Farm to Table for All:
Jun 04, 2013 04:40AM
A tall, jeans-clad woman in rubber boots works her hoe down a lumpy, earthen field on a rainy spring morning. “It’s the farmer’s day off,” explained Pam Hess, executive director of Arcadia, a nonprofit farm planted in the 19th century kitchen garden of Woodlawn Estate in Alexandria, Va. Hess readied the soil for more vegetables that will grow to feed low-income families and well-heeled foodies alike in the months to come. The vision of Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture is to “knit those communities together,” she said.
Meaning “harmonious wilderness,” the name Arcadia floated around in the mind of Alexandria-based, Neighborhood Restaurant Group founder Michael Babin as he researched how to source or grow food for his farm-to-table restaurants in Northern Virginia and DC. Having grown up in Baton Rouge with pigs and a vegetable garden out back, Babin’s early career as a lobbyist for community development clients expanded his natural interest in the public good alongside his concern for sustainable food systems.
His first restaurant, the Evening Star Café in Del Ray, helped turn his own neighborhood around and he and the staff intentionally engaged in issues that mattered to the community. They knew lack of access to fresh produce plagued people living in low-income neighborhoods. Years on, “an amazing piece of serendipity occurred,” Babin said, when a friend connected him to historic, nearby Woodlawn and they got the go-ahead to start Arcadia Farm there. Arcadia was the very name they saw on the old maps for this mid-Atlantic region.
Arcadia Farm is now two years old and Hess’s previous tenure as editor of Flavor magazine translates into a highly energetic and creative implementation of Babin’s vision. They are steadily growing Arcadia into a food hub, helping to get healthier food to people rich and poor through a network of nearby farms that in turn can thrive on receiving fair prices from a steady customer base. A food hub is an industry term for a distribution point. It also accurately describes Arcadia in another way: a crossroads of practical, shared concern for healthy people and land, community and economy.
A tour of the garden reveals the soil is full of plans and preparation. Northeastern sugar pumpkins and butternut squash will grow in one section, varieties of heritage potatoes in another; the list of crops and herbs is long. A powerful and cutting-edge model of community transformation is growing there too.
The Mobile Market, a former school bus painted bright green and equipped with a refrigerator chest, rolls out from Arcadia to communities across Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. At distribution spots inside urban food deserts, seasonal produce, meats and dairy from Arcadia and other farm partners are offered for sale. Customers can make purchases with EBT cards supplied by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In 2012, forty percent of Arcadia’s mobile market sales were made with EBT cards. Donors, including the Paleo meal delivery provider Power Supply, contribute funding that matches $10 on each EBT card and creates buying-power parity for the high quality food offered by the Mobile Market.
Children from throughout the surrounding area come to Arcadia Farm on field trips and for summer camp, where they help with the harvest and play games that “introduce kids to the magic of food and soil,” said Hess. “Fresh is appealing,” she adds. Studies show children will choose the fresh apple they picked themselves over a prepackaged snack.
There are no chemicals used on the farm. Instead, Arcadia aims to operate a closed farm loop that captures all the fertility it produces with no input needed from outside. Arcadia’s hens roost and pasture in chicken tractors, movable units that house them on the insect-rich grasses, allowing their fertilizer to soak right back into the ground that feeds them.
First pick of Arcadia’s harvest goes to the Mobile Market and the surplus is available to the chefs at NHG. It also provides company staff with a built-in connection that transcends the day-to-day pressures of the restaurant business--the hard work, long hours and high stress. Knowing they are contributing to a visionary project for food equity, Babin explained, “helps make the daily hard work worth it.”
Part of making Arcadia come more fully alive is the participation of an ever-growing network of community participants, from connoisseurs to CrossFit practitioners, public schools to children’s aid groups. “The larger goal,” Hess said, “is to transform the local food system.” With that, she returned to hoeing.
For more information about Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, visit www.arcadiafood.org.