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Thinking Big Picture by Going Local


D.C. restaurateur Michael Babin is known for overseeing restaurants that serve locally-sourced cuisine, but when Babin was looking for local food sources in the Washington area a few years back, he had trouble finding what he needed.

The experience got Babin thinking about the local food system. If it can be so difficult for restaurants to find locally-sourced, healthy, affordable food, then how hard must it be for people not in the food business?

So Babin decided to do something about it.

Babin founded the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit organization that strives to improve the health of the D.C. region by addressing issues of food access, raising awareness about healthy food sources and establishing connections between local, sustainable farmers and consumers.

“Good, healthy, well-raised food is not really available to people,” says Pamela Hess, Arcadia’s executive director and a Leader. “That’s fine if you have money and education and a car, it’s no big deal… But for disadvantaged people, or merely car-less, it’s nearly impossible.”

Arcadia tackles the big issue of food access in several targeted ways. The organization maintains a working demonstration farm on four acres on the grounds of the historic Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, Va. The nonprofit also runs a farm-to-school program and a farm camp at its farm, both of which are designed to teach young people about the importance of sustainable farming and healthy eating.

Using produce from the Arcadia farm and others in the area, Arcadia operates a mobile market that brings crates of healthy food to underserved neighborhoods in the D.C. region. Operating via a refurbished school bus, the mobile market makes nine stops throughout the week, serving local residents who wouldn’t be able to obtain healthy affordable food otherwise — including many who pay via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Arcadia doubles the value of SNAP and WIC dollars, which encourages people to buy the healthy goods.

“When people come to us, our food is already really well priced,” she says. “They can walk away with a week’s worth of groceries for $20… You can have a complete diet from our mobile market, and people really love it.”

Hess notes that she’s often shocked to see the food environment in the neighborhoods the mobile market serves. At one stop, the neighborhood is bounded by the Anacostia River on one side and I-295 on another, which means residents must walk one mile on a pedestrian overpass and then another mile to even get to a grocery store.

For residents without an automobile, especially senior citizens and the disabled, the trek can prove to be virtually impossible to navigate. “Once you get there, you realize, ‘Wow, that’s why people are eating from the convenience store!’,” Hess says.

Not only do market workers sell healthy and affordable goods, they also conduct teaching demonstrations to help customers craft healthy meals at home. It’s a two-way street, as older residents will teach the market workers new recipes passed down generation-to-generation.

People come to the Mobile Market each week in droves, Hess notes. A local resident at one stop decided to get her chauffeur’s license so she could drive senior citizens in a van to the market, since even a half-a-mile walk can be too much for people, Hess recalls.

“To me, that really demonstrated the need,” Hess says. “They were going above and beyond to get to our market, because it was their only option.”

Unfortunately, the market only runs from May 1 to Oct. 30, but Arcadia is looking at ways to serve its communities during the winter months, Hess says. One goal is to help local corner stores stock and sell healthier items, including fresh produce.

“A lot of stores don’t want to do it, because produce is tricky to maintain,” Hess adds. “But I think if we can show them that demand is there and they can make money, we’ll have success.”

In addition to the mobile market, Arcadia’s farm-to-school and farm camp programs teach young people about the importance of fresh and healthy food.

The farm-to-school program helps schools serve more local, healthy and sustainable foods in school meals. The organization also brings a local farmer to middle schools on Tuesdays to teach kids about agriculture and allow them to taste healthy goods.

Meanwhile, the farm camp is a summertime program that allows campers to learn about farm life through hands-on learning such as watering crops, collecting eggs, weeding and planting. Campers really take to the program, Hess says — noting that youngsters seem to especially enjoying digging insects and worms out of the compost. “They take special pleasure in squishing the pests,” she says.

Kids also seem to take to mundane tasks such as weeding, Hess says. And the farm really does encourage healthy eating — one mother reported that after taking part in the camp, her once-vegetable-adverse 7-year-old daughter demanded that the family start eating beets.

“There’s just something really magical about the kids having their hands in the soil,” she adds. “Magical things happen you can’t really predict.”

Click here to connect with Pamela Hess.