Gotham Grazer Blog

Classroom Update: What a Year!

As summer quickly approaches, we are thrilled to say that Gotham Grazer's pilot year was a huge success.  

We reached over 275 students within our three schools, and distributed our Earth Day/Every Day Sustainable Food Toolkit to 550 NYC Sustainability Coordinators and educators.

Throughout the year, we hosted seven guest speaker events within the schools, and a number of field trips to innovative green locations throughout NYC, such as Battery Urban Farm, Union Square Greenmarket, and GrowNYC's Project Farmhouse

If that wasn't enough, we've secured over $5,000 in grant funds that will benefit two of our partner schools for the 2017-2018 academic year.

None of this would be possible without our corporate partners, Con Edison and Bareburger - we thank you!

Check out some of our favorite photos from the year below!

Classroom Update: Food Packaging Design Challenge

Our students are tackling real issues in the food industry by designing innovative, sustainable methods for packaging food.

The students have been working in groups for about three weeks, creating prototypes of biodegradable packages for specific food items.  Aside from being biodegradable, the designs need to be strong, long lasting, and able to properly preserve the food items they hold.  Some groups took the challenge a step further, and created packaging that not only holds the food item, but is essential to the aesthetic of the product as a whole. Check out their incredible designs below!

Coincidentally, the New York Times recently published an article entitled, "Packaging Food With Food to Reduce Waste."  The article cites Ecovative (a company that the class actually studied), which is creating packaging from fungal mycelium.  A number of other organizations are running with similar concepts - Biocopac Plus aims to replace BPA with tomato peels; Shrilk combines left over shrimp shells with silk to produce a substitute for plastic wrap, and Ohoo is a liquids container made out of seaweed. 

Although it sometimes seems that we are surrounded by unnecessary plastic packaging - in food, product shipment, etc. - it is reassuring to know that this issue is a high priority for many organizations - and students!

Hope for Declining Honey Bees

Scientists have determined that Varroa mites are a huge danger to honey bees. These parasitic creatures suck the pollinators' blood, transmitting a number of viruses and causing rapid declines in colony health. New research being performed at Washington State University is showing that mushroom spores can actually kill off the mites, before the mites kill off the colony. This video by bioGraphic further explains the threat of the Varroa mite, and how using mushrooms as a natural killer could save millions of honey bees.

Fighting Biology with Biology

Could fungi be the best way for farmers to ward off pests?

A kudzu bug killed by  Beauveria bassiana , seen growing out of the body.  Courtesy of Brian Lovett/University of Maryland Entomology

A kudzu bug killed by Beauveria bassiana, seen growing out of the body.
Courtesy of Brian Lovett/University of Maryland Entomology

Use of fungal pesticides is on the rise, and their popularity may continue to increase over the next few years.  

What are the pros?
Most obviously, fungal pesticides do not affect human, animal or environmental health in the way that synthetic pesticides do.  They can target specific pests, rather than eradicating all biodiversity in an area.  And since they are living organisms, they can evolve with the pest, preventing resistance. 

The cons?
As of right now, fungal pesticides are more expensive than synthetic pesticides, which is an automatic turnoff for farmers.  Their effectiveness can also be altered by environmental conditions, such as humidity and temperature, making them less dependable.

For more details on this topic, check out the original article on NPR.

Classroom Update: Earth Week 2017

Gotham Grazer participated in a number of events this Earth Week!

Earth Day New York 2017
Earth Day Initiative's annual Earth Day New York event was a huge success last Tuesday! Our Gotham Grazer booth was popping with different activities, such as sustainable food trivia and a photo booth. Which trivia question stumped almost everyone?  The statistic that it takes approximately 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.   Facts such as this one sparked the interest of many participants, and had them signing up for copies of our Earth Day / Every Day Food Toolkit to learn how to make their diets more sustainable. 

ACE Assembly
Later in the week, one of our schools got a visit from Alliance for Climate Education, and students learned about how climate change is the most important issue that our society currently faces. The assembly urged students to "DOT," or "Do One Thing," that will help to solve climate change, such as reducing their waste, eating less meat, and speaking out. This interactive assembly is geared towards grabbing the attention of students, and we urge all educators to book an assembly with them, or sign up to receive free classroom materials.

