An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism

Urban farms are lovely but they aren't actually green.

Yet even hydroponics isn’t a trump card for New York City farming. Babying the produce is a material and even a moral imperative in the industry—“our harvestable plants deserve the same level of comfort and protection that we now enjoy,” insists—but it costs energy and emissions. Gotham Greens heats its greenhouse with natural gas and gets half the electricity for its grow-lights, water pumps and computerized controls from the fossil-fueled grid; CEO Viraj Puri thinks the operation may do better than conventional farming in life-cycle energy usage, but he hasn’t done an audit. (Critics wince at the energy implications of vertical farming, which boils down to stacking up greenhouses so that they block each other’s sunlight.) Whatever the merits, it’s hard to eco-justify siting greenhouses in New York instead of some warmer latitude. They might miss the nightlife, but vegetables would feel just as comfortable and protected in a locale that requires less artificial light and heating.

But a New York location is indispensable for the up-to-the-nanosecond freshness that Gotham delivers to the groceries and restaurants it sells to, all located within eight miles of the greenhouse. That kind of freshness carries a premium price tag: $3.99 for a 4.5-ounce box of lettuce at the Union Square Whole Foods. Which works fine, because every customer there, I can solemnly attest, is a supermodel. (Gentlemen, seriously, this is the place to go when you want to be ignored by beautiful women.)

And if you are a supermodel, you want that mouthful of lettuce to be as fresh, delicious and vitamin-saturated as lettuce can be, because you won’t be eating anything else that day. But for less demanding shoppers, the benefits of hyper-freshness may be illusory. Fresh vegetables are no more nutritious than frozen or canned, and if they sit in your refrigerator for a week, they might as well have been sitting in a refrigerated truck (or in a toxic waste dump, if we’re talking about my refrigerator).

Unfortunately, the exorbitant cost of buying local prevails from the Whole Foods at the high end right down to the populist, communitarian—and rather cultic—wing of the movement known as “community-supported agriculture.” A CSA is an alternative distribution system that lets groups of consumers contract directly with a local farm for regular disbursements of produce. Cutting out wholesalers and supermarkets is supposedly a financial win-win for farmers and consumers, but the main benefits may be spiritual. Per the locavore mantra, a CSA lets you “know your farmer” and “know where your food comes from”; it gives New Yorkers in particular a sense of rootedness amid the anonymity of city life. We may not know our neighbors—Eliot Spitzer may not even know the women he sleeps with—but at least we can forge a deep personal bond with the farmer who feeds us.

Alas, that bond is one-sided to the point of abusiveness. CSAs are the worst food deal imaginable. To join Brooklyn Grange’s CSA, for example, you must pay $576 up front for 24 weekly deliveries of produce from May through October. And for that $24 a week, you get—well, no one knows what you’ll get. It depends on what’s in season and what’s thriving (or not), the member agreement explains: maybe radishes, turnips, kale and spinach in the spring; chard, eggplant, cucumbers and peppers in the summer; tomatoes, carrots, eggplant (again?) and scallions in the fall.

No one knows how much, either. The member agreement guesstimates that your weekly allotment may suffice to vegetate three or four dinners for two, but it pointedly stipulates “no guarantee on the exact amount or type of produce.” (In fact, if you want to get technical, a CSA membership is less a purchase of food than a speculative investment in produce futures; JPMorgan should open a trading desk.) And if you can’t make the 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday pick-up at the Navy Yard, then you’re out of luck: the Grange won’t save your vegetables—or refund your money.

That’s a pretty frustrating relationship to have with a produce vendor: aloof and noncommittal on its end; expensive and sternly regulated on yours. To stick with it, you need to be so devoted to vegetables—and not to any particular vegetables, but just to the food group in general—that you’ll pay for them months in advance, schedule your week around them and line up at a dispensary like a junkie at a methadone clinic. My neighborhood Key Food supermarket is a doormat by comparison, open all day at prices cheaper than locavore fare. For two dollars less than a Grange ration, I can buy 10 pounds of potatoes, two pounds of carrots, 20 ounces of green beans, two cucumbers, two tomatoes, two onions and a head of lettuce—produce that I like, and way more than I can eat in a week. Maybe CSA food tastes better; I’ll never know, because I can’t afford it.

An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism