The Corbin Hill Food Project
WHEN NEW SCHOOL University professor Dennis Derryck, 73, jumped into his ambitious social experiment to grow fruits and vegetables for underserved populations in New York City, he admittedly knew nothing about farming, but thanks to his tenacity and his willingness to modify unworkable ideas, the project has become wildly successful—which is only fitting for this charismatic academic whose life of engagement includes teaching students how to make things happen.
Now completing its fifth year of operation, the Corbin Hill Food Project sends two tractor-trailers weekly to the Big Apple during its 25-week harvest season (over the winter deliveries are monthly). The mission-driven venture aims to provide fresh produce to communities that lack adequate access. It's already reaching thousands of inner city New Yorkers, many of them plagued by food insecurity.
Derryck's original idea involved hiring an organic farmer to grow at Corbin Hill Farm, in Schoharie County, a long-neglected, historic farm that he and his wife purchased specifically for the venture. In retrospect, Derryck admits his initial strategy never could have succeeded in a reasonable timeframe. "Very quickly, Derryck realized a better strategy—rather than growing produce for New York City on the farm, [he would] source it from people who have been doing it for centuries," explains Haider Garzon, Corbin Hill's buyer and farmer liaison. This change in course opened up a seemingly unlimited supply of produce from agricultural producers concentrated in Schoharie County, but ranging as far as the Finger Lakes, Syracuse and Rochester.
With a population of only 32,000, the rural county where Corbin Hill is located is far richer in farmland than people. (Because of its geography and relative lack of prosperity, the federal government classifies the county as part of the Appalachian region for aid purposes.) Superficially resembling a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, the Corbin Hill Project aggregates products directly from upstate farms, then sends shares to dozens of distribution sites in four of New York City’s five boroughs. Over the 2014 season, Corbin Hill provided around 1,100 farmshares a week, though Derryck envisions expanding to 5,000—or even 10,000—shares in the near future. A newer Corbin Hill project, the Community Health Partners program, wholesales similarly sourced foods to clinics, food pantries, soup kitchens, schools and other venues, with the primary goal of reaching underserved, low-income populations.
At the onset, Derryck designed Corbin Hill as a for-profit venture. He bought the farm outright, then recruited colleagues, friends and family members to invest in it as a limited liability corporation (LLC). The group consisted of "ordinary people trying to do extraordinary things—people who might think [I’m] crazy, but trusted me," Derryck notes. Using that equity, Derryck and several others co-signed loans to cover startup costs. "By us putting up the funds, we could decide our values and stay on mission," he stresses. When Corbin Hill became a not-for-profit, "It had just enough oomph that foundations would look at us," he says. Payments from shareholders and sales through the wholesale program still don't cover expenses, but foundation and government grants are increasing as the project's capacity and impact grows.
Sarah Blood, who runs the marketing arm of Schoharie County’s economic development efforts, gives Corbin Hill high marks for bridging the divide between the upstate farmers and the urban consumers. "We have an abundance of produce, but not the markets or logistical means to get it to them,” she says. “Corbin Hill is a great asset organizationally and it has the resources to reach the larger market." Blood has witnessed Corbin Hill in action at its distribution sites. Her assessment: "It's remarkable."
Derryck says they found an enormous need for fresh produce in Harlem and the South Bronx. In fact, with a population about 700,000, Harlem had just two CSAs serving 75 households.
Some of the obstacles to operating a CSA in predominantly low-income communities became obvious in designing their program, he says. "If I were a low-income person on SNAP, why would I want to pay for my food three months in advance? Why would I want to share the risk with the farmer or be part of something where, if I need to be out of town for a week, I lose my money?" Asking the right questions made the solutions clear. "At Corbin Hill, you pay one week in advance. You can put your share on hold, join or drop out at any time—if money is left over in your account, we will refund it." There's also flexibility to up- or downgrade share size or change pickup sites. An even bigger draw is the income-based subsidy: For those making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, Corbin Hill provides a monetary match, making for a half-price deal. Eligibility is determined on the honor system.
