This CSA Alternative Helps You Get To Know Your Neighbors
“I really wanted to make it more fun, so that’s why we picked bars and cafes where people are already socializing,” Wen-Jay Ying, the founder of Local Roots, explains to GC as residents pick-up their fresh weekly groceries outside.
Founded in 2011, Local Roots is an alternative CSA model, one that builds on two of New York’s great pillars: good food and superior convenience. Unlike CSAs, Local Roots allows consumers to specifically select what they’d like to receive; their site offers an impressive variety of subscription options from standards like fruit and meat to more esoteric options like bee pollen and tempeh. In this way, Local Root’s model avoids one of most common pitfalls of CSAs: unwanted food going to waste. Further seeking to personalize the CSA experience, Ying has organized Local Roots’ 25 markets in hangout spots across Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“In that way it’s really convenient– what is usually seen as a chore becomes part of someone’s social life. So it’s like, you meet your friends for a beer, and pick up all your food,” Ying adds.
Like many start-ups, Local Roots grew of a lack Ying saw in her own life.
“I lived in New York City, and didn’t really feel like I had a home here for a couple years,” Ying explains. “It’s hard to meet people. So I really wanted to find a way to build community, and I noticed that food markets had that really social aspect to it.”
Staffed entirely by women, Local Roots now serves 750 customers every week.
“Some of [the customers] we have been connecting with food since the start. We’ve seen their families grow, which is really beautiful. From them just getting married, then having kids. And their kids are growing up on our food. One of our youngest members thinks that vegetables only come from Local Roots, and so for Halloween she had her dad dress up like the vegetable woman, which is me. She pinpointed my outfit exactly, which was wear a flannel shirt, hold up vegetables, and an orange beanie,” Ying laughs.
The community-oriented mission of Local Roots also drives its social justice component as well.
“There’s a lot of food justice that just happens really naturally in food,” Ying reflects. “[Local Roots] is not just about connecting people with really good, sustainable food in convenient and fun ways, it’s also about connecting neighbors to each other and to their city– even if someone isn’t buying food from us. It’s really important to me for people to just be curious and interested in the ways that food comes to the city.
“We’re set up on the sidewalk; people walk by all the time, and it’s a great place to ask questions and to turn to someone else and ask them how they would pair kale, or carrots,” Ying adds. “Everyone has very similar ingredients in their culinary world, but they just utilize it in different ways.”
Ying sees these types of impromptu connections as one way in which Local Roots can mend some of the tension caused by gentrification– a complex urban challenge for which New York is the poster child.
“I think our markets, because they’re so focused on being a social point, are a great place to address gentrification, for people to come together and actually have a comfortable and approachable place to meet their neighbors, from people that have been in the neighborhood for the past 50 years to newcomers,” Ying continues.
The biggest challenge for Ying to over come is that while New York is a foodie city, it’s not a cooking city. (As evidenced by Seamless’s controversial advertisements.)
“This is a city that a lot of people just don’t cook in,” Ying laments. “It almost feels like every day is an anthropological investigation into New Yorkers. How do you encourage people to cook when the most convenient thing is to get takeout or to get a meal kit?”
In order to encourage New Yorkers to cook more often, Local Roots organizes food oriented events like cooking clubs, farm trips, and an annual conference. Their monthly cooking events are typically led by a chef, food blogger, or recipe developer; subscribers cook in groups and then enjoy a communally prepared farm-to-table dinner.
Ultimately, Ying’s goal isn’t to expand and add more locations, it’s to forge deeper relationships between its current members– from seed to city.
“Our vision is to have even stronger connections to the people in our community, and provide them with more services that they need to make cooking easier, for that knowledge to engage more with the farms and the producers that are feeding them,” Ying tells us. “I’m excited to see that our growth is happening because of members of our community. Because they are really excited to be more involved, and to help us grow. That’s the reason why I don’t view this as a business, or small business. I view it more as Local Roots is a movement and a lifestyle.”
To learn more about Local Roots, or to sign up for their Fall CSA, visit their website.
Got some fresh produce of your own? Try making some summer stone fruit s’mores.