2020 marks the 10th anniversary for the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. The year has already been an unprecedented one – not just because of their goals to expand their work over the next decade – but because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like nearly every organization around the world, Arcadia is working to adapt to the new normal and find ways to achieve their mission amid the chaos. While many are struggling in the face of Covid-19, one thing has become crystal clear for Arcadia. They are desperately needed, now more than ever.
“This crisis that we’re in right now is going to reveal to us the absolute imperativeness of us as a society rediscovering and investing in local and regional food,” says Pamela Hess, Arcadia’s executive director. “When everyone is fearful of food shortages and they go to the grocery stores and the cupboards are bare, who is going to fill them? It’s going to be local and regional farmers [who] bring to the table a whole other set of resiliency that backs up, and in some cases can replace, the prevailing food system that is both national and global.”
Creating a more sustainable and equitable local and regional food system is Arcadia’s central mission. Their work is far-reaching in the greater Washington region, but it all begins on their farm in Alexandria.
“We’re different from other food organizations,” Hess continues. “Most food nonprofits that you’ll come across are doing emergency feeding. If we do what we’re supposed to do and we do it well, there will be less need for emergency feeding.”
Instead of working reactively to address food insecurity and the public health crisis caused by processed food, Arcadia is taking proactive steps to build a supply chain for underserved communities to access affordable, healthy, local food. Hess explains that the current food system is “extraordinarily efficient at producing large numbers of calories that are cheap at the point of sale and devastatingly expensive in terms of public health.”
Arcadia’s founder and the owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, Michael Babin, set out to change the status quo by ensuring that everyone, regardless of their zip code or income, can benefit from fresh local food.
The first problem to solve is the lack of supply to meet the demand. Arcadia’s farm managers Katherine Collins and Kenneth Meyers, along with their veteran farm fellows and a robust volunteer corps, cultivate 3.8 acres of land, growing 40 different types of fruits and vegetables. Last year, they produced more than 30,000 pounds of produce, which amounts to more than 150,000 FDA servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We’re adding to the supply of local food,” Hess says. “We raise it in a way that’s building soil fertility, which in itself has an environmental benefit.”
This food goes to several outlets, including the mobile market program and farm education.
“Our farm is also the destination and the campus for school children to build demand for this food.”
Arcadia hosts field trips and farm camp to get kids excited about local food and agriculture from a young age.
“You have to grow up eating this and being exposed to it if you’re going to eat it as an adult. Sometimes, it’s really hard for parents to get kids to try unusual, weird stuff. Bring them to our farm and we will turn them into beet lovers because they get to see the beets getting dug up and being washed off and then prepared in a way that’s really delicious.”
According to surveys taken before and after farm taste tests, there is a 34.8 percent increase in the number of kids who reported liking beets after visiting Arcadia. The farm is growing fresh, local food and they’re growing fresh, local food eaters, but most importantly, they’re growing farmers.
“The nation needs 700,000 new farmers over the next 20 years to replace the farmers who are aging out of the profession,” Hess says. “Our farm is a training ground for military veterans and active duty personnel, spouses and family members who want to become farmers.”
The trick is getting their produce into the hands of those who need it.
“We’re really good at the really hard part of food distribution, which is that last mile.”
They cross the finish line in their mobile market: a farmers market on wheels.
“The mobile market is really this very cool, nimble thing that we’re really coming to appreciate the magic of right now because of the coronavirus. It turns the narrative about low-income people and nutritious food on its head.”
Many wrongly assume that certain neighborhoods lack grocery stores and farmers markets because the demand isn’t there.
Hess says, “The fact is that the economics of providing fresh, healthy food are such that the demand and the money to pay for it has to be really high before anybody’s going to bother to do it. That’s where Arcadia comes in. We have whole sections of the city that don’t have fresh, healthy food. And then in 2012 rolls in the Arcadia mobile market on this idea that if we provide it and it’s convenient, affordable and really good quality and we’re nice to people who come to buy it, maybe they’ll buy it. And we found that to be true.”
They sell in 10 neighborhoods and offer a whole diet of affordable produce, meat, eggs and grains from Arcadia Farm and sustainable partner farms.
“Our general price is 30 to 50 percent less than what you’ll see at a fancy farmers market for the same quality food. Then on top of that, if you’re using SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps], WIC [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children], or Senior Farmers Market Nutrition vouchers, we’re going to give you a 50 percent discount.”
The market sold $44,000 worth of food in the first year, and then increased sales by 50 percent the second year.
“Any venture capitalist will tell you they want in on that business.”
Last year, the market sold $256,000 of food.
“It’s a 600 percent increase in demonstrated demand over the first year that we were out there, at roughly the same number of stops,” Hess notes.
