and CEO Benzi Ronen and Andrea Luxenberg, asks food industry players to share stories that relate to a certain theme. This week’s was “In the Weeds,” where five entrepreneurs were asked to tell the story about a time that made them realize they had built something from nothing. On the bill were Viraj Puri, co-founder of Gotham Greens, which builds greenhouses on New York City rooftops; Jorge Salamea, former Operations Director at Seersucker, who also helped open Nightingale 9; Nicole Chaszar, CEO of The Splendid Spoon, a vegan and gluten-free “microsoupery;” Scott Bridi, owner of the charcuterie company Brooklyn Cured; and Sean Dimin, co-founder of Sea to Table, which sources seafood from local fisherman and delivers them directly to chefs. Collectively, they discussed things like the most important meeting of their careers which also happened to coincide with their baby’s due date, that time a single dish-washer didn’t show up and nearly caused the restaurant to lose out on an 85-seat dinner service, and (almost) being forced to hunt bears by an Alaskan fishing tribe in order to earn their respect.
It quickly becomes impossible to separate the ideas being tossed around the room from the people actually in it. Everyone here likely already belongs to a neighborhood co-op, or grows tomatoes on their fire escapes (or, if not, at least they look like they do). But this is Brooklyn, and Farmigo has its sights set far beyond the borough. Instead of replacing traditional urban farmer’s markets like the ones that dot Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Fort Greene, Farmigo seeks to replace the suburban supermarket, creating farm-to-table communities where they might not already exist.
Since launching in both San Francisco and New York in 2012, Farmigo has built over a hundred of such communities, located at volunteers’ apartments or businesses, where users can pick up their food within 48 hours of harvest. Products include everything you’d find at a local farmer’s market—produce, meats, seafood, dairy, grains, pantry items—with only one difference: there’s no waste. Thanks to the online order service where users can shop for anything that’s in season, contributing farmers know in advance exactly how much of each item to produce.
The next question is the most obvious one, the one that’s always (and always should be) asked whenever an important, yet often underpaid portion of the population (like, say, artists, or in this case, farmers) are involved in an equation: How does it benefit the people who are actually, you know, creating this stuff? Farmigo reportedly pays its farmers 80 cents on the dollar, which, compared to an average supermarket’s fee of just 20 cents on the dollar, seems like a pretty good deal. For now, the New York–area farmers working with the service are Gotham Greens, Brooklyn Cured, Phillips Farms, Kernan Farms, Windy Ridge Farm, Alewife Farm and Chaseholm Farm Creamery, as well as a few others.
Naturally, the good deal for farmers must come from somewhere, and this is where Farmigo’s core paradox reveals itself. Farmigo’s food is more expensive than that of the average farmer’s market—a quick search on the site reveals that strawberries run $8 per quart, cilantro is $5 for four ounces, loaves of bread are around $5, and a whole chicken is $20. These prices, while perhaps not outrageous prices for the urban foodie [Ed. note: These prices are outrageous for this urban foodie], render the service completely unrealistic for the average grocery shopper, the kind that doesn’t already belong to a CSA, which is to say, the exact market it’s attempting to serve, as long as its goals include trying to replace the suburban supermarket.
Via email, I asked Farmigo CEO Benzi Ronen what the company was trying to “hack” about the food system. His response was to paint a picture that was, undoubtedly, a lovely thing to imagine: “For our great-grandparents, buying groceries was a different experience—meat came from the butcher, milk from the dairy, and everything else from local markets. They trusted their food producers, and those producers knew them. When that system grew to be too expensive, the modern supermarket was born. Profit became more important than people. Today, we have a historic opportunity to build a new American food model, one that efficiently uses technology to let people buy quality food from local producers, at a cost that’s affordable for most Americans.” It’s in that last part where, for now, anyhow, Farmigo fails.
Farmigo may pay its farmers a higher dividend than the average supermarket, and it may reduce the waste they produce, as opposed to the unsold products at neighborhood farmer’s markets. But what this impossibly beautiful loft filled with educated, earnest Brooklynites, who truly seem to care so much about food and our access to it, lacks, is the awareness that for the majority of shoppers who perhaps can’t afford an $8 jar of raspberry jam (regardless of the fact that we know it came from Beth’s Farm Kitchen in the Hudson Valley), Farmigo and Food Hackers are changing very little about the way we purchase our food.
Still, most of Farmigo’s decisions are made in the name of service of the greater community, a big buzzword for the brand. “Farmigo is building a new movement founded on groups of neighbors ordering individually and picking up together, as a community,” Ronen said over email. “It’s about bringing joy to those who savor their food and care where it comes from. It’s about a mindful connection—connecting farmers to neighbors, neighbors to each other, and everyone to a better way to eat.”
The next Food Hackers meet-up is open to the public with RSVP and will take place at Farmigo, 56 9th St, Gowanus on Tuesday, September 16 with the theme, “Bittersweet.” Details and speakers are still TBD, but for more information, check the website.
Follow Rebecca Jennings on Twitter @rebexxxxa.
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