The big ‘O’—Organic and local food comes to Georgetown and D.C.

April 4, 2013

Greg Glenn wakes every morning amidst the sounds of restless cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens. He is hard at work by sunrise and spends the next four hours moving the livestock on to new areas of grassland. He rotates the animals from pasture to pasture every day with the purpose of maintaining fertile soil. Glenn, in his late twenties, rarely stops working until after sunset. He says that what he does “is less of a job and more of a lifestyle.”

Glenn is the owner of Rocklands Farm, a 34-acre property in Poolesville dedicated to environmentally-friendly agriculture and livestock. Growing 30 to 40 varieties of vegetables and fruit and raising four different types of livestock, the farm is run by only two full-time staffers: Greg and his wife, Anna. With the start of the gardening season in mid-March, the couple is joined by their friends, Joel and Megan Barr.

Every Saturday, Rocklands Farm opens its doors to families who come to purchase fresh produce, tour the property, and enjoy homemade meals cooked by Glenn himself.

“We wanted to have a market here because we want people to come to the farm to meet us, to see the farm, see where their food came from, and to see the animals and production,” said Glenn.

All animals at Rocklands Farm are pasture-raised. Their produce is non-certified organic, a classification certain producers choose when they believe their produce meets the national organic standards, but has not been verified due to high certification costs.

But, unlike Glenn’s regular consumers—and, until recently, Georgetown students—few households in the U.S. have the privilege of locally-sourced and organic food, much less visit the farm where the food was produced or interact with the farmers themselves. According to the Economic Research Service Report conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, direct-to-consumer sales in the country accounted for only 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales in 2007.

Nevertheless, food consumption patterns in the U.S., especially in higher-income households, have shown a positive shift toward locally-grown and organic food. Dialogue surrounding the ethics of animal treatment and the impact food production has on the environment has increased, while stores such as Whole Foods, which embraces a moderately green identity, are increasingly in vogue. According to a study conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, conventional food distribution uses 4 to 17 times more fuel and emits 5 to 17 more CO2 emissions than the local systems. In addition, according to the New Economics Foundation, a think tank based in London, local purchases “are twice as efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive.”

Accompanying this trend is the increasing number of farmers’ markets in the country. According to the USDA, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has increased by 448 percent in the last 18 years, from 1,755 in 1994 to 7,864 in 2012. About 30 of these are located in Washington, D.C.


For years, Georgetown students’ access to locally-grown food was limited to Whole Foods and the Glover Park Farmers’ Market. But with the establishment of the Georgetown Farmers’ Market in the spring of 2011, a variety of vendors from within a 200-mile radius, the conventional definition of “local,” have been attracted to the opportunities selling produce on a university campus provides. Likewise, students have benefited from the presence of sustainable food on campus.

“Farmers’ markets provide an educational experience and a social justice experience in that they show people how important it is to understand where their food comes from and recognize who and what goes into that,” said Alexa Cotcamp (MSB ’15), the Executive Market Director for the Georgetown University Farmers Market.

Breanna Donald (NHS ’12), one of the co-founders of the GUFM, agrees. “One thing that is unique about the farmers’ market is that it’s one of the only places where you can have a conversation with the people who are actually producing your food.”

According to a report carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2007, although the definite nutritional benefits of consuming local still depend on a variety of factors, foods that spend significant time on the road lose more nutrients before reaching the marketplace. Additionally, local producers tend not to harvest with industrial machinery, allowing their produce to retain further nutrients.

“Most of the produce that Leo’s gets … was shipped transnationally … or from Central American countries,” said Donald. “There is a nutritional difference between consuming locally and organically-grown produce versus transnational produce.”

According to Kendra Boyer, the marketing manager for Aramark, the provider of Georgetown’s dining services, initiative has been taken recently to provide students and other community members with sustainable food options.

“We aim to source as much food as we can locally and within the region when available. This varies depending on the quantity of product needed to serve the campus and seasonal availability,” said Boyer.

