Whenever we relate the concepts “healthy food” and “United States”, most probably what comes out first is the word “overweight”. And it is a fair and solid connection: it’s a country with obesity rate around 40% in adults and 20% in children. Despite last decade’s efforts by the Health Agencies, Federal government and even the White House through Michelle Obama’s “Let´s Move!” campaign, the overweight levels and the appetite for fast food keep rising.
In the land of opportunities, of free commerce and radical capitalism, its people represent the paradigm of the consumer society. The system that keeps the economy grinding needs constant feedback, refill, money flow… and to accomplish so it relies on three basic pillars.
The first one, as learned from Mad Men, the advertising genius takes care of creating new needs: bigger, better, faster, tastier… In second place, immediacy; the time between the arise of desire and the possession of the product must be as short as possible. There are tons of examples besides fast food, and others maybe not that obvious, as the Amazon Prime subscription – with same or next day delivery – the lately developed function by Instagram, allowing users to buy products posted in the social network without having to link to the advertiser’s website, or Apple´s policy to deliver the product in less than one minute after the purchase. The last leg to the tripod are the payment easements; it is crucial for the products to be affordable by a majority of the consumers. However, not everyone can buy the latest iPhone at once, but thanks to the bank credit and the payment terms no one is excluded of the trends of the moment. Nevertheless, what is for sure is that before paying the last term, three new models would have been released and, with the help of the makeup from Madison Avenue and a timely credit limit extension, will soon replace its antecessor.
As if they were the East and Hudson rivers, in New York merge the two concepts previously described: an endless range of tasty, greasy, cheap and instant fast food, and the greatest expression of a capitalist consumer society. Here you can sight unbelievable scenes, like a financial advisor and a homeless waiting in line at “2 Bros Pizza”. The first one is there because his lunch break lasts only 20 minutes and needs a quick bite; the second one because with the dollar he’s just been given can afford the pizza slice. For everyone, at any time, in a second.
This leads me to think that in a culture lacking a strong culinary tradition, economy is what influences the most the New Yorkers’ diet. And don’t misunderstand it, it’s not a money matter – New York is a city with high average income – but because of the need for immediacy. In Manhattan offices work is what defines lifestyle, and in that schedule there’s no place for long lunch breaks or going to restaurants and wait for the order to be cooked. No, the Manhattan corporate office employee survives on hot dogs, overdressed salads in plastic bowls or Pad Thai in paperboard boxes, usually in front of their computer screens.
However, if economy is the problem, it can also be part of the solution. To understand what are we talking about we must zoom out, get away from the Big Apple crossing any of its bridges over the East River and step in Brooklyn. There we find a much more local environment, where communities are strongly tied and social life breaks through and finds a gap in the labor vortex. If during this time taken off out of work we prepare a cocktail combining the cultural exchange that takes place in the most cosmopolitan city in the world, the endless American economic impulse and creativity, and the recognition of the latest social trends, the result are a bunch of small businesses, startups, that seek their place in the roughest and most competitive market.
One of the trends that was recognized in Brooklyn was healthy nutrition. Ten years ago, some small vegetarian and vegan restaurants popped up in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It’s not that there weren’t any before in New York: the Blossom restaurant in Chelsea has been serving a completely vegetarian menu since 2005; the difference is that these places in Brooklyn understood that it wasn’t only about cooking healthy foods, but also about making it attractive. They read perfectly the market dynamics and created a recognizable, desirable product, affordable to everybody.
Out of this idea sprouted venues such as Champs Diner, a classic “Diner” restaurant that offers all choices of starters, main courses, sandwiches, cakes and pies on its vegan version; Screamer´s Pizzeria, a small place that can only fit four tables serving a variety of vegan slices; or the Brooklyn Whiskers bakery, selling pastries and cakes made with organic and vegetarian ingredients only. This businesses have made available to the consumers everything they’ve been buying all their lives, but in a much healthier version than the original one.
Beyond what one can see and touch, a culture for healthy nutrition is rooting in Brooklyn. In Huron Street, Greenpoint, Archestratus is a bookstore and restaurant that has become a reference for the community. Since 2015 they sell books of all kinds of cuisine and organize dinners and lessons with some of the authors. A little further North, on Eagle Street, Annie Novak started in 2009 an urban farm on the rooftop of a warehouse. From its watchtower with privileged views over Manhattan’s skyline, the farm is a reference, a vindication of nature, slow-food culture and sustainability against the frenzy of the urban jungle. Each season dozens of volunteers help on the farming labors, and the produce is sold in local weekly markets.
It seems evident that a pathway towards a healthier nutrition and lifestyle has been found in New York, although at the moment this movement has only crystalized very locally in Brooklyn. The challenge is very clear: make the leap and take over Manhattan. This will require that the three legs – necessity, immediacy and economy – merge perfectly in a product that, a priori, is not easy to combine all of them. It is a hard job to create a necessity in a market overloaded with culinary options from all corners of the world; the absence of artificial preservatives in natural food makes the product storage much more difficult and is detrimental to the immediacy in the preparation of the orders; and, normally, foods that come from organic farming are more expensive than those from extensive agriculture.
Despite all the adversities, some pioneers have already crossed the East River and opened stores in the Big Apple. Dun-Well Doughnuts has planted its sweet flag in the East Village, and from St Mark’s Place offers vegan O-shaped treats to the entire neighborhood. On its side, the Van Leeuwen ice cream parlor – another establishment originally from Greenpoint – has recently opened a branch in Hudson Yards, integrating a full section of vegan flavors to its menu.
It’s still too early to claim that healthy food is a real competitor to fast food. The forces are still very unbalanced in favor of the simple and immediate, but it’s not unreasonable to consider vegetarian and vegan food as an increasingly present alternative. Green sprouts are growing in the new yorker culinary offer and, as usual in America, they haven’t come by action of the government but of the investors. Not in vain are quickly expanding supermarket networks like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, originals from California and with a wide offer in organic produce, foods, and healthy ready-to-go meals. And what’s more American than a burger? Also here the panorama is veering towards the green thanks to franchises like Bareburger, that includes two plant-based patties on its menu, or companies like Beyond Meat, financially supported by investors such as Bill Gates, Leonardo di Caprio and… Oh, surprise! Members of the McDonald’s directive council.