We need more robust interactive information systems to grease the wheels of the Hudson Valley food system.
Distribution outlets should be made to serve both retail and wholesale customers more effectively.
We need more storytelling about why eaters should buy local produce from trusted producers rather than large-scale-produced organic.
More needs to be done to make locally produced meat affordable.
Changing eating habits requires highly creative, nonjudgemental, and nurturing approaches.
TALKING WITH Noah Sheetz of
the Chefs’ Consortium
Contributor: Susan Arterian Chang
An El Paso, Texas native, Noah settled in the Hudson Valley to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Over the course of his career, he has worked in fine dining restaurants, owned a bakery, taught courses in culinary arts, and served as the Executive Chef at the Governor’s Mansion in Albany through four administrations. Currently Noah is a contract chef for the Office of Children and Family Services where he works with cook supervisors at seven youth detention centers throughout New York State on menu development, educational programs, and sourcing local ingredients.
As founder and farm-to-table coordinator for Chefs' Consortium Noah creates partnerships with non-profit organizations and regional chefs, actively recruits new chefs for the Consortium, and facilitates the procurement of local ingredients for educational events. He travels throughout New York City, the Hudson Valley, and the Capital region building relationships with area farmers in his mission to support local agriculture and to highlight the many benefits of eating locally.
NOAH'S DISTRIBUTION SOLUTIONS WISH LIST:
1. Access to better and more interactive online information about how to source local produce.
The databases I would want to see I don’t think anyone has really mastered yet. You can get on the Hudson Valley Bounty website and look for, say, plums or dandelion greens and it returns some information about who is growing that, their contact info, phone number, and email address. We need something more comprehensive and more efficient. Say I am looking for Swiss chard, this ideal database would give information about who farms it, how they pack the product—24 heads to a case? Is it rainbow? Is it washed? It would give you ideas about how to order, where to pick up, who do they distribute through, are they available at Whole Foods, etc. It would allow you to order directly or tell you what farmers market the farmer was at on a weekly basis. It would tell you how you could place a wholesale order to pick up at those markets
2. More integration and collaboration among small, independent distributors.
I wish there were a way for the smaller distributors to work with each other better, to hand things off like a relay race, assuming that working with their competition in this way wouldn’t affect their bottom line. It could actually be mutually beneficial where you are not losing out on sales by dealing with your competitor but you have something to gain because you have overlapping areas of distribution of different products. So if two local distributors service the same place couldn’t they connect, and if that is the case couldn’t there then be a spider web where theoretically you get products through a network of distributors working together?
3. Utilize the Taste NY Stores (there are 70 locations!) as wholesale drop-off sites or create other drop off sites.
A lot of times we as chefs are trying to get ingredients or produce from one place to another and we end up driving all the way up to a farm. What if there were a locked cooler similar to a clothes drop off? Or the TasteNY Stores could provide facilities for wholesale drop offs. The people supplying the stores for retail could also do wholesale drop offs where a chef could pick up. If there were more solutions like that for chefs it would be great so the chef didn’t have to go all the way up to a farm.
4. Create an organized system of farmers distributing to chefs at the farmers markets they serve.
I spend a lot of time driving to farms to pick up something I really want. Meanwhile people are shopping retail for their one pound of mescal greens at the farmers markets, why couldn’t chefs call in and say I need 20 chickens and 3 quail and that order would be set aside, the same thing with produce? I know there are people doing it on an ad hoc basis but it is not organized.
In talking about his challenge as a chef consultant to a New York State agency, Noah notes that he is often constrained in his ability to develop long-term relationships with the most reliable distributors of local produce.
In his current position as contract chef to the NYS Office of Children and Family Services Noah oversees the food service providers and creates the menus for 13 locations across New York State serving just under 500 incarcerated youth. Although the state requires its agencies to give preference to local supplies when they bid out contracts, it also limits the dollar amount an agency can spend on any one distributor annually. Noah had been happily purchasing local produce from one local distributor that sourced from the “black dirt” farmers in Orange County. But he maxed out on the contract and was required to award his business to another distributor who won the bid but did not deliver the consistent quality or reliability of the former distributor.
Noah says big box retailers should prioritize local produce.
Washington apples might be a penny or two cheaper but we are the second largest producers of apples, why are the major chains selling Washington apples? We are the second largest dairy producer, number one for cottage cheeses, we are in the top 10 for so for berry production, cabbage we are second, we produce a lot of stuff you never see in the local grocery store, where is it going?
Noah would like to see more transparent labeling and better information about why sometimes buying local is more important than buying organic.
