TEDxManhattan Heroes: Marcel Van Ooyen


Leading up to TEDxManhattan 2015, we've asked this year's speakers to introduce themselves by answering a few questions. Marcel Van Ooyen is the executive director of GrowNYC, a non-profit improving quality of life through environmental programs that secure a clean and healthy environment for NYC communities. A former Legislative Director for the New York City Council, Marcel also wrote and ensured the adoption of more than 30 environmental laws in the city.

What’s the topic you’ll be speaking about?

The 99% food problem, i.e., GrowNYC’s experience in New York City scaling up local food distribution in order to take it from a niche to mainstream by creating programs that allow family farmers to access wholesale distribution channels that make up 99% of the food that enters New York City.

Why is this important?

Buying local food supports local economies, preserves farms and farmland, increases biodiversity, increases nutrition, and just plain tastes better. GrowNYC has been a leader in the country at connecting family farmers to markets and its most recent wholesale endeavors promise to dramatically increase New Yorkers’ access to fresh, local produce.

What are 5 things farmers markets can do to maintain their relevance?

I would argue that Farmers Markets have, and always will, be relevant because they are the only way for customers to have a direct conversation with the people who grow their food. That said, markets can improve and set themselves further apart by:

  1. Adopting strict “grow your own” rules like our Greenmarket program has,
  2. Increasing the diversity of products available in winter though season extension growing practices,
  3. Adding more value added products, 
  4. Providing access to other sustainable services like special recycling collections and composting, and 
  5. Increasing the opportunities to interact with fellow shoppers though in market activities and through social media.

Are there other projects you’re also passionate about right now – either yours or someone else’s?

It is fantastic to see organizations like the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House purchase fresh, local produce for the first time and they deserve a great deal of credit for overcoming the logistical challenges of developing seasonal menus for their senior center and women’s shelter. GrowNYC has some very exciting projects on the horizon including opening New York’s first sustainability and food education center and dramatically expanding Greenmarket Co., our Food Hub/Wholesale Distribution program.

I would move the billions being spent on farm subsidies [in support of] corn and soybean production... to support innovative incentives for low income Americans to buy local produce.

If you could do one thing to change the food system, what would it be?

I would move the billions being spent on farm subsidies [in support of] corn and soybean production which result in the creation of low cost, unhealthy food to support innovative incentives for low income Americans to buy local produce. A great example is New York City’s Health Buck program which provides SNAP recipients with a $2 match for every $5 they spend at a farmers market.

Which other 2015 TEDxManhattan speakers are you excited about hearing? Which past speakers did you find particularly inspiring?

Looking forward to hearing them all! Joel Berg is an old friend and always entertaining. And I have an incredible amount of respect for Danny Meyer’s achievements, high standards and commitment to social causes.

Where can more information about your project be found?

The GrowNYC website: GrowNYC.org.

TEDxManhattan, "Changing the Way We Eat," will take place March 7, 2015, at the TimesCenter in New York City. Interested in joining the day? You can apply to attend, or host or attend a viewing party.