Seeing the incredible demand during the regular May through November schedule, the mobile market recently began doing monthly winter pop-ups in tandem with community festivals. Their March pop-up was at risk of being cancelled due to the coronavirus, but mobile market director Erin Close saw the need was even more dire.
“Both sides of the food system are struggling,” Close says. “Our customer base, who already experience food insecurity and barriers to accessing food every day, are now further isolated. Local farmers, many of whom work with restaurants that are now closed, are scrambling to find other outlets.”
Close and her team were able to pivot to provide food without compromising staff or customer health.
“We have moved to a preorder-only model, so customers can order online. We pack everything with heightened care and safety measures. Then the customers pick up at designated sites around the city.”
During their March pop-up, they also partnered with DC Central Kitchen to distribute free breakfast and lunch to families with school-age children. There is one last gear in the machine that makes Arcadia run.
“Because we do not charge the prevailing market rates for our food, we cannot afford to pay the prevailing labor that it would cost in order to hire enough people to work on the farm,” Hess says.
The volunteer corps allows Arcadia to keep their costs down while still providing top-quality food. In 2019, 404 volunteers donated more than 2,700 hours of work to the farm. And, volunteers don’t need to have any prior farming experience to lend a hand.
“I offer training on food safety and a little bit about the sustainable growing practices that we use so that folks are competent and able to keep our customers safe when they’re harvesting other people’s food,” Collins says, “but also so that they understand the bigger picture of what we’re going for on the farm.”
She sees a wide range of backgrounds in her volunteers.
“Sometimes we have high school students coming out and sometimes we have retirees coming out, and everybody works together,” she says. “We’ve got seasoned gardeners coming out or folks who have worked on farms before and then others who’ve never really planted anything. I think that’s what is cool about the experience, too. Everyone’s sharing their lived experiences with each other.”
Volunteer Megan Frone works in cancer genetics but has a passion for local food. She grows her own food and lives just up the street from Arcadia. She would drive by the farm every day on her way to and from work and always wondered about it. Upon learning about the organization, she immediately signed up as an Arcadia member and put herself on their volunteer list.
“Basically ever since then, they haven’t been able to get rid of me,” she says.
For the past three years, Frone has worked on the farm on Saturdays, cared for the chickens on Sundays and stepped in when volunteers were needed for events or odd jobs.
“Wherever they need me and whatever they need me to do, I’m more than happy to do. I love being able to contribute and I learn a lot, too.”
There are various opportunities for different levels of engagement, from one-day individual or group volunteer days to regular shifts of work. Depending on the season, tasks range from planting to harvesting to weeding. In return, volunteers can enjoy the literal fruits of their labor.
“Once the farm starts cranking, there’s often a lot of produce going spare that volunteers are welcome to take home before we donate the rest to local food pantries,” Collins says.
She also hopes to instill in volunteers the true value of food.
“I think people gain a deeper appreciation for food and how it’s produced,” she says. “Our current economy does a poor job of valuing food, and we have come to expect it to be really cheap all the time. And I think that when people help to produce food that they believe in, they realize what it takes to do that.”
Hess says with a laugh, “There’s not a single volunteer that works when we are harvesting green beans that ever takes a green bean for granted again. Green beans are hard to harvest. You squat for an hour in front of a bush and then you finally stand up and you’ve got this little thing of green beans. And then you go, ‘My God, how is anybody only charging $3 a pound for these things?’”
Tangible lessons on the farm are what have kept Frone coming back season after season.
“Years ago, I didn’t necessarily recognize the seasons,” she recalls. “I didn’t recognize that our food was getting shipped from miles away and mechanically ripened. It’s just so rewarding to reconnect to our food system, to know where our food comes from, to know how it’s grown. It’s better for us, it’s better for the environment and so it’s a really rewarding way to learn all that.”
Arcadia’s 10th year will look a little different due to the coronavirus. Spring school field trips are cancelled and they’re not able to accept volunteers right now. Despite this, Hess and her team have big plans for the next 10 years as they aim to embody the meaning of their name.
“It’s the ancient Greek mythical, pastoral utopia,” Hess explains. “A place where there was always food on the trees and animals happily chewing grass in the fields and no one wanted for anything. That’s what we’re going to try to be: a place where humans, animals and food are living in perfect harmony and building a culture of health for everyone regardless of how much money they have. And that health is built on really good, easily accessible, affordable, gorgeous, delicious food.”
While Arcadia isn’t currently taking volunteers due to the coronavirus, they hope to open their doors to the public again soon.
To get involved, sign up for their newsletter and fill out the volunteer form at www.arcadiafood.org.