Update: since publishing this article, George Billard has announced the closure of Fresh Catskills.
Local Boy Does Good
Every Thursday, George Billard rises long before the sun to begin his weekly 18-hour delivery day. Thursday is the day Fresh Catskills customers receive their orders packed in cardboard banker’s boxes. They are driven down in a refrigerated panel truck from the company’s headquarters in Sullivan County, NY.
“The way they write my name, I love it!” Crowed food maven Alison Roman in a recent Instagram story that featured her hand-labeled box. The proper cursive belongs to Billard, for whom this business is a true labor of love—something I can attest to from my vantage point as his wife.
We left our longtime home in Manhattan in 2009 to live full-time in the little Catskills cabin that had been our weekend escape. We appreciated the local organic food and saw how hard the farmers worked to get it on our table. When the farmers’ market in the next town decided to move upriver in 2019, we joined with some friends to start a new version of the Barryville Farmers’ Market, recruiting growers and purveyors from our area who practiced organic and regenerative techniques.
Food Security & Covid-19
COVID-19 hit just as we were preparing for the second year of the market. As with so many other places upstate, our local towns became a full-time refuge for many New York City residents, increasing pressure on local businesses that were already compromised by stalled supply chains. Supermarket shelves were quickly depleted and food insecurity became a reality.
In March 2020, George reached out to our community of farmers and asked if they were willing and able to get food out to people a few months early. They were all eager to contribute. Using infrastructure he developed for the farmers’ market, George created the Victory Garden Project, an online market portal for ordering, and helped organize a hardworking volunteer corps to staff a weekly drive-thru, contactless pickup. It was a great success for both farmers and county residents, many of whom donated to an emergency relief fund that benefited local food banks.
For his contributions, Catholic Charities deemed George a “Champion of the Community.” This was something of a departure for a filmmaker whose most recent award had been for Best Screenplay at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. But it wasn’t actually such a stretch, given that his credits also include creating the A&E Television series “The Well-Seasoned Traveler,” a pre-Bourdain show about food around the world. George has always been interested in solving complex problems and promoting systemic change—and has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School to prove it. He saw a way to make a dent in a broken food system built on one-click shipping, out-of-season imports, and industrial feedlots.
Fresh Catskills launched in February 2021 with a mission to remake food distribution, starting with convenient delivery of the freshest, highest-quality food produced by small regional farms and artisan purveyors directly to homes in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester, and Sullivan County. Customers enjoy delicious pastured meats, nutrient-dense produce, and small-batch provisions while supporting rural entrepreneurs, sustaining local economies, and contributing to a healthier environment.
Among the things we’ve learned from this pandemic is that our food distribution system is vulnerable to disruption and is fundamentally unsustainable. Transporting food across the country (and around the world) is bad for the planet and for local economies. New York State currently imports up to 80% of its food, while our farmers struggle to find markets for what they grow. With the support of locavores in the city and upstate, Fresh Catskills is creating a more resilient system that reduces waste and mitigates our reliance on fossil fuels.
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Fresh Catskills also contributes a percentage of profits to, and helps raise money for, two food-based charities: A Single Bite, located in Sullivan County, offers education and support around issues of nutrition and food insecurity and has been delivering free meals to families in need throughout the pandemic. Wellness in the Schools (WITS) partners with school districts to provide nutrition and fitness education, healthy scratch-cooked meals, and active recess periods to help drive systemic, long-term change.
Despite the punishing hours, George is pressing on to grow and expand this business. “Given the volatility of politics, ever-shifting environmental challenges, and economic uncertainty, it’s incumbent on each of us to support local farms,” he says. “Whether people shop at their local farmers’ market or get deliveries from Fresh Catskills, strengthening regional food production and distribution is essential. Food insecurity is a looming threat that must be addressed head on and right away,” he concluded. “I’ll catch up on sleep later.”