A pivotal moment for Corbin Hill occurred in January 2010, when Cornell professor Anu Rangarajan, who directed the institution's small farms program, introduced Derryck to Richard Ball, of Schoharie Valley Farms, at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York's (NOFA-NY) annual conference. "After four hours, we got up from lunch and Richard said, 'I'm going to make this work,'" Derryck recalls. Ball, who became the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture three years later, has been a major factor in Corbin Hill’s success. His farm has been an important anchor for the project, as both a primary supplier and its operational home. Corbin Hill receives, stores and packs its shipments at the Carrot Barn, Ball’s retail outlet and packing facility.
We keep talking about building a socially just value chain, but we never talk about farmers and other workers in the chain
During the first week of distribution in early June, the aggregation site—the windowless warehouse of the Carrot Barn—is awhirl with activity. Brightly colored plastic bins stuffed with truly farm-fresh vegetables are piled everywhere. Readying the produce to load onto the super-size, New York City-bound truck means restacking, and sometimes repacking, every single bin onto pallets destined for individual distribution sites. The young employees glide around the crowded room with bins in their arms or piled onto carts; now and then someone slows to a standstill, consults a clipboard, greets farmers delivering orders, or huddles with a colleague.
In an unusual display of loyalty, Corbin Hill's entire warehouse crew from 2013—mainly college students and locals—returned to their seasonal jobs in 2014. Now with two weekly deliveries to the city, the project was able to put them on a Friday-through-Wednesday workweek, up from part-time. Their hourly wage of $11 makes it one of the better entry-level jobs in the rural, low-wage area. Every Corbin Hill employee also receives a farmshare.
One young man notes that Corbin Hill pays nearly $4 an hour more than his old job at a chain supermarket did, and he doesn't have to adjust his life to a different work schedule every week or the whims of arbitrary managers. Plus, he says, at Corbin Hill he is able to take pride in contributing to society.
Fair pay and good working conditions are high priorities for Derryck. "We keep talking about building a socially just value chain, but we never talk about farmers and other workers in the chain," he stresses. He ascribes his ethic to the influence of his mother, an entrepreneur who joined the Peace Corps at age 65. His family emigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad when he was a teenager, and here he found himself drawn into the arena of economic justice. Among his early accomplishments was the court-ordered integration of the sheet metal workers union, ending 79 years of exclusion of blacks and Latinos.
More recently, Derryck set his sights on food justice. As the founding board chair of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, he says the West Harlem organization's staff educated him about food issues and projects such as school gardens and rooftop farms. Yet, he says he still thought the initiatives were too small to make a significant difference.
Corbin Hill cannot pay top dollar to farmers, Garzon explains, but its prices come in above major wholesale markets like Hunts Point—if a case of lettuce there brings $16, Corbin Hill might pay $24. Moreover, the price Corbin Hill pays varies from farmer to farmer, depending on factors like growing practices (organic produce commands a higher price than, for example, produce grown using Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, methods), and whether the farmer delivers or Corbin Hill picks up. Garzon, a native of Colombia, says the program isn’t exclusively organic because there isn’t enough product available and "the prices just aren’t there." For the farmshares, he favors IPM produce, with its presumably lower pesticide levels; Corbin Hill does buy conventional produce for wholesale distribution.
At first, Corbin Hill purchased 95 percent of the produce it distributed from just two substantial vegetable producers, both blessed with the same superb bottomland soils. One was Ball's farm; the other, Barber’s Farm, located farther down along the Schoharie Creek, is a 500-acre former dairy farm, a third of which now is in mixed vegetables. As demand grew and the project developed more capacity, many other growers have come on board—these two big local growers now account for about 50 percent of the volume of produce.
Corbin Hill serves as the "main and only vehicle for tapping into any New York City market" for Barber’s Farm, according to Jake Hooper, the farm's vice president for field production and wholesale. "They approached us, along with other Schoharie Valley farmers. It seemed like a really good opportunity, trying to bridge the gap between supply and demand." Shifts in consumer behavior have pushed Barber’s Farm to alter its production and storage methods, Hooper notes. "We changed a lot and changed quickly,” he says. “It used to be [our customers] would come in October and buy potatoes by the 50-pound bag—often 15 to 20 bags of them. Now people are shopping [just] for that day. We're trying to do for them what they used to do for themselves." To meet customers' needs, the farm stores potatoes and other root crops, freezes vegetables and grows hardy greens all winter in an unheated greenhouse, and the farm store is now open year-round.
