Epicureans in Action
There’s fill-your-stomach food and then there’s mind-, soul- and heart-expanding food. Is it possible to give everyone, regardless of their financial resources, access to not just any food, but good stuff that will nourish their beings as well as their bodies?
“Access to fresh food and green space are basic quality of life issues,” says Amy Klein, executive director of Capital Roots, located on River Street in Troy, in a brief moment of repose in her sun-filled, busy office. “I’ll never forget talking to a man who said he hated fresh corn, only to find out that the only ear of corn he had ever eaten had been sitting in a food pantry for weeks before he ate it. It was probably no better than cow feed at that point. That’s not fair. That’s not equity.”
Financial and social inequality arise from a number of complex factors, but even so, judging from Klein’s work at Capital Roots, it is possible to resolve some of the multi-faceted issues that result from inequity in simple and straightforward ways.
For epicureans who are blessed with robust financial resources, the current moment is an exciting and delicious time. The Capital Region is chockablock with gourmet restaurants, wine bars and specialty purveyors of everything from obscure British potato chips (Prawn Crisps at Brits R Us!) to offbeat sausage (pinkelwurst at Rolf ’s Pork Store!).
But can epicureanism, in its truest sense, exist alongside the surprisingly deep pockets of poverty that stubbornly subsist in the Capital Region’s cities? Epicureanism is the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, the ultimate definition of pleasure being freedom from anxiety and mental pain. Sadly, epicureanism is often conflated with hedonism and self-indulgent excess.
Multi-course menus at celebrated, gourmet restaurants climb into the hundreds of dollars—before wine, tax and gratuity. Whole Foods, often dubbed Whole Paycheck, has become synonymous with high-quality, ethically produced food that only rich people can afford. In our current culinary landscape, it seems quality and costs are inextricably connected. And while McDonald’s recently decided to limit use of antibiotics in its chicken, folks on a limited budget can generally only afford fare loaded with artificial ingredients, pesticides and other toxins that anyone with another option would avoid.
If receiving equal access to good food is a stumbling block for the urban poor, then finding a patch of green space in the asphalt jungle is Mt. Everest. Regardless of the countless academic studies linking horticulture to better cognitive, physical and psycho-social functioning, who would allocate the time or funds to purchase a pretty shrub or two when they aren’t even sure where their next meal is coming from?
And unfortunately, the prevalence of poverty in cities is a real and pervasive problem in the Capital Region. According to the most recent numbers available from the United Way, 11.3% of the population, or 96,690 people, are defined as food insecure. Compounding the issue is the region’s status as a food desert, which is defined by the USDA as a region that is low-income and has limited access to a supermarket or large grocer. In Schenectady County alone, 53.9% of the population is considered low-income and 10% has limited access to healthy foods.
Considerable logistical and philosophical impediments aside, local food and green space are having—to borrow a phrase from the red carpet—“a moment.”
Cool kids (every hipster worth his salt has a food blog) and celebrities (Blake Lively and Gwyneth Paltrow are probably the most prominent Hollywood foodies with a side biz pushing delicious but pricey food on the masses) are hopping on the locavore, organic, quality food bandwagon, which is good and bad for epicureans.
Pro: Finding a vegan gluten-free muffin in any suburban strip mall is as easy as cake and even big food companies, like Hershey’s, are making a concerted effort to offer more sustainable, responsibly produced food for the average American.
Con: The sustainable, responsibly produced, affordable fresh food is still just a drop in the junk-food bucket typically allocated to the average member of the Capital Region urban working poor. There are few large, affordable grocery markets in the cities here. The food that is available is generally processed, packaged and sold at corner stores and delis.
“Most of our constituents don’t have transportation,” Klein says. “They may be single parents using two buses to get to work and childcare. How are they supposed to fit grocery shopping in, especially when there isn’t a big market they can walk to in their neighborhood? And they’re expected to go home and cook a hearty, wholesome meal for themselves and their children—with what?”
Capital Roots has been quietly trying to provide short, simple answers to these multi-faceted questions for three decades. Founded in 1975 as an offshoot of Garden Way, Capital Roots started humbly as a service project with a handful of community gardens in Troy. Dean Leith, founder of Capital Roots and former CEO of Garden Way, is still involved as chairman of the nonprofit’s honorary board of directors.
You still won’t find any Michelin (or movie) stars at Capital Roots. But you will find a grassroots movement that has outgrown its little garden plot. When Klein was hired in 1996, the operating budget was roughly $60,000, and Capital Roots focused primarily on building community gardens and providing urban greenery in Albany, Cohoes, Rensselaer and Troy counties.
Now, with 11 highly successful, impactful programs that nourish 300,000 people with 1 million tons of organic produce per year, a $1.4 million operating budget and a $2.8 million rehabilitation project (80% of which is funded) currently under way, Capital Roots has evolved into a world-class nonprofit.
In December 2014, Capital Roots moved into its newly renovated space (a.k.a. the $2.8 million rehabilitation project). From the outside, with its high windows, brick exterior and bright silver silo parked out front, it looks like a fancy Manhattan loft and a Hudson Valley farm had some sort of high-tech bucolic baby. But with millions of dollars at its command and its staff bearing a high ratio of spectacles, ironic T-shirts, complicated-looking hair-dos and gigantic grins, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to mistake it for a successful app company with a lot of produce lying around.
Instead of the nap-pods, gourmet kitchens and in-office rechargeable electric cars usually associated with the tech good life, though, Capital Roots has a library of gardening books, gourmet kitchens and two Veggie Mobiles.
Klein and her team have been aggressively, but carefully, growing the Capital Roots program, appealing to individuals, businesses, insurers and hospitals who have sponsored its programs in recognition of the fact that healthier residents mean lower hospital bills, happier workers, better test scores in schools and safer communities.
