Washington DC's local food landscape and FRESHFARM Markets

I am happy to report our capital city, the thriving metropolis of Washington DC, shuts down roads and stops traffic for local food - and it all began with FRESHFARM markets.

The 501c3 organization runs 11 farmers markets in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. One of the two FRESHFARM Directors, Ann Yonkers, recently shared with me the history and the workings of this dynamic organization.

A native Washingtonian, Yonkers purchased Pot Pie Farm with her husband in 1991 in St. Michaels, MD and quickly became confronted by the local food scene. As Yonkers described it, "the Eastern Shore is such a weird setting. It used to be like New Jersey - almost all of the food for restaurants from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington came from there. With the advent of chicken farms, it just produces wheat, corn, and soybeans - which are all used to feed chickens. I would go to the farm stands and restaurants and all of the produce was from California. I said this is really crazy. So I started a little business, picking up produce and dropping it off."

Yonkers was thus fertile and energetic ground for when FRESHFARM Board Member Nora Pouillon, of Nora's, struck by the dynamic NYC Greenmarkets, suggested to her friend to start similar markets in DC.

Yonkers and her Co-Director, Bernadine (Bernie) Prince, opened the first two markets (Dupont Circle and St. Michaels) under the American Farmland Trust umbrella in 1997. (Farmers markets are often run under the aegis of a larger organization until they decide to take the time and money to become their own 501c3. It is much easier to be a line item in a church balance sheet, for example, during the first few bumpy years of attracting customers and growers.)

In 2002-3, FRESHFARM filed for 501c3 status and opened their third market - Penn Quarter. "It was a struggle" Yonkers recalled, "and part of the big struggle was getting that first market open with the permits to shut down the street." The Penn Quarter FRESHFARM market location is awesome - tents and shoppers are cradled on a closed off block of 8th St NW between the Navy Memorial and the National Portrait Gallery, looking straight down the hill to the National Archives (erected in 1931 on the former site of Washington DC's Center Market).

FRESHFARM is committed to tracking the numbers to illustrate that the local food movement is not a passing trend. "We count our customers every half hour. We also take a percentage fee of gross sales, which has made it possible to track how we are doing." As she continued, Yonkers sounded sad. "Most markets have no idea. All over the country there is this giant movement and everyone says - oh it is so great. But it is all anecdotal, not really great in terms of saying this is a serious activity."

So let us talk 2010 numbers. Over 360,000 shoppers purchased food from the 150 plus farmers and producers selling only what they grow, raise, catch or make at FRESHFARM markets. Over 9000 acres of Chesapeake Bay watershed is farmed to support that local demand. More than $19,000 in free food vouchers was donated to low-income shoppers - several of their markets accept WIC, Senior Coupons, and Food Stamps/SNAP Benefits. (Mark Bittman did a great piece on WIC recently in the NY Times.) Over 50,000 pounds of fresh food were donated to their gleaning partners (DC Central Kitchen among others).

I agree with Yonkers's statement that: "every market has its own vibe and quality." Dupont Circle on Sunday is a maelstrom of activity and people. The buildings at Penn Quarter (Thursday) shade the chefs from local restaurants as they roll their carts up and down the street. Saturday Silver Spring's central fountain spills cheer and community into the pedestrian village. I like markets where you can spend time chatting with the growers - perhaps Michael James, of Blueberry Hill, at H Street (Saturday) or Mary Haskins, of Haskins Family Farm, at Foggy Bottom (Wednesday).

Farmers markets are a distillation of the demand and supply relationship between consumers and producers. As Attila Agoston, of Mountain View Farm, shared with me: "it takes four parts - the market, the restaurant, the grower, and the consumer to support one another. We try to respond to what people want and bring stuff that other people don't have."

"We have seen a huge innovation in terms of what comes to market then when we started. Fruit, vegetables, flowers and plants - that was it - and now you can feed yourself." Yonkers smiled. "The whole diversification - we never had any meat, any cheese, and milk - now we have all of these protein products that come year round." Whether preserving food through cheese making or sauerkraut, growers are responding to the year-long demand, and FRESHFARM responded in 2010 by extending the market season to year long for Dupont and Silver Spring.

"I am so glad, I can hardly believe it!" Expounded Yonkers, "I wanted to start a farmers market in a town where policy is made. The world is coming around. The little food movement is the most innovative sector, by far."

Here is the article on Real Time Farms!

