“Good local food is for everyone. It’s not an elitist thing,” Amanda Merrow, a co-founder of the Amagansett Food Institute, said on Friday over lunch with the institute’s new executive director, Jennifer Desmond, and two other co-founders, Katie Baldwin and Carissa Waechter.
It was that notion that spurred the creation of the food institute, which was incorporated last year. With its new director in place as of this month (Ms. Waechter held that title in the interim), the not-for-profit institute is set to begin a major fund-raising drive to establish a campus that its founders hope will become an epicenter of the local food movement — “Like a Y for food,” Ms. Desmond said.
They envision a farmers market, cafe, education center, and a communal, commercially certified kitchen, all connected to a working organic farm and all aimed at promoting sustainable food and farming, a food hub for people who want to learn or share their knowledge about growing or preparing food.
“It seemed like there was an opportunity on the East End to capitalize on the endlessly bountiful foodshed that is here,” Ms. Baldwin said. “To us that means bringing together food producers” — farmers, fishermen, vintners, cheese makers, beekeepers, bakers, and more — “in a centralized physical location.” The institute would support producers not only by helping to connect them with consumers and the community, but also by allowing them to share resources and information about such basic things as health insurance.
Together Ms. Merrow and Ms. Baldwin also run the not-for-profit Amber Waves Farm, an organic, community-supported agriculture project behind the Amagansett Farmers Market. Ms. Waechter is an artisanal baker who will launch her own line, Carissa’s Breads, later this month. Joining them on the institute’s board are John de Cuevas, a scientist, conservationist, and environmentalist who is also a baker, and Gary Bradhering and Chris Harris, longtime supporters of local organic food initiatives. Ms. Baldwin serves as the organization’s president; Ms. Merrow is secretary and treasurer.
On Friday, as Ms. Desmond boiled pea and mint ravioli for lunch at her house in Springs, the aroma of Ms. Waechter’s bread, made with grain milled from Amber Waves wheat, filled the kitchen. A salad of Amber Waves greens completed the meal, a simple homage to the beauty of local ingredients.
“Katie’s and my mission is to celebrate the story of food and get people excited about the food they’re eating by giving them the story that gets them from farm field to table,” Ms. Merrow said. “That is really what I live for.” The organization’s goal, too, is to tell that story, she said.
“We want to have a farmer in residence, a baker in residence. We want to have people on the campus all the time working and producing but also being educated,” Ms. Desmond said.
The institute’s board had been eyeing the Main Street, Amagansett, building that formerly housed Pacific East as a potential campus but is looking at other sites as well. The Main Street site would be ideal because it backs up onto the Amber Waves Farm, which is a separate entity but could become the farm component of the institute “if we want that, if everyone wants that,” Ms. Baldwin said.
Amber Waves has close to 40 member families this year and has made education a part of its own mission, inviting children from the Amagansett School to grow and harvest vegetables there.
Wherever the campus is, the board will need more than good ideas to grow their vision into reality. The initial fund-raising goal, Ms. Desmond said, is $4 million. “That would give us significant headway to buy a property, make improvements, and use that property for a line of credit.”
When all is said and done, the institute’s board doesn’t want to build some food palace that caters only to people of means. “It needs to be accessible to everyone,” Ms. Desmond said.
“We want to create a community of healthy, happy eaters,” Ms. Merrow said.
Educating schoolchildren about where food comes from is an important part of the institute’s work that has already begun, even without a physical campus. The institute did a pop-up farmers market at the East Hampton Middle School last year, arranged for local chefs to give demonstrations of dishes using locally produced foods, and conducted fresh food drives in which farmers donated excess from their harvests to the Springs Food Pantry. “We made the rounds and ended up donating 1,750 pounds of fresh produce that otherwise would have gone to waste,” Ms. Waechter said.
This year, the institute hopes to encourage farmers not only to donate their excess, but also to deliberately plan to grow some portion of crops for local food pantries. It will involve children in this effort by encouraging them to raise money to help defray the farmers’ production costs.
In the coming year, the institute will also conduct food education programs with local children starting at preschool age and will organize farm tours so consumers of all ages can see food being grown and raised, among other things.
“Every community can do this. Every community has a foodshed that it can celebrate,” Ms. Desmond said. “We’re so inspired by all these ideas. You know you’re on to something when you’re that excited.”
“It’s a lot of work,” Ms. Baldwin said, “but it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like what you want to do.”