In 2013, the organization secured the location and necessary fiscal support to build out Phase I of its current hub, dubbed the Urban Grow Center. At 594 River St., it is easily accessible from Route 787 (great for farms dropping off produce and for sending deliveries out to the community) and Troy’s major north / south bus line, for its constituents who want to utilize the Hub. Capital Roots also owns adjacent plots, on which it will eventually build a hydroponic greenhouse for year-round growing and a new commercial kitchen and education building that will also serve as an incubator for nascent food-based businesses. These Phase II projects will cost roughly $3.5 million, Klein estimates.
The building’s layout and design is an apt analogy for the organization itself. Outside the front door is a water re-use silo. Bearing the organization’s logo, it is part of Capital Roots’ green tech plan that is projected to save 300,000 gallons of runoff every year. A small waterfall and sprawling mural in the first room greet visitors walking up the wheelchair-friendly access ramp. Inside the front door sits a Produce Market that sells surprisingly affordable local organic produce and dairy supplemented by other fresh food essentials that can’t be grown here, like citrus. Like limbs, the rest of the building welcomes visitors and the organization’s constituents with open arms, with the garden room Grow Center, a Produce Hub equipped with two walk-in coolers, loading bays and room to maneuver and store pallets of produce. The structure also includes volunteer and intern centers and light-filled staff offices.
The look is ineffably post-industrial-shabby-chic, the spirit is jovial, the vibe is laid-back, but the results are undeniable and clearly quantifiable.
“Food is an equalizer,” Klein says. “We came to realize that not everyone is going to want to or be able to garden, so we had to be more than just a gardening group if we wanted to give everyone in the region access to fresh food. We have found that once people are confident of reliable access to fresh food, they can focus on other aspects of their family, life and education.”
Capital Roots touches every conceivable aspect of urban life involving food and green space. Each year, 11 tons of fresh foods are donated to food pantries and shelters. The Veggie Mobile and Veggie Sprout deliver produce to senior housing centers, major intersections and public housing centers, as well as to downtown corner stores and delis. The Produce Market and resource rooms are open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, providing access to fresh food for anyone with an appetite for nourishment regardless of their income. Additionally, Capital Roots plants thousands of trees in urban spaces and sponsors 50 community gardens, with each plot growing about $1,500 worth of produce every year.
Capital Roots is epicureanism in action, providing constituents with the intellectual and financial freedom to look beyond their plate at the world outside. The organization publishes its financial report annually, so donors can know that they’re funding real programs, not cushy salaries and aerodynamic office chairs.
One lucky recipient of Capital Roots’ constriction-busting largesse is Jose Candelario, of Troy. Until a few years ago, Candelario was a burly construction worker who clocked 18-hour days working on gas lines. Unfortunately a virus weakened his heart, forcing him into early retirement and an unwelcome dependence on Social Security funds.
“I went from a Hercules type of guy to not being able to lift my newborn son,” Candelario says. “It was horrible. I became completely depressed and I couldn’t see a way out. I sat in my room in my apartment all day, day in, day out. My mother suggested I join her in her garden plot and man, it changed my life.”
Four years later, he has a garden plot of his own in Corliss Park, where he grows “humongous zucchinis, 10-foot-tall corn, 10 types of tomatoes, five types of peppers, eggplant, collard greens, long-leaf lettuce, okra, enough to last me and my family—and our friends— through the summer, fall and winter. Then in spring we plant again,” he says.
“All for free!” he adds gleefully. “But that’s not even it. It gave me back my life. I can go in there and slow my brain and negative thoughts down and just watch plants growing, appreciate the beauty and miracle of life again so I can accept certain other things in my life.”
He says his sons, now 9 and 4, help him in the garden too.
“It runs in my family,” he says. “My father was a botanist and we all love to create, watch things grow and develop. I want my sons to have careers where they don’t have to necessarily fix things all the time—they can hire people to do that. But I like to show them how anyway, because they should know. Working together in the garden has given me countless opportunities to teach them practical, useful skills that will help them, no matter what they decide to do, you know?”
DIGGING DEEP AT CAPITAL ROOTS
• 25 full-time staffers at Capital Roots
• 100s of volunteers
• 400 square feet: average size of plot in community gardens
• 50: number of community gardens in Troy, Albany and Schenectady
• 40,000: number of people in Troy, Albany and Schenectady growing their own food in gardens
• $1,500: average value of produce grown on each plot
• 157.5: tons of organic produce harvested in the gardens
• 46: number of locations the Veggie Mobile and Veggie Sprout go to in Troy, Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady
• 55,000: residents the Veggie Mobile and Sprout deliver to
• 268: tons of fresh produce sold out of the Mobile & Sprout
• 11: number of food and urban greening programs
• 300,000: number of people benefiting from all programs
• 48,000: pounds of fresh produce destined for the dump rescued and distributed to soup kitchens
• 45: number of soup kitchens participating in Capital Roots programs
• 1975: year Capital Roots was founded
• 300,000: gallons of runoff that will be reduced every year by using green technologies in the Grow Center
• 1 million: pounds of produce to be grown and/or processed at Center and distributed across region
• 10%: increase in value for surrounding properties after Urban Grow Center was built
WANT TO HELP?
Here are a few ideas from the Capital Roots’ Wish List
Folding carts for Squash Hunger pickups • Gas lawnmowers and rototillers (in working condition) • Rain jackets • Garden carts and wheelbarrows • Computer monitors (flat screen) • Plastic storage bins with lids • Plastic bread bins • Extension ladder • Dependable working pickup truck