While eating local food is a top priority for people here who can afford to do so, it’s a struggle for many families to afford to put local food, or any food at all, on their tables.
The East End Food Institute, currently based in a rented kitchen at Stony Brook Southampton, has long been aware of the need here for equitable access to local food, providing a food processing facility to help farmers keep their food from going to waste, while providing food processed there to local schools, senior centers and food pantries.
Last winter, with help from Riverhead’s Community Development Agency, the East End Food Institute partnered with developer Paul Pawlowski to open up the Riverhead Winter Farmers Market in the former Homeside Florist building at the southwest corner of Route 105 and Route 25 in Riverhead.
This fall, they announced far bigger plans, to relocate their headquarters to the Riverhead location and build an East End Food Hub there.
The project, which would be constructed in two phases, was unveiled Sept. 15 at an informational presentation at Nick & Toni’s restaurant in East Hampton.
“We want this to be an opportunity for farmers to be more sustainable, and an opportunity for more people to have access to and be nourished by local food,” said Kate Fullam, the Food Institute’s Executive Director, in an interview in mid-October. “The urgency of the need became more clear during the pandemic.”
In partnership with Mr. Pawlowski, who still owns the property, the Food Institute envisions in the first phase as revamping the existing 5,000-square-foot building on the site, with 3,000 square feet for year-round farmers market stalls and the rest of the space for a community kitchen. That project is expected to cost about $1.5 million.
The second phase would be an additional 7,500-square-foot building with a large food processing facility to enable local produce to be preserved in ways in which it can be used by institutions. It would also include incubator kitchens for local entrepreneurs, a “farm-to-freezer” facility, housing for seasonal workers and a conference space. There would also be a central courtyard between the two buildings.
Though designs for the second phase haven’t yet been finalized, Ms. Fullam estimates it will cost in the range of $15 million to $20 million.
“Now, farms sell most of their products through high-end retail and donate the remainder to food pantries,” said Ms. Fullam. “There’s some high-end wholesale exchanges with restaurants, but most of the time schools, hospitals and institutions are not accessing local food.”
In partnership with New York State’s Department of Agriculture & Markets and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food Institute has been working on a pilot program in five large local school districts, including Riverhead, Westhampton Beach, Southampton, Tuckahoe and Bridgehampton, to identify products they need like cubed butternut squash and corn, and provide a streamlined method for schools to order products they need. The same issues affect senior nutrition programs and food pantries.
“Their staff doesn’t have the time to break that down,” she said of school kitchens, which can’t process raw produce themselves. “We examine what they might be able to use, and provide an intermediate service.”
While the Food Institute has long had a good relationship with Stony Brook Southampton, they’ve outgrown the aging space at the college since the start of the school food program, which has driven the tripling of the Institute’s budget in the past five years.
“A lot of that is due to the need during the pandemic,” said Ms. Fullam. “In 2018, when I joined as Executive Director, our budget was $250,000. Last year it surpassed $800,000. A lot of that is due to the food processing program — we went through 30,000 pounds of produce in 2021.”
The program has been kick-started by USDA and Ag & Markets subsidies, but the goal is to make it more self-sustaining.
“You need to figure the value of produce before and after processing,” said Ms. Fullam. “That’s part of our work, to make it viable for farmers to keep growing food in the area, not just for the economy, but for resiliency, sustainability and nourishment.”
“We’re bursting at the seams with the cold storage we have. The fridge and freezer are chock full,” she added. “We can’t pull a pallet into a holding refrigerator. It has to be unpacked, and you have to go through two doors into the walk-in fridge. We will have better layout and equipment to aggregate and process produce in a more efficient way that drives down cost.”
The winter farmers market, which has been renamed the East End Food Market, will be opening again for winter Saturdays on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 26 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and running through April, with space for 45 different booths.
Ms. Fullam said they’ve already received more than 60 applications from vendors, but are welcoming new applications because they often have new vendors come for a short-term pop-up throughout the winter. On average, 500 to 700 people come to the market each weekend, with more customers interacting with their virtual farmers market.
The Food Institute is currently working on legal issues with access to the site — when Route 105 was first built in the 1970s, it was slated to be a limited access highway, making it a legal hurdle to make an entrance on that side of the property. Ms. Fullam anticipates building permits for the renovation will be in place by the end of this year, with the actual renovation taking place next spring.
“We want to think big, and I’m tenacious for things that make sense,” said Ms. Fullam. “This certainly does, and the community wants it. What motivates me is all people being able to enjoy what is now a luxury of eating a local bounty, helping kids learn about good food that tastes good. And when it’s grown locally, it tases even better.”
“A lot of work we do and others do in the food system is tucked away behind the scenes,” she added. “What better way to bring the public’s awareness to it than a very highly trafficked and also at the gateway to the North Fork.”
For more information, or to contribute to this non-profit effort, visit eastendfood.org.