Joe Baldwin answers his phone in the middle of loading his truck for Poughkeepsie’s Earth Day celebration. “We’re trying to bring more farm-to-table into the city,” he says. “One thing that makes me very happy, all four of my kids and nine grandkids are going to be there with me for Earth Day.”
Ask Baldwin for an overview of the activities of his organization Earth to Table and he fires off a string of achievements, works in progress, and possibilities that reach out to various corners and demographics of Dutchess County in all directions, peppered with kudos to the many other people involved. There are food pantries, community gardens, and educational programs ranging from preschool to college and community-based; Baldwin takes sole credit for none of them, but works his tail off to boost all of them, turning the communal soil from one end of the field to the other.
Earth to Table’s short description is “providing fresh, wholesome produce, dehydrated food, and farm-to-table educational services.” The mission statement is more detailed: grow fresh food, make sure everyone gets some, educate about cooking and wellness, and promote food awareness throughout Dutchess County. To that end, Earth to Table uses community gardens, greenhouses, parks, food pantries, farm markets, and schools as venues for demonstrations of everything from seed germination to cooking. And a chat with Baldwin, or a look at the press coverage he has generated over the past few years, indicates that that is exactly what Earth to Table does. There are projects underway, in discussion, or in recent history in Hyde Park, Pleasant Valley, Red Hook and Poughkeepsie; at Bard, SUNY Dutchess, Vassar, Marist, and the Culinary Institute; and at several school districts.
Who is this dynamo? “Joe is like the Pied Piper of real food and gardening,” says Deborah Belding, manager of the Hyde Park Community Garden located on the grounds of Saint James Episcopal Church. “People come out of nowhere to pitch in…He’s a dynamo, and we’re lucky to have him involved in the garden.”
Seeds of Earth to Table
Baldwin grew up on a Vermont dairy farm and was drafted in 1972. The army taught him the basics of cooking for large groups, and after discharge, he chose the Culinary Institute of America. By the time he graduated he had a clear vision of food as wellness and a strong desire to use his knowledge for the people who needed it most.
“I took a job feeding the veterans at Castle Point, trying to convince the VA to give the patients healthy, fresh food,” he says. “That got frustrating. My wife Mary finally convinced me to go open my own restaurant.”
For a couple of decades, Joe and Mary ran the Restaurant in the Park at James Baird State Park in Pleasant Valley and raised their four kids. In 1997, Mary died; far too early by all accounts. One can only imagine how wildly proud she would be of the way the family mission has blossomed into the wider community.
“He’s been doing this since the ‘80s, really; way before it was cool,” says Joe’s son Russell, owner-operator of Rusty’s Farm Fresh Eatery in Red Hook from 2010 until a fire destroyed the business in March. “We always had a garden at home; we spent a lot of time at the restaurant as kids. I took what he taught me and put a little of my own spin on it, and it thrilled me when people liked it.”
Rusty’s Farm Fresh Eatery drew over 1,500 “likes” and 45 five-star reviews on Facebook. The restaurant offered health food, smoothies and juices, and the three-alarm fire that destroyed it along with seven neighboring Red Hook businesses on March 15 sent a palpable grief through the local foodie community, who rallied round to mourn favorite dishes and urge a speedy reopening. “Something that made me fall in love with him was his passion for the restaurant,” posts Rusty’s wife Ninoska. “I still remember how he described to me one of his favorite dishes, Garlic Parmesan Fries.”
The Baldwins have been told by their insurer that it may take as long as two years for a settlement to be realized. Although Russell admits he’s still reeling, he does approach the situation in what one realizes is the signature Baldwin style. “We were doing really well. The timing could not be any more unfortunate,” he says. “But while we sift through the lawyers and insurance stuff, I’m helping Dad, donating my time to Earth to Table any way I can. He really appreciates that, and it’s the only good thing to come of the fire.
“A lot of his focus right now is working to promote fresh food and wellness in the city of Poughkeepsie and at the Culinary. He’s meeting with the new mayor on Friday about trying to get a market started.”
Nettles, Stevia and Social Justice
Earth to Table is constantly coming up with ways to make real food available to everyone, regardless of income—gleaning, food rescue, food pantry work, extremely negotiable farmers’ market prices, and outright gifting being some of the methods actively pursued.
“Between what we grew and what was donated, we produced about two tons of free food for people last year,” says Belding. “The first season, people would come into the food pantry looking for iceberg lettuce. No, but we have mesclun and kale, and here’s how you prepare it. Now we have people losing weight…People on a fixed income who can’t normally afford organic are benefitting.” Three plots at the garden are dedicated to growing for the pantry, which is staffed by volunteers from several local congregations. Other plots are taken by community members and students from the Culinary, who donate their excess to the pantry as well; leftovers from the pantry are served to Meals on Wheels clients.
Baldwin, meanwhile, gives away a lot of what he grows and is always encouraging people to try herbs like nettle and stevia, and “Joe’s Special Tea,” which blends those with hibiscus, cloves, sage, rosemary, cinnamon and sorrel, all harvested from his home garden in Pleasant Valley. (Full disclosure: This reporter received, unsolicited, a baggie of the tea in the mail along with a packet of Earth to Table information. It is utterly delicious.) “People tell me they’ve tried stevia and dislike it,” he says. “But they’ve tried the supermarket stuff that’s grown in China. I tell them ‘here, try the real thing,’ and they’re amazed.”
Earth to School
Joe’s daughter Lauren Baldwin runs the Creative Corner Family Daycare in Hyde Park. Each student has a personal garden plot to tend, and Joe serves as a consultant. He’s also been instrumental in establishing the district-wide garden classroom, culinary education, and healthy lunch program at Red Hook’s public schools, and has crossed the river to bring the good word to students at Duzine Elementary in New Paltz. “We’ve been educating the kids, the teachers, and the aides,” says Baldwin’s close ally and research assistant Beverly Briggs, who works at Duzine helping autistic children. “One aide’s daughter is ill; we’ve been making sure she gets nettles and other herbs, and she’s doing better. Her mom wants to organize an educational panel with us in New Paltz.”
From the tiniest to the collegians, Baldwin believes, young people exposed to the benefits and delicacies of his food-as-medicine programming will take it with them wherever they may roam; in the case of his alma mater, the Culinary Institute, many will roam straight into restaurant kitchens. “If you get to the chefs, they then go out all over the world,” he says. “The same with the Vassar and Marist students—they come from everywhere and go everywhere after they graduate.” Baldwin is currently trying to finesse some volunteer energy from the Culinary down to the Hyde Park garden—college budget cuts mean that the internship program there won’t start until July this year—and lobbying for a rooftop garden there, while advocating for mandated food rescue policies, a la France.
“Joe just gets people together and stuff you’d never expect gets done,” says Belding. “He’s been doing this for a long time and knows a ton of people; the message is pure and true.”
And loud and clear and life-altering. “When I retire in four years I want to dedicate the rest of my life to helping churches in other places set up garden-to-pantry programs,” Belding says. “I’m making myself and my dream known to the diocese. I really want to go around and be Debbie Appleseed with this stuff.”
To learn more about Earth to Table products, garden consulting, and culinary and farming educational programs, call 845-635-9388 or visit the organization’s Facebook page.