New York - not as cool as you'd think, but probably much more food resilient than you'd expect. by Jess Miller


Brooklyn Fare. As you enter this joint, you're met by a feint, wallet-opening fragrance of  'smug'. It's a sensory overload of all-of-the-good-things and its quite possible that anything you buy in this joint will make you smarter, faster, healthier, skinner, probiotically-brilliant and just generally a more effervescent and better person. Right...


The "stuff you need"?

Or is it the stuff they want you to feel like you need? 

That is of course if you manage to make a decision on WTF to actually buy. 

If you're like me. It's a special kind of hell. Where everything seems wholesome, and so well-curated that my obsessive label-reading compulsion becomes not as Michael Pollen suggests, 'a process of ditching the thing that has the thing that you can't pronounce', but an intellectual (and emotional) journey.

I left buying an apple and some of the best licorice ever - at the checkout, mostly because I felt guilty (and I bcs I fucking love licorice). 

I spent a good 45 minutes perusing/interrogating the snack food aisle. 

Are 'Chickepeatos' better than Brooklyn Kale Chips? (which frankly look like a punishment to eat), is 'Pirate Booty' with 0g of transfat from local rice and corn ok? Or is the corn and rice actually GMO from the other side of the world?

What's the difference between Sweet Corn Chips and normal ones? Does the 'organic' apply to the beet aspect of the chip, or the whole grain part of it? But most importantly, is Luke's Organic Superfood Sweet Potato, Hemp Seed and Buckwheat Multigrain and Seed Chip - actually the snack food for the guilty Mum or devised especially for  stoners, and if so - why not just come out and say that?

When Brooklyn Fare says it carried the "Stuff You Need" - do you really, or is it the stuff the want you to feel like you need. 

Finally, there's a 3-star Michelin Restaurant hidden in the middle of this joint - but where? And what exactly warrants the USD $700 dinner price tag?

Oh, dear - Brooklyn it-just-ain't Fare. It's a spectacle. 

I assumed that in this epicentre of choice and food porn that I'd have no trouble finding Chirps, cricket flour and EXO bars - but I was wrong. 

The blank look from staff (and even the store manager) when I asked for 'cricket' or insect-based food at Brooklyn Fare, was not through fault of a thick Australian accent. After repeating the process of: optimistic-search (obsessively) - awkward questions - ask the buyer/manager - and rejection at not one, but SIX of New York's leading health/wholefood retailers (even having googled 'cricket flour/protein/snack stockists') I realised that in the heartland of hipster New York, eating insects is not yet a 'thing'. 

Shit. Bugger-bugger. Shit. 

So what does this mean for a nascent insect-producing start-up based in Tasmania? 

Well two things:

1. New York is not the epicentre of new food, and we need to accept and get over that 'Merica is always ahead of us in terms of food trends, and 

2. The conversation about the future of food needs to and is, fortunately changing. 

Very separate (or so I thought) in my quest to be vindicated through buying insect-based food from a NYC retailer, was in fact a series of conversations with the NYC Mayor's Department about food logistics and resilience. 


We have Hurricane Sandy to thank for this. 

New York City, at the behest of the Mayor's Department and their involvement with the Rockefeller's Resilient Cities Program (RC 100), NYC have an evidence-based food security policy. It's not for fun, but instead as a result of an in-depth study into what happens when local food systems are disrupted by a major climate-induced disaster - Hurricane Sandy.

This disaster prompted the enquiry and understanding of how New York City (the five boroughs home to approx 8.5 million people) works as a food economy. It covers logistics, types of food, health, distribution and prompts important questions about how to feed a very significant number of people in the the increasingly likely event that food distribution and supply chains are disrupted, decimated or destroyed.

The short of it is that, when unexpected disruptions to food infrastructure happen (the closing of traffic routes, distribution bases being flooded by water, and supermarkets closed for days on end) - the threat is real, and new thinking about food security is required. 

