On pandemics, and a lifetime of kitchen lessons

Fork in the road: South Fork Kitchens by East End Food Institute, vital cog of the future East End Food Hub.

Cooking has always inspired me, but I was not always good at it – my mother still pokes fun at me for using corn oil instead of corn syrup (just once, in my early teens).

Just like a scientist, I learned from failed experiments. Through trial and error, I committed to memory the techniques, ingredients and unexpected flavor combinations that delighted me most.

Upon joining the East End Food Institute as executive director in 2018, I realized that I’m still learning, still curious and still excited as ever about cooking up new ways to solve complex challenges. And in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that cooking exercises the same parts of the brain as problem-solving and inventing.

Cooking is creative. It’s pragmatic. It’s nourishing. It’s helpful.

At the EEFI, since the start of the pandemic, we have leveraged the “cooking” skills of our entire team to get creative, be pragmatic, nourish others and be helpful while maintaining our operations (as an essential business) and our nonprofit mission to support, promote and advocate for local producers.

We launched a virtual farmers market where local makers can sell their goods online; helped farms meet the demands of early-season retail and home delivery; developed a partnership with a local restaurant group to supplement local food pantry offerings with prepared meals; and purchased thousands of pounds of local fish and produce to support regional agriculture and fishing industries.

Kate Fullam: Forward-thinking foodie.

All the while, we have been looking ahead toward a more sustainable and equitable food system. This week, East End Food Institute will submit a proposal to the USDA Local Food Promotion Program to establish an East End Food Hub, which will allow us to expand upon our successes and create resiliency within the local food system.

In 2019, this project was also recommended to receive a reimbursement from New York State for capital investments in efficient food-processing equipment and a streamlined production facility where we can create products from the produce that is abundant throughout our region.

“Not only will this program help our local farmers, it also creates a vital and important link to our local food pantries, with the opportunity to provide locally grown food to more people in our communities,” notes Peconic Land Trust President John Halsey, in a letter to the USDA supporting the proposal.

The total East End Food Hub project cost is estimated at $1.5 million. With state and federal funding in place, we will still need to raise more than $700,000 to build out a new facility, while also maintaining and expanding current EEFI operations.

This investment in our local food system will establish food security for one of the most populous regions in the United States while improving the economic viability of farming and food production on Eastern Long Island.

Our EEFI team has tested the recommendations of a 2015 food hub feasibility study funded by the USDA, including finding new markets for surplus local produce, facilitating sales and distribution of local farm crops to wholesale buyers and establishing new produce and product-aggregation centers to facilitate higher-volume processing and distribution.

The recent breakdown of regional and national food-distribution systems has been covered widely in the news, highlighting many issues related to food aggregation, processing, distribution, access and equity that our organization and its partners have been working on behind the scenes for years.

In a recent support letter included as part of the EEFI’s Local Food Promotion Program proposal, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said such programs “help advance our greater economic-development aims” while supporting “efforts to preserve and enhance our local agricultural heritage.”

“The COVID-19 crisis has magnified local weaknesses in ‘farm to food bank’ and ‘farm to institution’ supply chains, and [East End Food Institute] has demonstrated an innovative willingness to pivot during these stressful times,” Bellone wrote.

Just as the food system involves many collaborators, the East End Food Hub project required many cooks to serve up the dish we will present to the USDA for consideration. In this case, we could never have too many cooks in the kitchen, and input from partners has been vital to the development of a well-considered plan for regional food resiliency.

Kate Fullam is the executive director of Southampton-based East End Food Institute.