What really is local agriculture?
According to a tour of the Washington area hosted by AGree, the foundation-funded effort on the future of agriculture, it’s the White House garden, budding entrepreneurs sharing a kitchen, a mobile fruit and vegetable market in lower income neighborhoods, lunch at an Alexandria restaurant where President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have dined, and a small farm in Virginia with social goals.
And all of them have challenges, noted Deb Atwood, the executive director of AGree, as she explained on the September 18 tour that the organization wanted to show the range of what’s considered local agriculture as people read AGree’s consensus recommendations, “Local Food: Revitalizing Community-based Food Systems.”
“Local agriculture is no longer a question mark. It is a coming-of-age moment,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the former Agriculture deputy secretary who started the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative at USDA and is now the executive director of sustainability at George Washington University.
Merrigan is also a co-chair of AGree, and helped write the report.
“Young farmers are jazzed about local production [even though] it’s really hard to do,” Merrigan told journalists as the tour began.
The challenge for the future, she added is “to make sure it is not a fad” and to figure out “how do we re-stabilize the infrastructure for local food?,” she said, referring to how farmers sold food and Americans bought it before the age of industrial agriculture.
The Obama administration “wants to make sure programs are accessible to this part of agriculture” and are “institutionalized” within USDA, added Elanor Starmer, a senior adviser to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
THE WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN GARDEN
Gardening isn’t considered agriculture, but what if the garden produces more food than the family eats, like the White House kitchen garden that First Lady Michelle Obama has planted and harvested with school children each year since 2009?
The White House kitchen garden — which will be open to the public along with the rest of the White House grounds this weekend — produces 1,500 pounds of food per year, explained Debra Eschmeyer, the executive director of Let’s Move!, the first lady’s campaign against childhood obesity
Most of the White House produce goes to feed the first family and White House guests, but about 500 pounds are donated to local charities, including Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington, which serves meals to the homeless.
The most important role for the White House kitchen garden, however, is to inspire people, Eschmeyer said, citing the following
“Look at how we have broken through the consciousness in such a short term,” Eschmeyer said of the last five years since Let’s Move was established, adding that the first lady has committed to promoting the cause for the rest of her life.
Emmy Simmons, another AGree co-chair and a former U.S. Agency for International Development official, said as she stood in the garden that the first lady’s efforts had led to “an international movement to encourage backyard gardening worldwide.”
UNION KITCHEN FOOD INCUBATOR
In Ivy City, an industrial neighborhood along New York Avenue heading out of the district, restaurateur Jonas Singer has started Union Kitchen, which allows budding food entrepreneurs the use of a commercial kitchen when their operations get too big to operate out of their houses.
Today Union Kitchen is a food business incubator filled with everything from a barbecue caterer to chocolate makers to a baker of dog biscuits.
When he started the Blind Dog Café at 944 Florida Ave. N.W., Singer said he came to realize that people getting started needed a place to scale up their businesses — and advice to go along with the work place.
Although Singer is the owner of Union Kitchen and started the business with his own and family savings and money from friends, entrepreneurs working there who convince Singer and his board that their businesses are viable become “members” of Union Kitchen.
Singer sounds like a tough taskmaster.
The member panel is a bit like the reality TV show “Shark Tank,” Singer said, where aspiring entrepreneur contestants present their business ideas to a panel of potential investors.
The closest model to membership in Union Kitchen, Singer said, is “the government — you have privileges and obligations.”
But Singer also said, “We don’t call ourselves a social enterprise.”
In addition to kitchen space, Union Kitchen also provides distribution services, access to partnered businesses, discounted vendors, marketing, and facility maintenance.
Singer also looks at the larger economy.
“It’s hard to make money in food,” he said. “We need inflation to go up. We need people to make money in food.”
He added that he wants to create jobs, “but not create low-wage jobs without benefits. We try to create resiliency.”
ARCADIA MOBILE MARKET
Arcadia Mobile Market takes produce from 16 local growers to 19 Washington low-income neighborhoods where it is hard to find fruits and vegetables. It takes SNAP, WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers and doubles their purchasing power.