Earth Day 5K Green Tour
A group of Gotham Grazer students joined Earth Day Initiative for our annual 5K Green Tour. The day was filled with great site visits that celebrated green initiatives in NYC and the country; we got tours of Battery Urban Farm and The Solaire - a LEED certified building, and saw the newest green vehicles at the New York International Auto Show.  We also had a yummy lunch from our Gotham Grazer sponsor, Bareburger, and heard about why students and their families should join Earth Day Initiative's Count To 50 campaign.

Classroom Update: "Sustainable Eating NYC" Intensive

One of our partner schools just held their annual "intensive week," where students can attend a three-day, hands-on course of their choice to gain additional credit.  Gotham Grazer put together a special course called "Sustainable Eating NYC," that took students to various sustainable food hubs throughout the city.  Here are some highlights:

Day 1: To kick things off, we watched excerpts from two pivotal movies, Food, Inc. and Cowspiracy, to give students an idea of some of the controversies that exist within our food system. We discussed a variety of topics, from how McDonald's and other fast food companies have influenced the factory farming system, to the large role that agriculture plays in climate change.  After, we headed out to Battery Park to get a feel for how gardens and farms can thrive within NYC.  We did some hands on gardening work in a pollinator garden, and got a tour of Battery Urban Farm

Day 2: A little rain wasn't going to stop us from heading out to Brooklyn!  First, we visited Whole Foods Market Gowanus, home to a Gotham Greens rooftop hydroponic farm.  Students did a scavenger hunt throughout the store, recording A) the different states and countries that produce had come from, B) the varying food labels that they saw (organic, non-GMO, certified humane, grass-fed, cage-free etc.), and C), which of their favorite food items had ingredients that were derived from soy and corn.  We then made our way to the Steinhardt Conservatory at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where students explored the different climates that plants grow in, taking note of how certain food crops must be shipped in from areas that have tropical climates.

Day 3: The last of our three days was jam packed with activities.  We started off the morning doing Gotham Grazer's signature food mapping exercise, where students mapped the different sustainable and unsustainable food resources that are in their own communities.  We then traveled to Union Square, where we had a guided tour of the Greenmarket.  Students were able to talk directly to farmers, learning about each of their specialities and how they got started.  Next, we went to Grow NYC's newly opened sustainability center, Project Farmhouse, and had an amazing cooking demo from Arun Gupta, owner and chef of Maysville.  Students assisted in preparing a dish of roasted purple carrots, fresh apples, candied peanuts, and homemade ricotta cheese.  Arun spoke about how his restaurant buys local produce from farmer's markets whenever possible, and how they adjust their menu each season to match the food that will be sustainably available to them. We ended our day with a celebratory lunch at Hu Kitchen, a sustainable restaurant that meets the needs of many different diets, such as vegan, gluten-free, and paleo.

After three fun-filled (and exhausting) days, students walked away from this intensive with new experiences in the garden and in the kitchen, as well as tactics for making their diet more sustainable!

The Cost of Cover Crops

Are we at the point where we need to incentivize sustainable farming practices?  

Practical Farmers of Iowa

Practical Farmers of Iowa

The state of Maryland has been paying farmers, in some cases up to $90 per acre, to plant cover crops on their fields.  Cover crops (generally grasses and legumes) are grown after main crops have been harvested; they help to prevent erosion and runoff, and replenish nutrients in the soil. Maryland's program has seen much success - cover crops can be found on over 50% of the corn fields in an area called the Eastern Shore. 

In Iowa and Illinois, where no payment program exists, less than 3% of the corn and soybean farms have cover crops.  Environmental planners from both states want to see that number rise to around 60%, in order to reduce nutrient runoff into streams.  

Many farmers don't bother with cover crops because they do not have the time or resources for the extra labor, but advocates of the practice say that farmers inevitably save money because they do not have to buy as much fertilizer.

Check out the full article on N.P.R.

Transforming Bronx Bodegas

Last week, we were able to attend the Just Food Conference, a two-day event that brought together 800 people to collaborate on topics of food justice, healthy eating, and sustainable food initiatives. 

Given that two of our Gotham Grazer schools are located in the Bronx, we made sure to attend a breakout workshop titled "Bronx Bodegas: Healthy Retail in the Bronx.