Indeed, many of the fruits and vegetables offered at Leo’s come from farms that are located within a 250-mile radius of the University. Leo’s purchases over 50 different types of produce from its local produce distributor, the Keany Produce Company. These products range from arugula and basil, to apples and peaches.

However, as soon as certain fruits and vegetables go out of season, produce is shipped from other parts of the country or the world to meet Georgetown’s yearly demand.

“It’s really important to realize … that while you can get strawberries in December and apples in June, neither are going to be locally-sourced due to the season,” said Cotcamp. “It’s important to know that things … are going to taste better if you pick them locally because on a greater scale there’s going to be less energy involved both mechanically and on a human basis.”

Even though Aramark does purchase some of its produce from local growers, it is still behind the curve of the national movement towards more sustainable food purchases by big institutions.

Santa Clara University, a fellow Jesuit school located in the Silicon Valley, offers its students a completely sustainable dining experience. Prioritizing buying food from within a 150-mile radius, Santa Clara offers its students free-range beef, cage-free eggs, hormone-free milk, antibiotic-free chicken, and Fair Trade-certified coffee and tea.

Even though the milk provided at Georgetown’s dining hall is sourced locally, it is still unclear where Aramark purchases its other animal products from.

“We have a lot of buying power as a university, so we have the leverage to say to Aramark that we want them to do this more ethically, or buy from more local farmers or more local produce if they are going to continue serving our university and serving our needs and our mission,” said Victoria Ngare (SFS ’12), Community Outreach Chair of the GU Farmers Market.

While there is a widely held belief that switching to buying organic and locally-grown food will impose higher costs on consumers, this does not always hold true. With the rising price of oil, shipping produce from the West to the East Coast is no longer as cost-efficient as it used to be.

“When you look at buying broccoli local as opposed to buying it from the West coast, for example, the West Coast shippers are pretty much mass-producing, so their cost per case is pretty cheap, but they do have that fuel cost … They are paying around $4,000 for a truck to get from California to Keany,” explained Mary Baran, Customer Relations Manager for Keany Produce Company.

In fact, when The Corp decided last fall to start purchasing its apples from Beechwood Orchards, one of the vendors at the GUFM, one of the main incentives was the cheaper price of buying the local apples against buying them from their previous non-local supplier.

“After talking with the farmer and talking with The Corp, I was able to figure out that we were going to be able to provide apples at a cost substantially lower than the one offered by our provider at the time, which wasn’t locally-sourced at all,” said Cotcamp, who is also the Middle Manager of Digital Media for The Corp.

According to the former produce purchaser for The Corp, Dana Mitchell (MSB ’15), customer reaction to the switch into locally grown apples has been positive so far.

“Our customers have certainly noticed and we have seen greater demand for apples during warmer months when the farmers’ market apples are available,” wrote Mitchell in an email to the Voice. “Usually I purchase anywhere from 400 to 500 apples per week, [but] with farmers’ market apples I buy as many as our shelves can hold (550 to 600) and we sell out.”

Likewise, the success of the GUFM in the Georgetown community has allowed it to expand from its initial six vendors to its current seventeen to eighteen weekly vendors.

“Pricing is a concern, but people do want to consume fresh fruit and vegetables and are willing to pay a … higher price out of the convenience of being able to pick it up at the farmers’ market on campus versus walking all the way to Safeway,” said Donald.


The purchasing power of the Georgetown community, however, is far from representative of that of D.C., much less the rest of the country. Of the many farmers’ markets in the city, most are condensed in the Northwest and Southwest areas, where the most affluent neighborhoods are located.

Unlike Georgetown students, not all households are within walking distance of a supermarket. According to a report conducted by the USDA in 2009, 5.4 percent of all households in the U.S. live more than half a mile away from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle, in a “food desert” with limited transportation to get out. This accounts for a total of 5.7 million households in the country. In D.C., 18,000 residents live in such areas, which are all located in Wards 5, 7 and 8.

