If you’ve ever had a summer when you grew so many tomatoes that they got squishy before you could use them all, or your neighbors stopped answering the door when you tried to offload yet another peck of giant zucchini from your backyard garden, you have a feel for the annual feast-or-famine dilemma of our local farmers and farm stands.
Their cup overflows in the harvest season, then the winter comes and there is nothing left in the glass.
Preserving is the obvious solution, but, if only it were as easy as processing a few jars in the home kitchen! For the larger scale producer who plans to sell to the public, it is not. From how to scale up from a few jars of tomato puree to hundreds, to how to diversify products into sauces and salsas and soups, to getting every product you are planning to sell up to state and federal standards, doing all the relevant paperwork, and finding a commercial kitchen where all this larger scale production can happen, local producers face many challenges before they can turn summer abundance into all-year sales.
Enter the East End Food Institute (formerly the Amagansett Food Institute) and its commercial kitchen. It is now located at Stony Brook Southampton, but has become so successful that it will soon have its own purpose-built Food Hub in Riverhead where it is already operating a weekly market.
EEFI (pronounced ee-fee by those who work with it) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that works to connect farmers, food producers, and food consumers on the East End. Its stated goal is “to create a more economically-viable, environmentally-sustainable, more efficient, and equitable local food system.”
Executive director Kate Fullam says the commercial kitchen—which producers can rent out or send their produce to for processing—is among the pillars of achieving that goal.
“Our food processing program helps local farmers turn produce into product,” Fullam says.
“It’s tough growing food on the East End. It’s expensive, which leads to expensive products that are not accessible to the local market. We want to change that.”
So how does the processing program work?
Say you are an East End farm with a tomato glut and limited or no capacity to turn that glut into shelf stable products that you could sell to generate income during the winter months. You could contact EEFI and make arrangements to deliver your produce to the Stony Brook Southampton kitchen for processing, while you carry on with the work of harvesting.
And the processing does not have to be limited to tomato puree. Want to share the delights of your grandmother’s pasta sauce with the world? Want to use your fiery chilis to make a great hot sauce? Jay Lippin, EEFI’s executive chef, and the year-round staff of eight are there to help you out. A veteran executive chef at places like the Odeon and Café Luxembourg in NYC and Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor and a winner of TV’s Chopped, Lippin thought it was a temporary gig when Kate Fullam called him to “get things going” at the kitchen. Four years later he is fully immersed in the EEFI mission with all sorts of food processing and safety certifications, processing 300 pounds of tomato at a go and 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of produce in a week in season, and recipe developing with their farmer partners. EEFI’s professional staff can scale up your recipe for nonna’s gravy for mass production, or, if you want to make barbecue sauce, but don’t know where to start, the chefs will work with you to create a recipe. They will also walk you through the licensing and certification processes. There is a lot of red tape involved in making food products for sale, but EEFI can smooth out that road.
The walk-in fridges and freezers are full of packaged items, even in winter. In summer, Lippin says, “Sometimes we can’t process it all at once and it’s like playing Tetris with all the packages in here.”
Not all the food is destined for markets. “When there is a lot of surplus, we do donate fresh,” Lippin says. “And we prep and freeze. When we have excess produce, say Amber Waves Farm has sweet potatoes, we’ll minimally process them into blocks and freeze and in the winter months places like Long Island Cares [food pantry] can give fresh vegetables. It’s a win for everyone.”
Local hospitals also buy the surplus at good rates to provide healthier food for patients. Then there’s the use of scraps for vegetable stocks and composting. EEFI tries at all times for maximum sustainability.
“This is satisfying on a different level; it has more meaning than just feeding people,” Lippin says. “I have the best job in the world. It is to make people happy.”
The products can be sold at farm stands—including the EEFI-run East End Food Market in Riverhead, another pillar of the mission—or to local school pantries.
“It gets more local food onto kids’ plates,” Fullam says. “That work really expanded during the pandemic when normal supply chains were disrupted. We were even able to buy a refrigerated van to deliver.”
This kind of local loop, where growers can process and sell their harvest locally, is an example of how EEFI’s work benefits everyone by reducing waste and pumping up value.
Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett—also a not-for-profit—is a loyal partner. Co-owner Amanda Merrow says copacking with EEFI has expanded the potential of their offerings, helping process big selling items like jarred Spicy Ginger Picks Mix (a kimchi-inspired pickle mix) and their line of Bloody Mary Mixes. “Value-added products are so important,” she says. “The fresh vegetables can have just a 72-hour shelf life. When you process you extend the life of highly perishable produce by a year. It allows us to keep a full family of products on our shelves 12 months a year.”
EEFI’s Kate Fullam wants to strengthen this developing 12 month economy. In addition to the processing kitchen and the food market—which has an online shopping wing as well—EEFI offers a ground level job recruitment service. The institute also encourages shared learning through the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), where local growers can go to listen to each other’s experiences while touring each other’s facilities, sourcing seeds and cultivating a thriving community of colleagues.
With big plans like these, it is no surprise that EEFI needs more space to grow. The East End Food Hub is already beginning to be established in Riverhead; it is the site of the East End Food Market already. Under Fullam’s leadership, the annual budget—made up of a combination of government, private foundation and corporate grants, as well as revenue generated by the kitchen—has grown from $250,000 in 2018 to about $1 million in 2022. “And we’re still not able to meet demand from the farmers,” Fullam says.
So the new Food Hub, with a more streamlined kitchen, and a place to consolidate all operations, such as classes, larger food events and an expanded farmer’s market, is going from dream to reality. Site renovation of the 5,000 square foot facility (with potential to expand out) is expected to cost an estimated $35 million when it is fully built and is beginning this summer. Fullam anticipates that the kitchen will be “100-percent ready in the first quarter of 2024.”
Kate Fullam says that a Food Hub in the North Fork will be a boon to the region in many ways.
“There are many unseen benefits of what we are doing,” she says. “We are part of a group with others like Cornell, Peconic Land Trust; some of us help preserve, others educate farmers, others deal with pest management. The missing piece was logistics and financial transactions. The Hub aggregates the processing, distribution and marketing.”
Kate Fullam believes there is great potential to do great good for the environment and for people. “We need to reduce food miles, influence how the land is used, strengthen human health and build regional food systems. And I think we can do better.”
For more information on the East End Food Institute, please visit eastendfood.org.