Food and Nutrition

How One Chinese Vegetable Farm on Long Island Is Helping Feed Its Local Community

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Photo: Sang Lee Farms
One lingering effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it’s impacted pretty much every link of the food supply chain. American households are experiencing higher rates of food insecurity across the country, while producers are being tasked with getting their goods to markets, restaurants, and grocery shoppers in new, creative ways that comply with social-distancing guidelines. Among the farmers figuring out how to keep feeding local communities during this public health crises are Lucy Senesac, William Lee, and Fred Lee, who operate Sang Lee Farms in an area of Long Island called Peconic, New York.

“We had to shift protocols in our retail space for two months to do preorders, but were able to reopen when it was warm enough to sell outside,” Senesac says. “Farmers’ markets also shifted, so we had to staff more than usual so no customers handled produce—and we’ve seen more consumer interest in securing food closer to the source and their homes.”

Fortunately, the farm had already pivoted its operation (which started selling organic Asian produce in the 1940s, first in New York City’s Chinatown, then up and down the East Coast, from Montreal, Canada to Florida) to focus more on retail. “In 2004, we discontinued all wholesale distribution and adapted to direct consumer sales through our farm stand, community supported agriculture (CSA) farm shares in 2006, and farmers’ markets in 2007,” says Fred Lee.

Today they see their role in the community as “just providing the healthiest food we know how to grow,” says Senesac. “And we keep learning how to grow to the most families that we can.” As of late, that’s meant stocking their farm stand with pre-made meals like vegetable soups and dinner packs. “We chop up baby bok choy, scallions, and carrots, and have like a stir fry sauce that we make here,” she adds. “So you just buy it and it’s already chopped.”

Anything that doesn’t get sold is donated to local charities and food pantries. “We work with Community Action Southold Town (CAST) and Island Harvest,” Senesac says. “CAST is more of a local, North Fork organization that we donate our leftover CSA shares to, and they feed people in the community. We also donate every week to Maureen’s Haven, a local church that cooks a meal every Thursday for people who are homeless.”

This summer, Senesac plans to offer another form of community service: “A farm camp that I started six or seven years ago for young kids to just expose them to where their food comes from.” They also teach them about sustainable farming techniques, which is something Sang Lee Farms is known for—last year it won the Agricultural Environmental Management Leopold Conservation Award for its farming and cultivation practices. (It’s also received recognition for its irrigation micro-drip system, a system that conserves hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each farming season.)

“We farm organically with farmland stewardship in mind,” says Fred Lee. “It matters not just for the crops that we grow seasonally now, but for the future generations of folks and the environment that will be here after we no longer are.”

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