The ancestors of many of the people living in these neighborhoods grew up in the South, where they had to garden and cook to stay alive, but now so many generations have passed that they no longer know how to cook the fruits and vegetables or find some of the produce strange.
To overcome that, JuJu Harris, the Arcadia Mobile Market culinary educator, has written “The Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook,” which is distributed in the neighborhoods where the vans stop.
Outside the Deanwood Recreation Center at 1350 49th St. N.E., Harris explained that she got interested in nutrition when she was “a WIC mom” and nursing the first of her children.
“Many people who come to the mobile market to improve their health don’t know how to cook,” Harris said. But her book advises, “You don’t have to make huge changes all at once. Try to make one meal a week with new ingredients.”
VERMILLION — An Alexandria restaurant
Michael Babin is in many ways the bridge in the local food movement. He is the founder and managing member of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose 17 establishments include Vermilion, the Alexandria restaurant where the Obamas celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2012.
Babin is also the chairman of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the funder behind the mobile market program.
Over a luncheon of baby arugula, a choice of penne pasta or pan roasted chicken breast and poppyseed ricotta fritters for dessert, Babin explained that when he got into the restaurant business he wanted “not just to feed the guests but to nourish them.”
“Restaurants can play a role in interesting people in things they haven’t had before,” he added.
But running a restaurant serving food with local ingredients is “a hard business model,” he said.
“We thought we would create our own farm standard — that lasted about 15 minutes,” he said. Instead he and his chefs found that they had to work with local farmers to find out what was feasible.
Babin alo tried to create “an animal welfare standard,” but found that difficult.
One restaurant in the group, the Partisan, at 709 D Street N.W., has its own Red Apron Butcher Shop next door selling meat raised on local farms and turned into handcrafted charcuterie, salami and sausages.
But Babin says it bothers him to see how cheap chicken is in this country and how it is raised.
“We are dependent on chicken as a protein,” he said.
Babin said he once offered to show Sam Kass, the former assistant White House chef, the Vermilion books so he could see the impact of the publicity from the Obamas’ patronage on business.
He describes Vermilion as a “boutique, but an accessible one,” pricewise.
Yet he says he is keenly aware that Vermilion is a restaurant only for “a percent of a percent” and that seems to have motivated him to get involved with the Arcadia farm and the mobile markets.
Arcadia, he notes, “matches farmers with chefs.” And its mobile markets may help create a market for fruits and vegetables among low-income people.
Babin is not critical of merchants in low-income neighborhoods who do not stock fruits and vegetables but sell potato chips and soft drinks.
Demand for fruits and vegetables has to come first, he said.
“If the mobile market succeeds some day, it won’t be needed” because the fruits and vegetables will be available, he said.
But Babin believes that the future of higher quality food is good. After people know about good food, going back to other food would be like “putting the toothpaste back in the tube.”
ARCADIA CENTER FOR SUSTAINABLE FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
The Arcadia Center is located on the Woodlawn Estate, the property bequeathed by George Washington and Martha Washington to Lawrence Lewis and Nelly Parke Custis.
In 1846, the plantation was sold to Quaker timber merchants who purposefully managed and operated the farm plantation in partnership with formerly enslaved laborers, making a statement in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War.
It is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Arcadia farm was started in 2010 on a small part of the plantation to improve community health, the viability of local farmers and preserve the environment for future generations.
With such diverse goals, the Arcadia center has a wide range of projects. On one end is the mobile market. On the other is the happy hours it holds so that farmers and chefs can meet.
Among the relationships it has developed is one between Northern Neck Fruits and Vegetables and BLT Steak; between Liberty Light Farms, which raises natural beef, and the Red Apron; between a number of farmers and the Inn at Little Washington, and between Rainbow Hill Farms, an egg producer, and Hank’s Oyster Bar.
Arcadia grows produce for the mobile market. It is not certified organic, but tries to use no-till and organic production methods. It relies on voluntary labor, said Anita Adalja, the farm manger.
But the program that seems to generate the most pride in the Arcadia staff is the one training veterans to farm. Many of them get their training on the weekends as they are leaving the military.
Veterans “have what farmers need: resiliency,” said Pamela Hess, executive director of Arcadia, a former national security journalist for the Associated Press and United Press International.