Bodegas widely outnumber supermarkets in the Bronx, making them a major source of food for low-income families.  However, these food products are normally processed and/or pre-packaged goods with low nutritional values.  During this panel discussion, multiple organizations - Bronx Health Reach (in partnership with the Bodega Association of the United States), BronxWorksUrban Health Plan, and Montefiore Health System - discussed their joint mission of transforming bodegas into sites where affordable, healthy food will be available. Tactics include changing product availability (low-sodium canned vegetables, whole-wheat bread, low-fat milk) and changing visibility (putting water bottles at eye level and moving soda towards the back, displaying fruit at the check-out counter).  The organizations are collaborating with food distributors and suppliers to make the necessary changes, training bodega owners to sustain these changes, and engaging the community through tasting events and youth programming. 

In 2016, the Bronx received a health ranking of 62 out of 62 counties in New York.  With 14,000 bodegas in the entire city, training owners to successfully sell healthy products could be a major turning point in improving the health of the Bronx.

Reevaluating Food Needs for the Future

For years, researchers have been saying that food production will need to double by 2050 in order to meet the needs of the rising population.  

A study recently published in BioScience offers new information that this is likely not the case. After analyzing current projections for food demand and population rise, researchers estimate that only a 25% - 70% increase in food production will be necessary.  Although this is a wide range, it is still much lower than 200%, and can be achieved using rates that are similar to past increases in food production.


According to one of the co-authors of the study, Mitch Hunter, "This additional breathing room may be critical, because our analysis also shows that agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink drastically to safeguard the ecosystems that humans rely on."  For instance, researchers say that by 2050, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by 80% in order to avoid significant global temperature increases.  This dramatic reduction would be nearly impossible if food production were to double within the same time-frame.  With more accurate projections of what global food needs are going to look like, there can be more precise planning for intensifying sustainability goals within agriculture.  For more details on the study, check out the full article on Grist.

How to Effectively Integrate Produce into School Lunches

School lunches might have a variety of fruit and vegetable options, but many factors contribute to whether students will actually eat them.



This article from The Wall Street Journal highlights five ways that schools are working to get students more interested in eating fruits and vegetables:


1. Visibility
Studies show that when fruits and vegetables are placed at the front of the lunch line, students are more likely to put them onto their plate. One study also observed that children who were given carrots as snacks before lunch time - when they were most hungry - were likely to finish all of the carrots.

2. Marketing
Rather than placing fruits and vegetables in large industrial trays, schools are using colorful bowls and unique display techniques to peak interest.  Fun names such as "x-ray carrots" and "turbo tomatoes" are also making a difference.

3. Tracking
This is not necessarily a direct means for improving vegetable intake, but tracking what students are putting onto their trays, and what they are throwing out, is a useful way to see which food items students prefer most.  With the proper adjustments to the menu and the lunch line set-up, tracking can ultimately improve produce consumption and help find solutions for food waste. 

4. Professional Chefs
A study performed by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that partnerships between chefs and cafeterias - both long and short term - showed a 30% increase in produce consumption.  Bringing in a professional chef, especially one who shows students how to make yummy, healthy dishes, can get students to connect to their food in new ways.

5. Classroom Education
Food education needs to expand beyond the cafeteria.  Bringing fruits and vegetables into the classroom allows students to have a hands-on learning experience where they can become acquainted with new food items. Farm field-trips and classroom gardens are other means to get students excited about healthy eating.


Check out the full article to see the different case studies and research that brought about this advice!


Food Label Standardization By 2018

Unclear labels are a huge issue when it comes to food waste. 

We've all thrown out food from our refrigerator that was past it's expiration date.  What most people don't know is that the date on food products is not always telling you when it expires; sometimes, the date is an indicator of when the food will no longer be at its "peak flavor."  As a result, we end up throwing out food that is still perfectly safe to eat.

Advocates have been seeking a more concrete labeling system for years; the differences between "Sell By," "Best If Used By," "Use Before," "Expires On," and the other varying labels are just too subtle.  

As of a few weeks ago, the two largest grocery trade groups, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, landed on two universal labels: "Use By," which indicates when a product is no longer safe to eat, and "Best if Used By," which indicates when a product may no longer be at its peak quality.  Although this new labeling system is voluntary, we hope that most manufacturers will get on board and have these labels widespread by 2018. For more info, check out the original article from The Washington Post.

Classroom Update: Food Habits Through Generations

One of our Gotham Grazer schools is currently watching Food, Inc., the 2008 documentary that examines the American food system.  

