Liz Neumark's Sylvia Center gives disadvantaged kids a healthy dose of farm life and plenty to chew on.
Liz Neumark realizes that she may not be able to change the world. But she’d like to change the next meal for people who don’t yet understand the links between farm and table, between a carrot that’s just been pulled out of the ground and an unforgettably flavorful dinner.
Over this summer and through the early fall, she will have brought 1,000 kids to the Sylvia Center at Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, in upstate Columbia County. The CEO and founder of Great Performances, one of New York City’s largest off-premise caterers, Neumark has just published her first book, “Sylvia’s Table: Fresh, Seasonal Recipes from Our Farm to Your Family” (Knopf).
Kids who’ve grown up in city housing projects, some in homeless shelters with no kitchens, and others from New York’s nearby capitol region, spend a day at the Sylvia Center, getting their hands dirty, planting vegetables, nibbling on fresh-picked greens and running in fields that seem to have no end. Later on, they don chefs’ aprons and learn to create a delicious meal in an open-air kitchen.
“Are we still in America?” one of the youngsters recently asked, arriving at the farm after a two-hour ride from New York City.
Neumark is an advocate for children’s health who’s part of the national conversation about food policy and issues of sustainability and hunger. But the Sylvia Center is a very personal project for her.
In 2004, her youngest daughter, Sylvia, died suddenly at age 6. After that, Neumark didn’t think she’d be able to go back to catering again. But she woke up one morning and it all clicked. She had a vision for the Sylvia Center, a farm-based place to educate children and improve their lives through food. And, the organic farm would grow food for the catering company.
In 2006, she bought 62 acres of land that hadn’t been farmed in the last hundred years, and with famer Bob Walker, began preparing the land for planting. She and her husband named the farm for their son Sam, whose nickname was Katchkie, a Yiddish endearment meaning duck (she sometimes jokes that it is an old Indian tribal name). In 2007, they began welcoming kids.
“Farming has taught me patience,” she says, recalling that she had always been someone who wanted to get things done immediately.
In an interview, she mentions the three strands for her work: the for-profit (Great Performances), the non-profit (the Sylvia Center) and the anti-profit (the farm).
She speaks of the dichotomy between the world where people can eat whatever they would like, and the adjacent world where other New Yorkers cannot.
“I don’t think that I could just be in that privileged world,” she says. “Bringing them together is so powerful.”
Neumark grew up on the Upper West Side, attended Manhattan Day School and Central High School for Girls, and describes herself as “not an observant Jew, but a deeply cultural Jew.” Her kids went to Manhattan Day School, Heschel and Ramaz. She recognizes that many cultures have values of hospitality, but feels that the Judaism that permeated her life growing up is related to her strong feelings about not wasting food, gleaning from the fields and taking care of the hungry.
The city kids who participate attend a series of after-school sessions before visiting the farm. Some of them may not have seen a fresh tomato, but they watch cooking shows and want to be Rachael Ray. At the farm, Neumark and her colleagues try to “plant the seed” – to help them learn to love food from the ground up.
Neumark has never cooked professionally. For her, it’s therapy. After graduating Barnard, where she studied political science and urban studies, she took up photography. Back then too, she already seemed to have an entrepreneurial spirit tied to her humanist vision, and in 1979 started Great Performances, a waitress service for women in the arts. One thing led to another and she transformed the business. Great Performances now has exclusive contracts (and operate cafes) at many cultural institutions including Jazz at Lincoln Center, Sotheby’s and Wave Hill, and also the Plaza Hotel. Each year, they award scholarships to staff members who want to pursue the arts.
The book features more than 200 sophisticated but uncomplicated recipes, illustrated with Neumark’s color photographs. All of the proceeds will benefit the Sylvia Center. While the cookbook emphasizes vegetables, it is not solely vegetarian, although the author has become a vegetarian since she began writing. But that didn’t stop her from cooking two briskets over the weekend, for her father and for farmer Bob Walker. She’s now cooking up a new international project, Farmers for Peace.
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