Frederick Wellington, who runs Wellington's Herbs and Spices with his wife on his upland farm in the town of Schoharie, was happy to join the project to counteract the “food deserts” in the Bronx and upper Manhattan. "Dennis had heard about us when he was searching for produce," Wellington says. "People [in the city] who don't take the bus or have a car depend on bodegas around the corner. With Corbin Hill, they're getting food picked on a Sunday and delivered on Monday." The native of Grenada says the ethnic composition of Corbin Hill's clientele is fuelling changes at his farm, as well. "When I came here in the 1980s, nobody in Schoharie County knew what collard greens were,” he says. “Some of the things we grow now are a result of very high Hispanic, Caribbean and southern black populations.” Wellington predicts that within several years, area growers will be cultivating another unfamiliar vegetable called callaloo, an amaranth almost identical to the nuisance pigweed and an important cooking green in Caribbean cuisine.
Oneonta native Francis Carter manages the packinghouse at Corbin Hill and wears a second hat as a graphic designer. He discovered the project as a grad student at Parsons School of Design, where he was writing his thesis on how to connect upstate farms with downstate consumers. Carter started out at Corbin Hill running some of the distribution sites in the city. "Working with the sites was frustrating, emotional and great," he recalls. "When trucks were late, shareholders would take the crates and start to unload them themselves because they were so behind our mission."
Carter, who admits his jobs have ranged from awful (in fast food joints) to inspirational (at grocery stores that source vegetables locally), commends Corbin Hill's social values and commitment. "I grew up on food stamps, so I really appreciate that we will not turn away any customer," he says, noting the project is "a ‘we-effort,’ not a ‘me-effort,’" that doesn’t rely "on Whole Foods or Price Chopper to galvanize change in the community."
When he landed the warehouse manager job, Carter used his design background to introduce new systems so the organization would have the capacity to scale up. And scale up it did: The number of farmshares has jumped from 200 to 1,200 and the overall throughput has at least tripled in the three years he's held the seasonal job. In 2014, Corbin Hill expanded distribution into Queens and Brooklyn.
What blew our minds is that we were getting food to 4,000 people a week through wholesale,
Despite this rapid growth, Corbin Hill hasn't always been able to meet its objectives. "We started a farmshare program at a Head Start [site]—but none of the parents could afford it,” he recalls. “Our farmshares at the Fortune Society and Women's Economic Development Corporation failed. In 2013, out of 872 shareholders in Harlem and the Bronx, only 14 percent met our mission" of delivering food to those who need it most. No matter what tact organizers took, he says, the farmshare model wasn't catching on among the poor and economically insecure.
As a direct result of these perceived failures, Derryck realized the project could more effectively reach key populations by using the institutions that already served them, and created the Community Health Partners program, Corbin Hill’s wholesale component. By 2013, more than a third of Corbin Hill's sales were to wholesale sites. "When we started counting, what blew our minds is that we were getting food to 4,000 people a week through wholesale," Derryck reports.
Bronx Lebanon Hospital is by far the strongest of Corbin Hill's Community Health Partners, according to Stefanie Zaitz, who coordinates the effort. Since 2012, the hospital has provided more than 50 tons of fruits and vegetables to needy families. The hospital has a standing order with Corbin Hill for 160 pre-bagged shares a week, destined for clinics or other sites in the hospital's network where health promoters do demonstrations and nutrition awareness presentations. Participants get rewarded with a farmshare. This year, Corbin Hill began offering $8 bagged shares through its Community Connect program. "It's a way to connect incredibly vulnerable communities to upstate New York farms," Zaitz says. "We also work with food pantries and soup kitchens, like the Partnership for the Homeless in East New York, Brooklyn—it's farm-to-soup kitchen," a development she finds "awesome."
There's also a more recent breakthrough with considerable potential to expand Corbin Hill's impact among the low-income elderly. "We were tagged as the vendor for two different senior centers north of 96th Street through the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer," Zaitz says. Brewer’s existing bag program has operated for years, but only below 96th Street, which Zaitz calls unacceptable. "Harlem and Washington Heights had been entirely overlooked," she notes.
Zaitz, a fifth-generation farmer from central Pennsylvania, typifies the hands-on problem-solving approach and social commitment underscoring each component of the Corbin Hill project. Perhaps not surprisingly, Derryck was her thesis advisor at The New School University, where she studied Environmental Policy and Sustainable Management. "I think my future is on my farm,” she admits, “but for now I'm on the front lines."