Value, Virtue Close to Home

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 24, 2008

Buying local food is in vogue, but for some the concept still has a whiff of elitism: Yuppies handing over $12 for a few morel mushrooms at a farmers market or lining up for $5 artisan bread. But with food and gas prices climbing, local food is turning out to be not just more healthful and flavorful. It also could be cheaper.

That's why this month nonprofit DC Central Kitchen began buying much of its produce from farmers in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The cost is 50 to 70 percent less than it would pay a national wholesaler. It also creates a new, profitable market for local farmers. "Local is the way to go," said Mike Curtin Jr., the organization's chief executive.

DC Central Kitchen is a community group that runs a culinary job training program and serves 4,500 meals a day to the needy in the Washington area. Like other hunger agencies, some of the food it receives -- about 50 to 60 percent -- is donated. It buys the remainder or gets it from food banks. In 2007, the kitchen bought $900,000 worth of food from national wholesalers.

That arrangement, Curtin said, contradicted one of DC Central Kitchen's core philosophies: building local communities. More important, the skyrocketing cost of gasoline meant that trucking in food was increasingly impractical. Just this week, Curtin said, a 50-pound box of celery more than doubled, from $24 to $54. Twenty-five pounds of red peppers jumped 136 percent, from $33 to $78. Wholesalers also tack on fuel surcharges.

To keep costs down and help stimulate the local economy, Curtin launched the Farm Cooperative, which buys produce seconds from regional farmers. Seconds are fruits and vegetables that retailers reject because they have small blemishes or are not aesthetically perfect enough to sell at high-end retailers such as Whole Foods. "We were bringing stuff in from as far away as California and Latin America," he said, "when there are literally millions of pounds of fruit and vegetables that are going to waste because farmers don't have a viable market for them."

It's still early in the growing season but DC Central Kitchen has taken deliveries of apples, potatoes, carrots and onions. To prepare and cook the food, it has established an evening shift for volunteers three days a week.

Apples, for example, are made into sugar-free applesauce, which is distributed though the kitchen's Healthy Returns initiative that provides healthful snacks to after-school programs. Volunteers use the vegetables to make shepherd's pie for District shelters. The dish, Curtin said, has long been "the bane" of his existence: "Before, the mashed potatoes were powdered and came from a box and the vegetables weren't local," he said. "Now, the pie is a fresh product, made with locally grown ingredients. It's healthier, tastes better and looks better. And we're engaging people to do real cooking instead of just opening bags."

The initiative is good for farmers, too. Historically, farmers sold most seconds to the owners of roadside stands or local processors. "There's never been a strong market for seconds," said Mark Toigo, owner of 450-acre Toigo Orchards and Farms in Shippensburg, Pa., which is partnering with DC Central Kitchen. "Many times the packaging costs and transportation exceeded the returns."

Toigo estimates that he produces tens of thousands of pounds of seconds each year, and DC Central Kitchen's program guarantees him a reliable customer that pays a fair price. The concept is similar to the "fair trade" model popular for coffee and chocolate, in which producers and buyers agree on a price above established commodity prices but one that still makes business sense for buyer and seller.

For example, the DC Central Kitchen pays 11 to 12 cents a pound for apples, half of what retailers such as Whole Foods might pay for "first-class" products but a few pennies more than Toigo would receive from commercial processors. "As a farm operator, I want to see a greater return. This earns us more money and it costs [the kitchen] less," he said. "That's better business."

Toigo is the main supplier, but as the growing season enters full swing, DC Central Kitchen hopes to buy from as many as a dozen farms.

There are logistical challenges ahead: how to most efficiently deliver the food and how the kitchen will store it when summer's bounty arrives. The kitchen is also raising money to buy a dehydrator, a flash freezer and vacuum sealers to preserve summer produce for use throughout the winter.

If the program is successful, DC Central Kitchen hopes to roll it out around the country. It runs programs on a dozen college campuses. "Once we have the system down, it's my intent to share it with the network," Curtin said. "Everywhere we work has farms within a few hundred miles. When you get scale, that's when it really starts making an impact."

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