And sure, the crappiest of crap food has an incredibly long shelf life. But unless you want for your people to live on Doritos and Hershey bars when shit hits the fan, we need to seriously think about how how cities can be supplied with healthy protein in an increasingly unpredictable and climate constrained world. 

We need to address the pros and cons of supplying insect-based protein to the mainstream, not as a fad that Brooklyn Fare customers are cool with, but instead as a legitimate response to future food demands. 

Is insect-based protein a silver bullet? Hell no. But it is 100% something that needs to be thought about, and now. 

Like New York, Sydney sees 'urban agriculture' as a nice-to-have, a kind of Disneyland food phenomenon. The idea of a city producing any significant quantity of food to feed its masses is easily an readily dismissed - 'Cities are not in the agricultural business' is a bureaucratic excuse I've heard too many times. But I have trouble believing it. The excuse is that largely due to the value of the land required for agricultural or future food production - why on earth would you dedicate 3-storeys or prime commercial real estate to growing food when you can lease it out as office space, and get what you need from Newark, Upstate New York or in the case of Sydney the Hawkesbury or Hunter Valley?

It's a rational, property value-based argument. 

 For now.

But it is one based on a range of assumptions that are, and will be increasingly challenged by climate unpredictability and disruption that we as humans, have no control of. It's a dangerous naivety. And as a good gambler can appreciate, if you diversify the risk, you diminish the chances of losing big. 

Rebel Food Tasmania is about making eating food that comes from insects cool, delicious and normal - no doubt. But in equal measure, we recognise the fragility of the current food system: is it hyper-industrialised, dominated by a handful of big inflexible companies, cares little for the actual delivery of nutrients that people need to be healthy, relies on slave-labour, is fetished by TV chefs, and  can be completely decimated by something like a shitty hurricane, drought, terrorist event, disease, corruption, and any other 'unknowns'. Our food system puts all the eggs in once basket (pun etc. etc.) but it's just silly. 

So it wasn't at Brooklyn Fare or the other 6 or so 'cool' health food shops that we need to take our cues from. 

Instead it is the slightly geeky bureaucrats who have overseen the studies and done the work and who understand the very un-sexy logistics of food supply systems, and whose voices and opinions need to be heard. 

When I broached the subject of alternative protein supply to the RC100 food policy staff from the NYC Mayors Office, I did so with the same temerity as I did with the 6th health food shop buyer. I expected the same 'come again?' attitude and need to slowly and clearly explain what it was I was talking about. 

PlaNYC, New York Cities response to food insecurity as bought about by Hurricane Sandy. 

PlaNYC, New York Cities response to food insecurity as bought about by Hurricane Sandy. 

But there was no need. They got it. And to my pleasant surprise they said that it was a real comfort to know that we, here in Australia and in Tasmania (which i had to confirm was in fact part of Australia and cold), were not just thinking but doing something about this. "Wow - you guys are streets ahead of us", they said. "Finally someone is thinking about nutrients, not food supply" - they said. 

And we are. Not because its a faddish trend, or silver bullet, but because we acknowledge and understand enough about the fragility and danger of a food supply chain that is immoveable and illogical in the face of an unpredictable future. We also recognise the immense opportunity that Tasmanian food systems offer in terms of quality of supply, protection against threats, and the already established culture of courage in food exploration - and a massive need for jobs. 

Eating food that is largely comprised of insect protein, may at this point of time  not found in a hipster supermarket aisle in Brooklyn. But it will be. And we need to get used to the idea, and recognise the opportunity that this affords. 

In the wake of global disruption to a food system that is so, so fragile we have to get over ourselves and petty inclinations and have the culinary imagination, creativity and self-belief that we all deserve to eat food that is good for us, farmed in a way that is resilient, fair to people and to our land and that can withstand a future that is unpredictable. 

Rebel Food Tasmania is at the heart of this. It is decidedly un-Brooklyn. It is pragmatic, considered, realistic and courageous. And in the spirit of taking a bet on something that may just in fact deliver a 'triple-word-score': jobs, food security, and a more sensitive food production system.