Wen-Jay Ying is the regenerative agriculture spokeswoman behind NYC’s subscription-based farmer’s market, Local Roots. Over purple sticky rice and a tomato egg dish, we talked about Wen-Jay's first time on a farm, the broken food system, and the power of food to create community.
Growing up on Long Island, my parents cooked a lot of Chinese food, but also what they thought was American food. Like pasta with canned corn. We ate a lot of packaged food, McDonalds and Wonder Bread, things I would never eat now. But food is more than just a way to stay healthy. People love food because of that emotional attachment to a time and place. It’s comfort.
When I was a kid, I really liked the idea of being a store owner. But I went to Boston to study psychology and came back to New York to work in fashion. I was doing a lot of music on the side, playing bands in the underground music scene. The first time I really thought about food was after a conversation I had with the lead singer of the Flaming Lips backstage at a show. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, I was thinking about moving to New Orleans to help with hurricane relief. He told me to think about what my own community needs. After reading an article in the newspaper I realized that New York City was actually a food desert.
During that trip, I felt such a deep connection to myself and found what I really wanted to do with my life.
An ex boyfriend sent me a job posting through AmeriCorps at an organization called Just Food. They help make food more accessible in New York City. I went to a farm upstate for the first time and fell in love with the community-based food system. Sometimes I feel envy for people that haven’t been to a farm because they get to have that first-time experience. During that trip, I felt such a deep connection to myself and found what I really wanted to do with my life.
I started Local Roots in 2011 as a way to connect New Yorkers with local food. It started as a subscription-based farmers market (think of a modernized CSA) where New Yorkers subscribed to local produce, dairy, and meat entirely from local, responsible farmers. We've recently opened a storefront that features a market and cafe with a Chinese farm to table menu that sources 90% of ingredients directly from local, small-scale farms. For me, it's a love letter to New York.
Once you start tasting how much better local food is... the more you start thinking about your own health and that of the earth.
Today we’re doing 1,200 deliveries a week, but our mission hasn’t changed. We’ve always believed that food and small business can change the world. I’d been thinking about having a community space every day for the past 12 years, and we finally opened our market and cafe in July 2021. It was exciting, as it gave people a gateway drug to sustainable living. Once you start tasting how much better local food is and learning about how broken the conventional food system is, the more you start thinking about your own health and that of the earth.
The cafe has been a good opportunity to share my culture with other people in a true and honest way. We were recipe testing at the peak of Asian-violence in NYC - the menu started out as a hybrid of American food and Chinese food but the current affairs in our city pushed me to develop a menu solely that featured Chinese food. I think food really does bring people together and misconceptions can be clarified through the food we serve in our cafe. It’s another way to show love to our community.
It’s really beautiful to look down at your plate and know every name of the person that grows your food
I usually eat my lunch at our cafe. I’m the kind of person that can eat the same thing every day for a week and be really happy with it. A big part of that is because almost everything I eat includes ingredients from the farmers I know. It’s really beautiful to look down at your plate and know every name of the person that grows your food, what their farm looks like, what their kids are like, and what music they listen to.
If I had only one essential item, it’d be eggs from upstate New York because I put eggs in everything. Eggs for dinner takes me back to dinners my mom cooked when I was young. I’m privileged to say I don't eat anything that’s not in season or local and I rarely go to grocery stores. My fridge is stocked entirely of Local Roots produce, dairy, grains, and meat.
When you purchase local and organic, you get more nutrients per bite and per dollar.
My advice to those wanting to eat more sustainably, is to not aim for perfection. Start by picking one item that you eat a lot and try getting that from a local, responsible farm. The best thing you can do for both farmers and your body is to start buying more vegetables. Studies show that the nutrient levels have significantly decreased in conventionally grown produce in the United States due to poor growing practices. So when you purchase local and organic, you get more nutrients per bite and per dollar.
In the future I’d love to roll out more locations in a sustainable and responsible way. Right now I'm hosting a TV show on Hudsy TV where I interview different people in the local Hudson Valley food system. Finding more opportunities in the mainstream media to reach more people is important to me.
It’s hard to fight against the big system.
If I could leave you with one thing to know about our global food system, is that the conventional mainstream food system is completely broken, harmful to the earth and to you. It’s hard to fight against the big system. That’s why it’s so important even to buy just one bunch of vegetables from a local farmer that’s practicing responsible farming. It has to be these small little changes on multiple levels to make a huge difference in this world. Know your food dollar and how it can make a difference.
Interview by Emilie Swan, photography by Elena Mudd