Meet & Eat: Jacquie Berger, Just Food

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

Food. We eat it every day, and most of us here at Serious Eats think about it more than the average New Yorker. But Jacquie Berger doesn't just track down food that tastes good—she's finding the best local, sustainable food and making sure it's available to all New Yorkers. In her role as the Executive Director of Just Food, Jacquie is helping us to enjoy our local bounty and keep it going strong.

20091215Jacquie 001.jpgName: Jacquie Berger
Location: Manhattan
Occupation: Executive Director, Just Food

Just Food is about so much more than, well, just food. What's the mission of the organization and how did it get started? Our mission is to unite local farms and city residents of all economic backgrounds with fresh, seasonal, sustainably grown food. We were founded in the mid-'90s to address to big problems—rampant food insecurity here in the city, the rapid loss of farmers and farmland in the rural and suburban areas around New York. Our job is to support those farmers, as well as the farmers here in the city, and by doing so increase food security and access to good food for all New Yorkers.

One of your key programs is running the city's CSAs. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, describe CSAs and their benefits. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) allows city residents to make a direct connection to a local, organic farm and to gain access to the freshest, most delicious produce.

When you become a member of a CSA, you're purchasing a "share" of vegetables from a regional farmer. (Many CSAs also offer fruits, eggs, meat, dairy, and other farm products.) Weekly or bi-weekly, from June until October or November, your farmer will deliver that share of produce to a convenient drop-off location in your neighborhood.

CSA members pay for an entire season of produce upfront (typically $400-$600). This early bulk payment enables your farmer to plan for the season, purchase new seed, make equipment repairs, and pay to bring on farm staff long before the first crop is harvested. Visit our website to find one in your neighborhood.

What are some of the other programs you run? In addition to CSA in New York, we run a City Farms Program to support community gardeners and help them increase the amount of food that is grown and made available in underserved NYC neighborhoods. We've also helped to launch a network of eleven urban agriculture-based City Farms Markets and started a City Chicken Project to help New Yorkers to get started raising chickens for eggs in community gardens and backyards across the city.

We also run a Community Food Education Program we train Community Chefs to go out and lead cooking demos at CSA, food pantries, WIC Centers and farmers markets. We've found it's tremendously important to provide tools to people who want to eat fresh, in-season produce, but never really learned how to cook. Cooking is so easy, but when your only exposure to cooking has been watching TV shows like Top Chef, it's easy to feel more intimidated in the kitchen than empowered. Our Community Chefs are from the neighborhoods they teach in, they know how to engage people in a conversation about food, they're cooking on little butane burners—so they show you that you don't need all that fancy equipment. They know how to make it easy, delicious, and fun.

Our Fresh Food For All Program connects local farmers with Emergency Food Providers—last year this program delivered more than 160,000 pounds of food to 38 food pantries and soup kitchens located in all five boroughs. We feel proud to be helping some of our city's most malnourished residents gain access to really high quality produce, and to be supporting local, family farms at the same time.

Finally, we have a Food Justice Program that approaches all these issues from the policy and advocacy side. Since policy is in large part responsible for shaping our country's broken food system, it's vital that we, as New Yorkers and as Americans, engage in the policy dialog so that we can work together to build a system that does more to meet the needs of both farmers and consumers.

You recently co-hosted NYC's Food and Climate Summit—what took place there and how will it have an impact on New York's food going forward? It was tremendous! It brought together around 1,000 participants to learn about the connections between food and climate change, learn to live and eat a more low-carbon lifestyle, and engage in an active policy discussion to talk about what challenges we face and how we can reduce our Foodprint as a City. The initiatives identified on Saturday will help to shape Just Food's campaigns and priorities moving forward.

What other events do you host on a regular basis? We run an annual CSA Conference for CSA organizers, farmers and members, which will be coming up early this spring. The conference is a great place to learn both practical CSA management skills, and about the broader issues facing farmers and the food system - it's really gotten bigger and better every year and we're already looking forward to the next one.

On the more celebratory side of things, we host an annual benefit called Let Us Eat Local every September. It's delicious. 20-30 of the city's best chefs and restaurants prepare locally sourced dishes, paired up with local wine, beer and spirits. The chefs are there, the producers and farmers are there. It's hard not to get inspired by the positive changes taking place locally. We host an awards ceremony that celebrates our local food heroes, (this past honorees included Brian Halweil, urban farmer Karen Washington, and CSA farmers Jody Bolluyt and Jean-Paul Courtens) so it's really a celebration of our movement's champions as well. We'll post our save-the-date soon, so stay tuned...

What's the best way for Serious Eaters to get involved in Just Food's work?Join a CSA or community garden. Apply to be a Community Chef, or to take our Advocacy Training Program; host a harvest dinner. Also, it's December, so think of Just Food when you're planning charitable giving—$100 helps us train 20 people; 20 people can grow hundreds of pounds of food; so really, a little goes a long way!

What are some of your favorite foods, farmers or purveyors you've learned about through your work? I can't play favorites, but I do belong to the Clinton Hill CSA, and I love my farmers Ted and Jan Blomgren at Windflower Farm. I'm also always happy when I have Tello's Green Farm eggs in the fridge—Nestor Tello, in Red Hook, went through the New Farmer Development Project, sells at the Greenmarket, and gave us a lot of help when we were getting the City Chicken Project going. I know he loves his hens and that just makes me happy. And if you really want to eat fresh, shop at the City Farms Markets. They grow it—they know it!

What are your favorite local hangouts or places you might be considered a regular? If I'm a regular anywhere, it could only be Jimmy's No. 43 . Jimmy is such a tremendous supporter of the grassroots local food movement, he's hosted all kinds of events for us—from harvest dinners to honey-swaps—and he's there whenever we've asked. Plus I'm absolutely addicted to his shishito peppers.

What's your guilty pleasure? CocoaVino's drunken figs, Liddabit Sweets beer pretzel caramels, good coffee and good chocolate in general. "Guilty" because they'll never be local—well, not anytime soon anyway.