The Man Behind the Mangoes

Produce buyer Allen Zimmerman on greener groceries.

By Brandon Keim

Everybody knows that fruits and vegetables come from the soil, technically—but, more pragmatically, they come from the grocery store. Yet most people know more about how a seed turns into a tomato than how that tomato appears in the produce aisle at 77 cents per pound.

Behind the plump pomelos and mouth-watering watermelons, inspecting the lettuce leaves and carrot tops, is the unsung hero of the journey from field to plate: the produce buyer. At the Park Slope Food Cooperative in Brooklyn, the produce buyer is Allen Zimmerman.

The bright-eyed and pebble-voiced Zimmerman, a lifelong Brooklynite and former union organizer, brings a down-home New York City practicality to providing for Park Slope's sophisticated palates.

“One of my responsibilities on this job is to eat. I have to taste things. How could you sell a fruit without knowing how it tasted?” he says. “The way I learned this job was hands-on. You touch the produce, you smell it, you eat it.”

Zimmerman, who at 57 bounds up the Coop's back stairs with the springy step of a man half his age, doesn't wait until the food is on the shelf to taste it. He can be found at the delivery doors at 5:30 every morning, evaluating the new day's shipments and deciding how much more—or less—should be ordered.

The inspections are the final step in the half-science, half-art process of predicting what the Coop's 12,000 members will want to eat and knowing where to find it. How many mangoes will be eaten in May? How much eggplant in August? Who grows them well and conscientiously?

It's Zimmerman's job to decide, and that's not always easy, especially when trying to balance different green values.

Toward winter's end, for example, when apples from his preferred orchards in New York and Washington State grow scarce, Zimmerman orders from New Zealand.

“People complain that it's terribly inefficient to bring apples from 10,000 miles away when you can get them from 3,000. But I know that a container ship is a very efficient use of fuel, so I'm not sure that 10,000 ship miles versus 3,000 truck miles is bad for the environment,” he says.

“And somebody said the other day that local farms are using fossil fuels to refrigerate their apples for five or six months,” he adds. “There's no good solution. The most important thing is to think about what you're doing and try to make good decisions.”

Though not always possible, buying locally grown fruits and vegetables has become a goal for Zimmerman. Because farming without pesticides can be difficult in New York's relatively bug-friendly climate, he sometimes opts for minimally-treated local produce over organic harvests from farther away.

“To be able to support a small family farm, we're doing the right thing,” he says.

Such local dedication is fitting for Zimmerman, who was born near Coney Island and has lived in Brooklyn for half a century. He joined the Coop in 1975 as the anti-war movement and United Farm Workers boycott died down and his work as a taxi driver union organizer came to an end.

“Environmental activism wasn't seen as real activism back then. There were some who felt it wasn't radical, that it wasn't doing the hard political work. But it was right for me,” he says.

“I didn't feel I was necessarily changing the world, but I did feel that I was changing a little corner of it. And that was enough.”