Thursday, February 24, 2011

Roll 'em--1st green food-and-film festival?

I’m writing this at what might be the first-ever film festival devoted to green issues as they relate to food and restaurants. It’s a highly specialized event called Food For Thought, and it’s being hosted at the New York City campus of New York Institute of Technology, one of the Tri-State area’s hospitality and culinary-arts school.

It’s part of an effort by the city, its restaurants and its utility, Con Ed, to promote conservation and other eco-friendly practices. As part of that, the program is airing segments of films, as much a part of the city experience as restaurants, theaters, fashion and traffic. The notion is to celebrate sustainability in a fun, informative and totally New York way.

We’ll be seeing pieces of such sustainability-related documentaries as Food, Inc., Fresh, Flow, and an Oscar nominee, Gasland.

We’re also hearing from various figures in the local green and hospitality scene, including the city’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. David Bragdon is expected to explain Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for making Gotham a greener megalopolis. It’s called PlanYC.

I’d be posting this as I write, but the subterranean theater isn’t letting me snag an internet signal. But I’ll be giving you the highlights in more or less sequential order.

3 p.m.
Bragdon is on the stage now, and he’s finally gotten to the city’s plans for making its food supply more sustainable. “We have tried to focus on the things here we can influence,” he said. At the same time, those efforts have to be economically feasible and not a burden on the local business community.

One of the ways is encouraging the conversion of unused city-owned land into community gardens. Similarly, Bragdon said the city will adjust building codes, apparently to facilitate the start-up of more roof gardens.

He also mentioned an initiative to use trains more often to haul food supplies into the city. Right now, he explained, most of it comes off trucks, some of which idle all day at food depots like Hunts Point in the Bronx.

In addition, the city is attacking food deserts by helping fresh-food sellers open up shops in neighborhoods with limited healthful options.

A speaker has just revealed that the city has opened a “food and finance” school that teaches youngsters to become tomorrow’s chefs and restaurateurs. The facility features a hydroponic garden.

Similarly, she said, there’s a school in Queens that has a composting program.

The film segments were terrific. Now on the stage are the panelists for a discussion about green efforts in the city. Included is Alberto Gonzalez, operator of a celebrated all-organic restaurant in Greenwich Village called GustOrganics.

Moderator Marcel Van Ooyen, director of the nonprofit city agency that runs New York’s green markets, has started off the discussion by pointing out that restaurants are one of the commercial sector’s biggest producers of waste and carbon dioxide. He’s asked the panelists to cite the proverbial low-hanging fruit—what restaurants can do immediately to chip away at the volume.

Alan Someck, a former restaurateur who now runs an EPA-funded program to promote green restaurant practices, the Green Hospitality Initiative, noted how many harsh chemicals are routinely used in restaurants. He noted that there are alternatives entering the market today, giving the business a unique, easy opportunity.

Van Ooyen has asked Gonzalez to talk about the challenges of finding sufficient supplies of organics, especially when you’re located in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Gonzalez says 75-80% of his food comes from family-run farmers who “share our values.” But, he acknowledges, following adequately supply is a tough challenge.

Someck talks about a watershed that’s building in the restaurant industry to shift in a decidedly more sustainable method. It’s a combination, he said, of forward-thinking and responsible operators doing what’s right, and the pull of consumers demanding it.

Gonzalez, the organic restaurateur, says he’s working on a new concept that will be scalable yet true to his sustainability principles. But he’s not divulging details.

5 p.m.
Van Ooyen has just put the panel on the spot by asking what they regard as the greenest restaurant in the city. So far, there are two votes for Gonzalez’s operation.

Ron Bergamini, a composting expert, cast his vote for the restaurants run by Mario Batali and Danny Meyer.
A member of the audience has asked what the city is doing to encourage rooftop farming. Van Ooyen says a number of farms are being developed, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be economically viable.

And with that, the festival concluded.

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