Local food is just a little more expensive and most people just don’t care about whether they are eating local food. How do you really engage people to care about local food? How do we make a distinction that people would care about between organic and local, to understand that organic may not be regeneratively produced or distributed while a local food product that is not organic may be. The larger organic farms out of state can realize the economies of scale and can compete against the biodynamic farm or smaller organic local producers.
When the Chefs' Consortium does an event we promote local agriculture and food. We will have a card on the table that talks about where the food comes from but often people don’t care about it. They may like knowing that they are eating a Hudson Valley farm-to-table meal but they are not as concerned to know what farm in the Hudson Valley the food is coming from. You have foodies who care and sometimes you don’t. The engagement isn’t always there.
I have become jaded over the years, knowing people will not spend more for a locally produced product, one that is better and more delicious, where the quality is awesome. I don’t know how you change opinion about that. Local produce is more nutritionally dense, it is fresher, economically it is supporting the local economy and it is supporting the environmental.
Noah’s suggestions on how to overcome barriers to local meat procurement:
Retail butchers could be points of wholesale distribution. If they are already working with local farmers isn’t there an opportunity to connect with chefs and institutional buyers?
A big challenge is educating chefs to change their outlooks on how to use different parts of the animal to prepare food. A lot of people in my network are great at that. No longer do we just look at serving beef tenderloin, because after all there are only two in an animal. Now we are focusing on using the whole animal—the stew meat, the briskets, the shanks.
A company that went out of business, Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company, was working with 100 different producers throughout the counties around Albany and their coordinator was great. She would call me up and say, "do you need beef," and I would say "yes." I would know what cuts I would want but she would steer me away from that and talk me into buying half an animal. I would just go through each cut and how I wanted it cut. If it was a tenderloin I wanted it whole, if it was a shoulder I wanted it cut into stew meat, and she would ask, "do I want the bones?" "Yes," and "did I want the organs?" "Yes." She would walk me through every aspect of the animal. And they delivered too. They were a meat supplier but also customized and steered you away from 15 briskets more toward using whole animal. And it is of course more economic to purchase meat that way.
We need more institutions to be advocates for local food procurement.
I worked at Hudson Valley Hospital, now merged with New York Presbyterian, in Peekskill. It was the vision of John Fetterspeial, the president of the hospital, to make the menu as much as possible locally sourced and as much as possible plant based.
Their kitchen is run by a company called Cura Hospitality and they source as much local as possible. Red Barn was our distributor. I was pulling in stuff from the Orange County black dirt farmers. We had a farmers market there once a week and I did demos at the market.
They now have a Peter Kelly learning kitchen and the chef organizes classes geared toward people from the hospital on special diets. But some is cooking with youth, or ethnic cooking. I taught lacto fermentation there.
A need to be filled: helping institutional kitchens plan a transition to local procurement.
If a hospital came to me and they wanted to craft a local food policy because it would be attractive to their customer base I could do that. By employing Red Barn or Hudson Valley Harvest and also working with their existing distributors US food and Sysco that have a local food program it would be easy to do based on their budget. I could look at that and know what they could afford. The biggest challenge is how expensive local meat is. We have a shortage of slaughterhouses and that is a deal breaker for a lot of institutional kitchens. At Hudson Valley Hospital we could not pay for local meat; we could only afford the produce.
Noah has learned a lot about diverse palettes and food traditions at the youth correctional facilities he works in. Youth in particular are more willing to try new foods if they have a good relationship with their cook!
Youth in our facilities do not always have the healthiest diets. You have to meet them half way. We try out new foods and try to keep them healthy. They don’t always love that, they want to eat hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and pizza. I do a lot of surveys and meet with them a lot and the cooks to talk about what is going over well and what is not.
A lot of times the rating the food gets from the residents has everything to do with their rapport with the cooks. If they get along they will speak a lot more highly about their food. If the cooks are strict and by the rules the kids might have negative things to say about the food.
There is a cook from Haiti at one of our girls’ facilities who makes Haitian food and they love it. A lot of times the preferences are something cultural. Hispanic and African American households generally don’t like mid-rare beef, it gets cooked well done or braised, so you have to know that. But there are regional difference too even in our region. North of Albany there are regional delicacies like Boss Sauce, Chicken Riggies, and Bosco Sticks - they are regional specialties you never heard of before that they like up there.
We can never network or collaborate enough as we build the local food system.
The Chefs' Consortium is built on that collaborative model — leveraging everyone’s talents and interests into one organization. We have this great network of chefs who are super jazzed about working with local ingredients and so the sheer being around each other and inspiring each other and the resource of knowing each other, where you can get what produce, this is what keeps us together at the core.