Towards the end of each class, students reflect on a number of questions related to the film, one being: How does the way you eat differ from that of your grandparents?  The students had a variety of answers, but the overwhelming theme was that past generations cooked the majority of their meals, and even ate fruits and vegetables from their own farms and gardens.  In comparison, the students said their own meals were usually a combination of takeout food, pre-made or frozen meals, and home-cooked meals.  After sharing these comments aloud, it was clear that the students were a little dismayed by what the food system had become.

In support of this discussion, we found an article that was recently on Food Navigator that connects millenials' food habits with food waste. According to food historian and broadcaster Dr. Polly Russell, older generations generally ate the same meals each week and were keen on leftovers.  Meanwhile, millenials demand choice, change, and variety, which often leads to an excess of unused, "exotic" foods.  The title of the article even suggests that millenials base their meals on what is worthy of being posted on Instagram.

Through all of this sociological analysis, we can see that the rules of supply and demand hold true for food consumers.  Part of our job at Gotham Grazer is to show students how they can skew the food system by purchasing fruits, vegetables, and meat that is produced sustainably and ethically. Our society will likely never return to the minimalistic eating habits that existed in the mid-20th century, and we need to find a way to enjoy the variety that we crave, while still making sustainable choices. 


Spotlight: Jennifer Goggin of Pippin Foods

This past week, we were able to chat with Jennifer Goggin about her company, Pippin Foods, which brings the farmers market experience to local supermarkets.  

Jennifer Goggin, CEO and Founder of Pippin Foods

Jennifer Goggin, CEO and Founder of Pippin Foods

Q: How did Pippin get started?
A: We just launched in December, but I’ve been working on it for about a year now. The drive to create the company came from my own frustration of going into my own grocery store and not seeing any New York State fruit, like peaches or plums in August, or other things that one would expect to find.  It was frustrating for me because I’m a big supporter of local foods; I like to buy from local farms whenever I can, but I can’t always make it to the farmers market since they close before the end of the work day.

I was wondering why I couldn’t get local food through the regular shopping channels; what was the blocker there? That sparked off about eight months of conversations with people in the retail world about why they don’t source more locally - what are the challenges for them, what would help them bring in more food, etc. From those conversations came the idea of Pippin, which provides retailers with a full service local produce program.

A local farmer that provides produce for Pippin Foods

A local farmer that provides produce for Pippin Foods

Q: How many supermarkets are you in?
A: Right now we are still in a pilot phase, but we are in one supermarket in Flushing and one in Hicksville, Long Island.

Q: How does it work?
A: Pippin does everything for the retailers, from finding the farms and vetting them, to arranging the orders and deliveries, and also providing the stores with marketing tools to tell the farm-specific story of where that product is coming from. We don’t do just a generic local tag with no other information.  There is really rich content and stories behind each product on the shelves, including who the farmer is and how they got started, pictures of the farm, a map of where the farm is in relation to the store, and all of the growing methods that the farm uses.  We are going beyond the distinction between organic and not organic, because there’s a lot of shades of sustainable growing methods in there that normally aren't talked about.  And each store has a tablet display right next to the shelf, where the shopper can click through to see all of this information.

Q: And you have an app right? 
A: Yes, the mobile app provides the same data as the in-store tablet, but what I like about the app is that it tells the shoppers before they get into the store which seasonal and local products are on the shelves.  That way you can plan your shopping or your dinner without wondering if the products will be available.  There’s nothing more frustrating than finding a cool recipe, but then you go to the store and the main ingredient isn't there - you have to rearrange your whole plan.

Pippin's tablet display at their Hicksville location.

Pippin's tablet display at their Hicksville location.

Q: Do you think this type of a platform would eventually reduce the number of farmers markets?
A: No, I don’t think so at all. I don't think that people who are going to farmers markets are going to go to their supermarket instead.  I think what it is going to do is expand market opportunities for farms. If they were selling at a farmers market before, now they can also sell through a supermarket and access those customers, who like me, go shopping after work and aren't going to farmers markets either way.  This helps the shopper get local products in whatever way is most convenient for them.

There are also different types of farms that sell at farmers markets versus supermarkets. Farmers markets are great for smaller farms,     but when you start looking at medium to large farms, the economics just don’t make sense for them. And if they were not selling through Pippin, they would likely be selling their products on the commodity market, which does not give them the premium they deserve.




Decoding Animal Welfare Labels

Buying meat and egg products has never been
more confusing.

