Jean-Georges Vongerichten has a restaurant empire that stretches from Chicago to Shanghai to Doha, Qatar. But the charity that he chose to be a beneficiary of the Robb Report Culinary Masters Competition is very close to home: Just Food in New York City.
This ambitious organization connects farmers and urbanites through food and, in some cases, turns urbanites into farmers. Just Food was founded in 1995 to address two related problems: the financial decline of local, sustainable farms and the lack of access that low-income New Yorkers had to fresh, healthful food. Vongerichten has been working with the charity for six years. "It's local and sustainable," he says, "and it puts people together in different neighborhoods."
Just Food empowers low-income New Yorkers by teaching them how to grow food and raise chickens, cook with fresh local ingredients, run farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture programs, and advocate for social change, whether by protecting funding for food stamps or supporting campaigns for labeling genetically modified crops. In its 18 years, the organization has helped establish 113 community-supported agriculture programs in New York City, giving nearby farmers a guarantee that they will have buyers for what they plant—and delivering locally grown produce directly to 38,000 New Yorkers.
Just Food has also trained residents to start and run two dozen farmers' markets in four of the five boroughs, selling produce from both urban and rural farms. A program called Fresh Food for All connects farmers with 48 food pantries and soup kitchens in the city. A farm-to-food pantry program financed through the New York State Department of Health lets farmers get paid up front, at the beginning of the growing season. Once a year, the organization leads field trips, busing volunteers and beneficiaries of emergency food providers to farms so that they can see how produce is grown and harvested. And Just Food's Farm School program has taught New Yorkers how to be urban farmers and to advocate on behalf of their communities.
The charity adheres to the belief that, if you teach a person to fish, so to speak, you feed that person for a lifetime. Amy Blankstein, director of grants and communication, says the effort requires more than the group's 17 full- and part-time staff members are able to do alone. "It's about training community members so they have the tools to do it," she says. "They have talent and knowledge; we work with them to help themselves."
Vongerichten was one of the first chefs to get involved with Just Food's Let Us Eat Local annual benefits, Blankstein notes. As the chef himself says, "It's a great organization doing both food and environmental-justice work." –Regina Schrambling