Bringing the Farm to Fresh Food Deserts
When we discovered Sadatu Usman’s pop-up farm stand, which she runs as an extension of her wellness business Milly’s Market, we were struck by how much this enterprise embodies the Thanksgiving spirit of sharing a seasonal bounty with a new community. Through her farm stand, Sadatu brings affordable farm-fresh produce and home-cooked healthy meals to underserved communities throughout Brooklyn.
Sadatu was inspired to start Milly’s Market by the hustle and bustle of the marketplaces she experienced as a child visiting her father’s family in Nigeria. After witnessing the entrepreneurial spirit and energy of the people selling their artisanal food and crafts in Nigeria, Sadatu was moved to apply these traditions in Brooklyn.
The mission behind Milly’s Market is to enhance the quality of life in Brooklyn by making produce and high-quality prepared foods “accessible to the public, especially the underserved,” in a marketplace setting. In doing this, Sadatu hopes to create “a positive community experience that fosters social gathering, interaction, and education.” As a resident of one of the communities served by the farm stand, Sadatu can attest to its importance. “I live in Crown Heights, and I’m really particular about what I eat and feed my son. There were no options for me here to buy the fresh, healthy food I was looking for, so I would have to travel. For residents who are willing to settle or aren’t able to travel, all they get is packaged food or even rotten food.”
The farm stand’s produce is sourced from small family farms in upstate New York and New Jersey. These partnerships are the product of Sadatu’s extensive research on farms not far from her family’s 70-acre property in Delhi, New York, run by farmers whose values align with her own. The farmers she met needed support to bring their products “downstate,” as they did not have the means to focus on both farming and transporting their goods to the city. With the assistance of GrowNYC, a non-profit that promotes environmental programs in New York City, and regular help from her mother, Sadatu has been able to help bridge this gap between farmer and urban consumer. Now, she makes farm visits regularly, and delights in observing the farmers she works with cultivate heirloom vegetables and incorporate sustainable practices into their everyday farming systems. “There is no better way to be connected to your food source than to stand on the soil in which it grows and have the privilege of forging relationships with your local farmer,” she notes. Sadatu hopes that by spring of next year, the farm stand will feature a significant amount of produce grown on her family’s Catskills property as well.
The farm stand’s offerings are sold at an affordable price, which is a priority. “I am really conscious about the pricing at the farm stand, because the communities I focus on are lower income. I’m working on accepting EBT and some of the WIC and senior programs, because I’ve seen that this is a need. With gentrification, some of my customers are middle income, but still, this is food, so the pricing has to make sense. I don’t upcharge in the way big box health food stores do. My goal is to help the community while making a living and continuing this project - I’m not concerned with making the biggest profit.”
Among the fall offerings at the Milly’s Market pop-up farm stand are root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes; winter squash like butternut, acorn, and kabocha; pumpkins; cruciferous greens like kale, cabbage, collard greens, and brussels sprouts; and winter fruits like apples, cranberries, and pears. From these ingredients, Sadatu prepares soups like Hearty Winter Squash and Creamy Turmeric Pumpkin, as well as cold-pressed juices with beets, purple carrots, and apples. Holiday fare at the farm stand includes cinnamon apple cider, as well as side dishes like cranberry sauce and candied sweet potatoes. (See below for Sadatu’s fabulous sweet potato recipe!)
In Sadatu’s own words, the community reaction to the farm stand “has been amazing.” She has been “blown away and elated” by the warm public reception she has received, including customers telling her how the peaches they bought over the summer were the best they had ever had. Other customers with health problems visit the stand religiously to source fruits and vegetables. “They depend on me now, which is proof that there is a need for wellness resources in the community,” Sadatu says. She has experienced a particularly enthusiastic response from the children who visit the farm stand. “The best is when the kids in the hood ask for fruits and veggies. Yes! I’ve had children ask their parents to buy everything from beets to carrots to of course fruit. It all starts with the children.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, a risk factor for childhood obesity is living in a community with “limited resources and little access to supermarkets. As a result, [community members] may opt for convenience foods that don’t spoil quickly, such as frozen meals, crackers and cookies.” Sadatu has seen this first hand. “Kids are young and impressionable. There is a boy who lives in a building right next door to one of our locations, and I’ve gotten close to him. His mom works and leaves him money for food, but there is no one to cook for him when he comes home from school, and he was eating junk food all day. Because I was there, he started hanging out with my son and me. At first he was feeding off my entrepreneurial spirit, asking questions about what I was selling. Then I started teaching him about the product; I taught him that peaches are a stone fruit, what they look like when they’re in season. He tasted a nectarine for the first time and he loved it.”
