Since 2010, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture has been working to improve the food choices in some of Washington, D.C.,’s less economically stable neighborhoods, but decidedly not in a vacuum. Providing fresh, varied produce and meats—as it does from May to October with its Mobile Market, a school bus that has been retrofitted into a full farmers’ market—means little if the farmers who grew the food sustainably aren’t able to make a fair living at the same time.
“You can’t just address one of these things—it’s a food system, and it needs to be treated like a system,” says Arcadia’s executive director, Pamela Hess. Arcadia was founded by Michael Babin, owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, who sought local sources and vendors for his restaurants; when he couldn’t find enough farmers getting their harvests to the city—most locally grown food was being sent away—Babin realized that the issue of accessibility was leading to a broad public health crisis and decided to focus on that instead.
In a city where food shopping in many neighborhoods means stopping in at area convenience stores, where the “fresh” produce offerings are most likely to be a couple of bruised apples and a bunch of brown bananas, Arcadia provides a complete diet, all of it sustainably raised —the Mobile Market carries produce, but also meat, milk, cheeses, artisanal breads, yogurt, honey, granola, and herbs—to individuals, 40 percent of whom rely on SNAP, WIC, and the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program. The market did $66,000 in sales over 90 market days last season, up some 50 percent from 2012; SNAP and WIC purchases of fruits and vegetables and proteins are doubled in value, up to $10 each, so an individual spending $20 will go home with $40 worth of food.
Arcadia also offers education on how to grow and cook with those foods. Juju Harris, a former WIC recipient herself, is generally on hand at the market to answer nutrition-related questions and give cooking demonstrations, whipping up such seasonal delights as kale and roasted butternut squash salad with garlicky dressing and asparagus leek soup. She’s also the force behind a forthcoming cookbook from Arcadia that will focus on ingredients as much as preparation. It will be given to WIC and SNAP customers at the market (says Hess, “Everybody deserves a beautiful cookbook”) and sold there and elsewhere to raise money to support Arcadia’s work.
Through a relationship with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Arcadia rents four acres on Woodlawn Estate in Alexandria (once part of Mount Vernon and home to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis), where the team cultivates an acre and a half—producing two tons of food in 2013 that went to restaurants including Red Apron Butcher and Columbia Firehouse, hospitals, schools, and other institutions. There are education programs for local schoolchildren and a summer camp that brings more than 100 youngsters to the farm to pull weeds, meet chickens, make natural insect repellant, and harvest and enjoy crops from a variety of gardens. Nearly one-quarter of this year’s campers attended on full needs-based scholarships, most of them from Spanish-speaking families who live nearby but wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to send their children.
At Woodlawn, there are also programs for adults, including demonstrations on cooking, preserving, composting, and garden maintenance, and a farmer-intern program. This year some six interns spent anywhere from 10 to 40 hours per week working on the farm, and one of those is already on his way to becoming a full-time farmer. In the works is a more formal training program for veterans, which Hess calls “a demographic that has a disproportionate rate of unemployment and is, in many cases, well suited to farming.”
Noting that SNAP and so-called “welfare queens” are a popular target in today’s media, Hess says that all donations to Arcadia go to fund a healthy diet.
“People can only buy healthy food from us—they can’t use that money to go to the corner store and buy chips and soda,” she says. “We’re using market forces to achieve a social good.”
If you’d like to fund a farm camp scholarship, donate to the Mobile Market, or help with any of Arcadia’s other programs, visit here.