“Food deserts are a very unfortunate situation. There are places that don’t have food; they just have 7-Eleven stores, potato chips, microwave hot dogs, and sugar water. That’s what people are eating,” said Glenn.

The lack of accessibility to grocery stores makes it even harder to argue for the proliferation of more locally-grown products. However, several organizations around the country have been working for the last couple of years to make locally-grown food more accessible to people both financially and geographically.

Arcadia is a D.C. nonprofit organization established in 2010 that aims to create an equitable and sustainable local food system in the city. It runs a mobile market that delivers local, sustainably-produced food across the District, catering to mostly low-income, underserved communities that do not have access to fresh and affordable food otherwise.

“We took a school bus, refurbished it, and set it up so that it can be used to haul vegetables, fruits, meat, and other items, and set up temporary market stops in different low-income neighborhoods in the area,” explained Matt Mulder, Director of Development and Communications for Arcadia.

“We conducted a study after our first year of running the mobile market, and we found out that, contrary to what a lot of other people had said before, there is a demand for locally-grown, sustainably-grown, fresh, nutritious food in these low-income communities, as long as it is available, accessible, and affordable,” said Mulder.

Arcadia accepts federal food assistance vouchers such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, Children, and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program in order to maintain affordability. Arcadia also offers a “Bonus Bucks” program to double the purchasing power of these benefits. Every dollar spent on Arcadia food has twice the regular market value, and the organization absorbs the costs itself with its grant money.

“[Bonus Bucks] makes it competitive with bigger grocery stores. If somebody comes and buys $20 worth of tomatoes for $10, that ends up being really competitive with what they might spend at a local supermarket,” said Mulder.

Another way D.C. organizations are tackling the problem of food access is through education, an approach that could potentially provide a long-term solution to the flaws in our food production and consumption patterns.

“If you don’t incorporate the education piece into the work we’re doing, we’re at risk of just becoming a fad,” said Karissa McCarthy, D.C. Greens’ Farm to School Program Coordinator. D.C. Greens is another local organization that works to help low-income District residents afford fresh, local produce. “The local food movement efforts across the country are saying that eating local is trendy. It’s important that we have this education piece that cultivates students and citizens who know why it’s important to eat local and support their local food economy, for both their bodily health and for the environment’s health.”

In recent years, the number of school gardens in D.C. has increased to 82, allowing students a hands-on experience in growing their own food. To Glenn, this is an essential step to take if we want to move toward a more sustainable food production system.

“You ask kids where a french fry or a chicken nugget comes from and they answer, ‘McDonalds.’ There’s a huge disconnect. Food no longer comes from an animal or the soil, but from a grocery store,” said Glenn.

Back at the farm, Glenn tosses a muddy tennis ball towards the barn for his excited dog to catch, as he contemplates the future of the food production system.

“It’s hard because our whole food system is set up in a certain way. It’s like we have a city full of buildings and roads; your whole infrastructure is there, so to create a whole different city is hard – you have to dig up all the roads and pull out all the pipes and restructure your city that exists in a certain way,” said Glenn.

However, Glenn believes that shifting the practices of big farms and institutions can potentially start changing the system in which our food is currently being produced.

“To really achieve things, the guys who have a million chickens or ten thousand cows, those are the guys that if you can try to convince to shift their production, I think they can really make a difference,” Glenn said. “If you convince them to shift their practices to be more and more organic, sustainable and humane, you are basically slicing a bigger piece of a pie.”

At a smaller scale, Glenn also believes that the day-to-day choices we make as consumers, such as choosing to shop at a farmers’ market or buying other local food, can help make a difference.

“People ask me almost every day if I really believe what we’re doing makes a difference,” said Cotcamp. “My response is yes. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who will tell you that shopping at an average grocery store offers the same food or experience. Grabbing a few apples at the farmers’ market may seem like a little thing. But all those little things add up to something bigger — maybe today or maybe not, but one day, they do.”

“There’s a lot of attempts for consumers in our country to understand food better, to demand a better food, and be better part of the system. It all starts with the consumer because producers supply what we demand … I think there’s hope.”




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