Sadatu noticed that kids attending a school near the farm stand were purchasing donuts, potato chips, and soda for breakfast. She decided to make wholesome breakfasts at a similar price point, and the school kids responded enthusiastically, especially since Sadatu is adept at making nutritious versions of classics like mac and cheese and icees. “For me, it’s all about the kids having the opportunity to experience this food, to have exposure. If it’s not around you, you’re not going to want it. You can’t have enough outlets like mine, as well as educational opportunities—I want to bring the kids upstate, so they can see the farms and the growing process.”
Sadatu hopes to see her business model spread to other parts of the country. Transportation is key, as is access to farmers and other producers, or the ability to grow produce independently. “I found communities where I thought I would be useful, made relationships with store fronts and community gardens there, and got myself a table that I made beautiful.” As a New Yorker, participating in a pop up comes naturally to Sadatu. “This is street vending at the end of the day, and being on the streets with the people is something we do in this city. I’ve always been a customer of street vendors. I’ve bought the best things from older ladies in my neighborhood that set up on the street with their vintage jewelry. It’s grassroots, and I think it is really fabulous, whether in Soho, or Brooklyn, or Queens.”
My hope is that we become more conscious consumers of all things that we put in and on our bodies, to ensure the health of our planet and ourselves.
Flash Round: Sadatu Usman
Where can we find you in your free time, when you’re not running Milly’s Market?
You can find me managing my wellness, including working out and meditating, and being a mom to my awesome 13 year old son. Sometimes at night I vegetate with Netflix, watching documentaries on food or social issues. I love to read up on wellness and alternative medicine, which is kind of like work but not really, since I enjoy it. I really don’t have much time to socialize these days as a mom and entrepreneur. I will, however, go out to network because I’m all about my business. I love meeting other entrepreneurs, as it fuels my fire and keeps me on my path.
How do you envision the future of your business?
The Milly’s Market concept is just beginning. This is not just about being cool and vegan – it is about touching the community and learning about what people want through the pop up. I’m working on expanding to a full farmers market in spring 2016, with wellness vendors like farmers, food purveyors, and makers of handcrafted bath and body products. I’m currently looking at a location for the farmers market in Crown Heights.
The movement to choose organic, locally sourced food has spread across the nation, but this conscious outlook is not yet as widespread when it comes to purchasing decisions about clothing. This is despite the fact that fashion is the second-most polluting industry behind oil, fosters exploitative labor practices, and pesticides and toxic dyes in clothing are readily absorbed through the skin. Given all of this, how do you think the fashion industry and attitudes about purchasing clothing will change over the next twenty years?
My hope is that we become more conscious consumers of all things that we put in and on our bodies, to ensure the health of our planet and ourselves. I also hope that we become consistent, in that someone who claims to be vegan, for example, has that same conviction with regard to his or her fashion choices. If you are concerned about the way your food is grown, you should be equally concerned with the way your fashions are manufactured. It only makes sense.
I hope with the new awakening happening on the planet, that people, both designers and consumers alike, make more conscious, morally just choices when sourcing their products and materials, and become more hands on and committed to their craft.
It is possible to be environmentally conscious and fashionable at the same time. The concept that eco-fashion is “granola” is a dated and backwards mindset, and I believe that we are moving toward a more progressive way of thinking that will create change in the fashion industry and beyond. I welcome this responsible and accountable way of business, as the old way doesn’t work. It’s time!
Note: Responses have been condensed and edited.
Sadatu Usman’s Vegan Candied Sweet Potatoes
3 pounds sweet potatoes
1 cup agave syrup
½ cup coconut oil
½ cup coconut or almond milk
Juice of 1 orange
3 strips of the orange rind
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or pumpkin pie spice)
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or pumpkin pie spice)
2 vanilla beans
Peel and cut up sweet potatoes and place in large pot. Add coconut oil, agave, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange juice, rinds, and vanilla beans into pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer until potatoes are fork tender, stirring occasionally. Add the coconut or almond milk and stir. Transfer sweet potatoes and syrup (remove vanilla bean pods) to a blender and blend until smooth and creamy, or you can mash the potatoes in pot if you’d like a chunkier consistency. You can plate from here, or bake for 15 min at 325 degrees fahrenheit. Garnish with cinnamon and nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice and enjoy. This recipe makes a nice sweet potato pie filling as well. Happy Holidays!
Sadatu is wearing .09 The Chunky Knit Sweater in heather grey