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FreshDirect Talk at TEDxManhattan Angers Some in the Bronx

By Patrick Wall | February 18, 2013 6:39am

SOUTH BRONX — Some Bronxites were offended to learn last month that TEDxManhattan, a high-profile conference devoted to the sustainable food movement, had knocked Tanya Fields, a South Bronx mother and urban farmer, off its roster of speakers.

Now, the same locals are fuming again because they found that while Fields did not speak at Saturday’s conference, David McInerney, a co-founder of FreshDirect, whose plan to relocate to the Bronx waterfront has provoked fierce opposition, did.

“It’s removing a person of color from a community where food issues are her main subject matter, and bringing in someone to talk about food with a corporate interest,” said Mychal Johnson, a Mott Haven resident and member of the anti-FreshDirect group, South Bronx Unite.

While the event’s organizer, Diane Hatz, insisted that her decisions on Fields and McInerney were unrelated, critics say the moves silenced an inner-city activist, while providing a platform for a company they say is mostly focused on well-off foodies.

“It speaks volumes about TEDxManhattan’s commitment to communities of color and working-class communities in the city,” said Monxo Lopez, a member of South Bronx Unite, which has filed a lawsuit to block FreshDirect’s move to The Bronx.

Fields, meanwhile, said that McInerney’s spot on the lineup reflected a bias towards big-name, mainstream food movement players and away from grassroots activists.

“It’s a prime example of them giving a platform to corporate, elitist actors in the food system,” Fields said last week. “It’s a conference about changing the way we eat, but it’s really about doing business as usual.”

On Saturday, Fields hosted her own event in Hunts Point, called “Not Just Talk: Food in the South Bronx.”

Hatz noted that, with the aid of a mediator, she had eventually re-invited Fields to the conference, but Fields declined to attend in order to host her own event. She also said McInerney was not a replacement for Fields, but had been on the lineup before Fields was disinvited.

TEDxManhattan "is a showcase for the sustainable food and farming movement and works to highlight different voices, ideas and opinions,” Hatz wrote in an email. “There is an open speaker call every year where everyone in the food movement is encouraged to apply to be a speaker.”

In a statement, FreshDirect said it works to improve nutrition and expand access to healthy foods and has developed deep relationships with local farmers and fishermen.

“Just this week, the company was recognized for its work on reducing salt,” the statement said. “It's also been a leader in the effort to expand the food stamp program and is a major contributor to food banks throughout New York.”

McInerney, a former chef, planned to speak at the conference about building better relationships with farmers as a way to make healthy sustainable foods taste better and replace unhealthy processed foods, FreshDirect said.

He was set to be introduced by Majora Carter, a green jobs consultant who got her start as a South Bronx environmental activist. FreshDirect hired Carter last year to help it garner local support for its planned 500,000 square-foot facility in the Harlem River Yards.

Since it was announced last year that FreshDirect intended to build a new headquarters in Port Morris, aided by nearly $130 million in proposed public subsidies, some South Bronx residents have blasted the plan as a taxpayer-funded misuse of the Bronx waterfront that will pollute the community with delivery-truck fumes.

Others welcome the nearly 1,000 jobs the company has promised to add with the expansion.

LaDonna Redmond, a food justice advocate who was scheduled to speak both at TEDxManhattan and Field’s Bronx event, said she sympathized with the FreshDirect critics’ concerns, but thought their anger at TEDxManhattan was unproductive.

“At the end of the day, the issues they’re talking about, that won’t change because somebody’s speaking at TEDx,” said Redmond, a senior program associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “That will only change because people come to the table and negotiate.”