Local Connecticut is in the midst of a revolution, Jennifer McTiernan ’99 said yesterday at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea. An agricultural revolution, that is.
While munching on tea sandwiches made with tomatoes from Saybrook College Master Mary Miller’s garden, McTiernan — co-founder and executive director of the New Haven nonprofit CitySeed — held court with 40 students, explaining to them the importance and joy of her work at CitySeed.
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CitySeed’s goal, she said, is to bring local food to local dinner tables. After a childhood in New Jersey, McTiernan said her quest for tasty, fresh food began after her graduation from Yale.
“I realized then that cheese whiz was not going to be OK for the rest of my life,” said McTiernan.
With that knowledge, McTiernan headed to Berkeley, Calif., to intern at Alice Waters’ famed organic restaurant Chez Panisse. She moved back to New Haven imbued with the spirit of local food and vowed to try to recreate that spirit in New Haven, she said.
“I wanted to get local foods from local farms into the city,” said McTiernan.
Her organization, CitySeed, now organizes four New Haven farmers’ markets, along with other community outreach programs. The group aims to increase what she terms “community food security,” a measurement of the self-sufficiency of a community’s food supply, she said. New Haven ranks 163 out of 169 townships in Connecticut, according to a Connecticut Food Policy Council study.
In trying to change a heavily industrialized food system, McTiernan said she is trying to make sustainable, local food available to all socio-economic classes. In a niche usually reserved for the wealthier members of society, the sustainable markets run by CitySeed accept food stamps and Women, Infants and Children coupons, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the New Haven area, approximately 50,000 people use WIC coupons, and residents spend $30 million monthly in food stamps, McTiernan said. Most of these people, she said, cannot afford fresh, unprocessed foods. When CitySeed initially established a market in Fairfield, it was not sustainable because of the density of low-income families in the area, McTiernan said. CitySeed then turned to local businesses to buy shares in the market, which helped subsidize the farmers’ lower prices, she said.
Students in attendance at the tea responded positively to McTiernan’s innovations.
“It is great that she has been able to extend access,” Rachel Shaffer ’12 said of McTiernan. “It is very inspiring to hear about how one person started with an idea and made real tangible change in the community.”
Other students said they identified with McTiernan’s preference for local food.
“I’m a huge foodie,” Maria Yagodo ’12 said, “and lots of problems come from the messed-up food system.”
Holly Rippon-Butler ‘12, who is from a small dairy farm in upstate New York, said she appreciated McTiernan’s enthusiasm but wished CitySeed’s markets were even closer to the Yale community.
“Sustainable food is very important to me,” Rippon-Butler said. “At home, every Friday morning, my mom takes products we sell at the apple orchard — produce, jellies, beeswax candles — to Skidmore College. The students love it and have come to see my mom as their own because she connects them to the land and feeds them. Something along these lines, right on main campus, would make the movement very accessible to students.”
Since their establishment in 2004, CitySeed’s four farmers’ markets have produced $1.6 million worth of economic activity in New Haven, McTiernan said.