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Brusco from Red Hook Winery at 61 Local.

In Brooklyn, “local” has become a common food buzzword, but what does it actually mean? Why is it important? At a panel Monday night hosted by the Brooklyn Bridge CSA at 61 Local, five panelists with different relationships to the food system talked it out, hitting on a few key points and some major challenges.

The panel was moderated by Brooklyn Bridge CSA core group member Sasha Feldstein, who explained that their CSA was conceived as a food justice CSA (they place particular focus on access to good food, workers’ rights, and climate change.) Other panelists included Christopher Nicolson from Red Hook Winery, former farmer (and current 61 Local employee) Jeff Hutchinson, 61 Local’s General Manager Christopher Munsey, and Marina Berger, a personal chef and Brooklyn Bridge CSA core group member.

Christopher Munsey and Marina Berger were two of the panelists

Christopher Munsey of 61 Local and Marina Berger of Brooklyn Bridge CSA delve into the meaning of 'Local'

So, what is “local”? The group seemed to loosely agree on a 250 mile border around New York City, but it was much easier for them to talk about “local” as a set of concepts. “Local” means supporting your regional economy, fostering community within the food system, having relationships with (and responsibilities to) the people who grow our food.

Hutchinson spoke about the process of adjusting to the food system in New York after growing up in San Francisco, but said that his involvement with local food has been key to settling in.

“Local has become a point of learning what Brooklyn is,” Hutchinson said.

Berger said that for her, “Local is really about accountability and wholesomeness.” She talked about trying to encourage her Upper East Side clients to eat with the seasons, saying that when they demand strawberries in January it “breaks my heart.” Since she primarily shops for clients at Whole Foods, she’s had to do some asking around to learn more about where those groceries come from, but she said it’s worth it. “I see myself as an advocate for my clients when I’m shopping for them,” she explained.

As a local food producer, Nicolson talked about the challenges of getting locally picked grapes from the North Fork of Long Island to their winery in Red Hook as quickly as possible to ensure quality. He also spoke to the work they’re putting into learning about what makes New York wines unique. “97% of our effort has been focused on trying to learn something about the North Fork,” he said, since we don’t know nearly as much about newer wine regions as we do about those in the Old World. Interestingly, Nicolson said that one thing that seems to unite North Fork wines is a saline quality.

Two concerns were raised by the panel and the audience, the primary one being access. As much as one might wish it weren’t true, local food is generally expensive enough to be inaccessible to large numbers of New Yorkers. Unsurprisingly, no one had an easy solution, but programs like Health Bucks, which doubles the value of food stamps when used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, are ways access can be improved. Feldstein also mentioned that her CSA helped raise $1500 that went toward increasing the number of subsidized shares for the South Bronx CSA.

The second concern was raised by Munsey: “organic” is such a marketing term these days that no one really knows if it’s a meaningful distinction, and there is a danger that “local” is on a similar path. Feldstein mentioned that everything in Brooklyn seems to have the word “local” attached to it in some way, but Munsey argued that, at least for now, it seems that the trendiness of local hasn’t corrupted its meaning, and it has gotten more people interested in what local means and why it’s important.

The evening ended at the bar, where attendees enjoyed flights of local wine and beer, as well as some specially prepared menu items made with Brooklyn Bridge CSA produce. One thing everyone agreed upon: local in New York is decidedly delicious.

For more events at 61 Local, including a chocolate tasting tonight and an ice cream and beer extravaganza on Saturday the 13th, check out 61 Local’s calendar. For more food justice events, stay in touch with the Brooklyn Bridge CSA.

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