Friday, June 18, 2010

Organic Movement Grows in Ozone Park by Lisa Fogarty - Queens Chronicle

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By now, Americans have become so familiar with terms like“genetically modified foods” and “frankenfoods” that, for some, a trip to the grocery store is about as pleasurable as warfare.

The mindful consumer has to moonlight as a health agent, scrutinizing stickers and labels, weighing options like whether to pay more money for a vegetable grown at a local farm versus one that traveled to the city from thousands of miles away. And in many parts of south Queens, the luxury of buying locally grown produce, meats and dairy remains a pipe dream.

But a group of women from Ozone Park is working to offer residents a fresh food alternative by forming a Community Supported Agriculture group in the neighborhood. CSA, a 20-year-old national movement that has become popular in some sections of Queens like Long Island City, seeks to bridge the gap between local farmers and the community. Consumers purchase a share, or “membership,” and in return get a box, bag or basket of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

“There really is nothing like this in south Queens,” said Angel Thompson, who along with organizers Elena Ruano Kanidinc and Michele Elizee is working to promote CSA. “There are few convenient organic offerings in this neighborhood. A lot of people I’ve talked to here don’t know what CSA is, but once the concept is explained it makes sense — it’s fresh fruits and vegetables.”

CSA’s shared risks and rewards system involves consumers paying farmers a lump sum prior to the growing season so they can make an initial investment in necessities like equipment and fertilizer. In CSA Ozone Park’s case, their partner is Norwich Meadow’s Farm near upstate Binghamton, an organic operation that raises plants and animals without synthetic and chemical pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and growth hormones.

Up to 45 percent of corn, 85 percent of soybeans and between 70 and 75 percent of processed foods in grocery stores is genetically engineered, according to the Center for Food Safety. Studies have linked genetically modified foods to higher risks of cancer, toxicity and allergenicity, as well as environmental threats like plant and animal extinction, the organization says.

“Most of our food travels thousands of miles, so it has to be harvested before it naturally ripens and treated to prevent spoilage,” Ruano Kanidinc said. “Locally grown food is better for the consumer because it’s fresher and for the environment because it travels less.”

Each week, participants get a harvest of in-season produce, but are also at the mercy of agricultural factors like the weather. For instance, when last year’s tomato crop took a hit, farmers compensated by sending more corn and spring greens, Thompson said.

It helps to be flexible and willing to experiment when, say, your basket comes back brimming with a vegetable you’ve never seen or cooked in your life. But the deciding factor in whether to join a CSA group for most people is usually a financial one, Thompson said.

The cost to join CSA’s Ozone Park branch is $15 per week for an individual share, which feeds up to three people and includes between five to eight items such as lettuce, baby and cooking greens, garlic, leeks, onions, melons, herbs, root vegetables, eggplants and tomatoes. A family share, which feeds between three and five people, is double the quantity for $30 a week.

Fruits and eggs are also available as weekly or bi-weekly shares for an additional $12 per week for weekly fruit and $8 per week for eggs. The season spans 20 to 22 weeks from June through November. In the long run, the cost-savings to join CSA groups are impressive, but the upfront payment can be a challenge.

“Where we are in Ozone Park is a very working-class, mixed neighborhood,” Thompson said. “People don’t necessarily have the initial investment to make. We can go on about the positives, but at the end of the day it’s what you have access to and what you have money for.”

In response to the community’s anticipated need, CSA’s organizers are offering members a savings payment plan for next year. From January until July, consumers can pay CSA fees in monthly installments, thereby eliminating the “hit” that would be felt from putting down a lump sum. Members can then count on free produce for the entire growing season.

“Norwich Meadows’ produce is just amazing,” Ruano Kanidinc said. “Michele and I sampled a bunch of spring greens, and they’re the freshest and tastiest veggies we ever had. We can’t wait for the season to start.”

Membership is open to anyone in south Queens, including residents in Howard Beach, Richmond Hill, Woodhaven and Jamaica. For more information, call (718) 323-0793, email or visit the group’s Facebook page under the name “O Park Csa.”