Although organic certification comes from the USDA, humane certification is a whole other sector.  Turns out, there are multiple non-profits that give out animal welfare certifications, and each has slightly different requirements. For those of you who are thinking, "Don't all organic farms treat their animals kindly?" this is unfortunately not always the case. 

Organic farms have certain humane regulations that they must meet, but the extent to which those regulations are carried out and enforced can often be determined by the farm.  On the flip side, not all farms that are humanely raising meat are certified organic.  If both factors - organic and humane - are important to you, then you need to look out for two separate labels.

A recent article in The New York Times decided to parse out the differences between the top three animal welfare certification organizations (right), as well as point out some of the controversies that exist within this labeling system.  We recommend that you give it a read!

The Dose Makes The Poison

An article in The Washington Post is convincing readers that pesticide residues pose no risk, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

The Environmental Working Group keeps a “Dirty Dozen” list, which identifies the top 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest amount of pesticide residues.  The goal of the list is to educate consumers about what they are putting into their bodies, and to encourage them to purchase organic versions of these crops.  However, according to this article in The Washington Post, the list actually discourages people from buying fruits and vegetables all together.

A study performed by The Illinois Institute of Technology, where 500 low-income Chicago residents were surveyed on their organic/non-organic buying habits, found that upon learning about the “Dirty Dozen” list, consumers were less likely to buy any fruits and vegetables at all, regardless of their status on the list. 

Toxicologist Carl K. Winter says that consumers should not be wary about eating non-organic foods.  According to Winter, the pesticide residues on these fruits and vegetables “pose no risk to consumers,” because “actual exposure levels are typically millions of times lower than those that are of health concern.”  (There are many scientists and professionals that would disagree with this, but for the purposes of this blog post, we will assume that Winter is correct.)

In a nutshell, this article is saying that since there are nearly-zero health effects from pesticide residues, it is not necessary to buy organic produce. That’s worthy information to share with the public, but it ignores an important entity that does face true risks from pesticide usage: the environment.

When conventional farms use pesticides, they are contributing to the pollution of our air and water systems, diminishing biodiversity, and destroying soil health.  On the other hand, organic farms do the opposite - they deter pests without using synthetic chemicals.  This, along with other organic farming practices, can help to cleanse the environment of pollutants, improve biodiversity, and increase soil organic matter.  Organic farms become living ecosystems, whereas conventional farms have one goal: produce, produce, and produce. 

Although this article makes some valid points, it does a disservice to its readers by painting the picture that we shouldn’t bother with buying organic food.  Yes, you can be healthy without eating organic - this is something that we stress to our Gotham Grazer students all the time.  But in order to eat healthy and protect the planet, buying organic food is going to be necessary. 

New "In-Between" Organic Certification

The path to becoming an organic farm is not an easy one.

Aside from the strict regulations that organic farms abide by, there is actually a three-year transition period in which conventional farms must enforce organic practices, but cannot get any of the credit.  Although the demand for organic products is on the rise, many farmers are hesitant to make the switch, because it usually results in a drop in profits during this three-year time frame.  In response, the USDA has approved a proposal for a new transitional label which will make buyers aware of a farm's "almost organic" status.  This will allow farmers to charge their crops somewhere in between organic and non-organic prices, giving them the financial support they need to successfully become organic.  For more on this, check out the original article from NPR.

Bronx Hot Sauce

If you live in NYC, this hot sauce should be in your pantry!

Check out Edible Bronx's interview with King Phojanakong - restaurateur, chef, and creator of Bronx Hot Sauce.  In the interview, Phojanakong discusses what inspired him to become a chef, how he developed his unique hot sauce, and the role that the Bronx community plays in the sauce's creation.  In fact, one of our Gotham Grazer schools harvested their first round of peppers to be used in the sauce this past November!

Classroom Update: Q&A Panel

Our students get some one-on-one time with professionals in the sustainable food sector.

Last week, one of our Gotham Grazer schools hosted a guest speaker Q&A Panel in their Food Science and Culture class.  Our panelists included an urban agriculture design consultant from Blue Planet Consulting and a nutritionist from Community Healthcare Network.  In the days leading up to this event, students researched the panelists and their organizations, preparing a number of questions that would lead the 45-minute discussion.  After the panel concluded, the students had a chance to talk to each of the panelists individually with any follow up questions. As the end of the semester nears, this panel was a great way to tie together many of the topics that were studied since September!