Encomium for the USDA and the glory of the DC/Baltimore foodworld!

(Other than being a good word for freerice.com, encomium denotes a song of praise.)

Just in time for a perfect week of spring weather, I visited DC (my hometown) and Baltimore to walk up and down the Mall, visit the Department of Agriculture (USDA), talk to restaurants in love with transparency, take pictures of markets, and explore the food changes that have happened to my town in the past 7 years (since I left).

It was a dizzying week because the food world in the capital area has exploded. Farm to fork restaurants are sourcing from a myriad of new and vibrant farmers markets, rooftop gardens are supplying veggies to restaurants across the street — fed by compost from the very restaurants, and the USDA not only hosts a farmers market onsite — they shared the locations of all markets nationwide.

I began the week talking to Amanda Eamich, Director of New Media at the USDA. Eamich was able to highlight and share several of the tools the USDA has provided to help inform policy and the public. The Economic Research Service (ERS) section of the USDA has built two amazing online tools to help pinpoint food availability and broader “determinants of food choices and diet quality.” The Food Desert Locator shows all areas in the country that are more than 1 kilometer from a source of healthy food — you might be surprised at certain locations. The Food Environment Atlas enables you to view on a map a plethora of food choice determinants. Factors such as the 2008 sales tax from soda vending machines, the 2009 low-income preschool obesity rate, or the 2006 relative price ratio of green-leafy veggies to starchy veggies each jostle for your attention in this captivating tool.

Not only is Eamich working with those two tools, she works with the blog. That is right, the USDA has a blog. And what a blog it is. As the tagline says: “United States Department of Agriculture: Reaching Out, Every Day in Every Way.” There are updates about the First Lady’s Let’s Move Campaign, the People’s Garden expansion to overseas, Chef’s Move to Schools, ‘Know your Farmer, Know your Food’, and even what Smokey Bear has been up to. I walked away feeling our government has truly a vertiginous collection of disparate programs and initiatives all designed to provide access and education around healthier food in “every way.”

The next four days were a whirlwind of visiting restaurants in DC and Baltimore. Chef Rob Weland of Poste Moderne Brasserie showed me his courtyard garden in the Hotel Monaco — where you are literally eating next to a tomato plant growing in a pot. Chef Spike Gjerd of Woodberry Kitchen gave me a tour of his kitchens, including the sausage aging room (all butchered and made in house, naturally) and the wall of in house preserves (the last of the 2000 pounds of tomatoes from 2010 and the first jars of 2011 ramps in evidence). Chef Winston Blick of Clementine spoke of providing compost to Hamilton Crop Circle - a rooftop garden across the street - that, in turn, returns vegetables to his customers. I met with Nic Jammet, one of the founders of Sweetgreen, a sustainable build your own salad/yogurt phenomena that has rocketed to ten locations in the last 3 ½ years. I look forward to attending their Sweetlife Festival next May.

When not gawking at menus I was able to visit two farmers markets in the middle of town — and I mean in the middle of town. One is 3 blocks from the Mall and the other is 3 blocks from the White House — producer only, crowded, and diverse (orchids, wood fired pizza, and the first strawberries of the season - glorious). Thank you FRESHFARM for your great work creating pedestrian villages in downtown DC.

My last day started with a meeting with Debra Tropp and her team of committed farmers market devotees in the Farmers Market and Direct Marketing Research Division of the USDA. Food Tech Connect recently posted a great article describing the need and uses for the Farmers Market Directory in a conversation with Tropp. As a former farmers’ market manager, I remember last year feeling honored and vindicated to fill out the survey to populate the directory. I was doing something important when the government asked me the number of people who came to the market or whether we accepted Bridge Cards — my little stretch of pavement 18 weeks of the year became part of something large and meaningful.

Little did I know my 15 minutes filling out the survey would be transformed into a resource available to the world. The information in the Farmers Market Directory is what first populated Real Time Farms database of markets.

The cherry on my Sundae week was meeting with Gretchen Hoffman of the American Farmland Trust - the vanguard group who worked in the 1980s to create and implement conservation easements for farmland. A few years ago, Hoffman spearheaded the America's Favorite Farmers Market Contest, voting starts June 1st!

A week of good food, good company, and good learnings - what more could one want?

Here is the article on Real Time Farms!

(I would also like to appreciate Wendy Wasserman of the USDA, without her help and good sharings my week would have been very different.)