Cathy Chambers’s official title at GrowNYC is manager of intergovernmental affairs and special operational projects—a profuse number of syllables that translate into her handling the contracts and permits needed for Greenmarkets (GrowNYC runs 50 farmers’ markets in the city), gardens, and everything else the environmental nonprofit does. Since joining the organization in 1998, however, Chambers has created another role for herself, working with food pantries to help New Yorkers in need gain access to fresh, local food. Every year, from June through Thanksgiving, Chambers arranges for farmer-donated food to make it from the markets to nearby pantries.
This week, as Chambers amps up her efforts for Thanksgiving celebrations, she took a moment to chat with us about her powerful, behind-the-scenes work.
What Should We Do: Do you have a favorite Greenmarket?
Cathy Chambers: It’s hard to say. I really like one in Fort Greene. And, of course, Bay Ridge [where I first worked].
I do research for any new markets, so I’ve been involved with opening more than half of the markets we have. When I started, we had 22 Greenmarkets. Now there are 50. It’s really, really hard to choose a favorite.
WSWD: What’s the process for opening a new market?
Chambers: Well, people often call the office asking for a market in their neighborhood or near their workplace. Most people don’t understand what goes into a successful farmers’ market, especially in New York City.
We do site evaluations—is there room for trucks to park, tents to be set up, and shoppers to shop?—and customer counts. If a site looks good, the whole team will make a decision. Then I apply for a permit, get all kinds of support letters, go before the community board, talk to the NYPD, and get everyone’s approval. And we have to make sure we can get farmers to come. GrowNYC has stringent rules for farmers. Everything is local and farmers have to produce what they sell. It’s wonderful for the environment and regional communities, but it does take a lot of work.
WSWD: When did GrowNYC first work with food pantries?
Chambers: It was in 1983, when City Harvest started picking up from three or four Greenmarkets. But in the early 2000s, I started getting phone calls from pantries all over saying there were tons of people coming in looking for food. The pantries just couldn’t keep up.
I thought: Why not pair local food pantries to the market that’s in their area? That way, the farmers can see where the food is going, and the people can see where the food is coming from.
This is the blood, sweat, and tears of our Northeast farmers.
WSWD: Were these pantries looking for a specific kind of food?
Chambers: Definitely fresh. It’s so important, because a lot of the other food donated is canned or boxed, with high amounts of sodium and sugar. There was a big push for fresh and local. The pairing makes sense, because that is GrowNYC’s mission. Many pantries wanted to teach people about fresh produce because a large number of their clients want to cook from home.
WSWD: Do you ever encounter people at food pantries or other institutions that don’t know what to do with the produce that is donated?
Chambers: For sure. I’ve learned to send recipes to the markets and ask the pantries, when they come, to take them to their clients.
WSWD: Have there been any pantries that you have had to refuse?
Chambers: Oh, yes. Mostly because they didn’t have proper refrigeration. We can’t have the food go to waste. This is the blood, sweat, and tears of our Northeast farmers. When a pantry isn’t properly equipped to receive Greenmarket donations, I try to help guide them to other places that pick up that can help them store the food. I also try to create new pantries every year. I just created one this year in the Bronx with a West African group.They are picking up from GrowNYC’s Parkchester Greenmarket.
I delivered 100 turkeys one time.
WSWD: What happens to the food if a pantry doesn’t show up?
Chambers: Because of scheduling mix-ups or last-minute problems, there have been times that the pantry didn’t make it to market. Sometimes I just take the food to the pantries myself.
WSWD: Could you guess how many pounds of produce you have personally rescued from markets?
Chambers: Oh, thousands. I delivered 100 turkeys one time. During Hurricane Sandy, two Staten Island high schools became shelters. They had huge kitchens and were doing a lot of cooking, so I was constantly bringing food from the markets.
WSWD: I just have to say: You seem like a fantastic person.
Chambers: Ha! I got an award from the Supportive Housing Network of New York—it works with and helps the homeless in the city. I got the Neighbor of the Year award. I have it on my desk. I’m really proud of it.
WSWD: All this food talk makes a person hungry. Do you have a favorite restaurant in the city?
Chambers: I love pizza. Vesuvio in Bay Ridge is a favorite. It’s so good over there. There’s no pizza like that.