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Making It
A local-foods proponent feeds her passion through a magazine

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, August 30, 2009

What started as an experiment for Renee Brooks Catacalos has grown into a career. The 45-year-old University Park resident, who once tried to eat only locally produced foods for a month, is now the editor of Edible Chesapeake, one of a national string of free magazines devoted to the local food movement.

Renee grew up in the Washington area, attended the University of Virginia and served in the Foreign Service in Mexico and Turkey. She then moved to Houston, where she worked in public relations and in protocol, met her husband and had their two children. In 2001, the Catacaloses moved to Maryland to be closer to Renee's family. Renee continued to freelance in public relations, and her children, now 11 and 9, were able to attend the day-care center run by their grandmother.

Renee's work and her interest in food came together when she met Todd and Ellen Gray of Equinox, which was in the vanguard of the local food movement among restaurants. She started wondering: "How far could a regular person really take this? What if I did an experiment to see how much I could source for my family for the month?"

In August 2005, Renee, who had begun writing about food by then, conducted the experiment along with neighbor Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen. They fed their families only food produced locally, though they made exceptions for olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Renee even ground wheat into flour. She did a lot of baking and made crackers and a homemade version of Grape Nuts that took two days to produce and yielded only four bowls. "They thought we were kind of crazy or out there," she says of her family and friends, but she was hooked.

The problem was, locally produced food can be tough to find, especially on a moderate income, and there weren't a lot of outlets looking for freelance articles on the subject. So, in 2006, Renee and Kristi started sharing their expertise through an e-mail newsletter and later built a Web site, www.realpeopleeatlocal.com.

Then Renee saw a copy of Edible Chesapeake, the fourth in what has become a chain of more than 50 regional magazines dedicated to local food, and "I kind of went, 'D'oh, why didn't I think of that?' " When the publishers decided to sell it in 2007, she dipped into her home equity and her retirement fund and bought it. "It seemed like an opportunity that I didn't want to pass up."

Members of the Edible chain pay about $90,000 for the right to publish in a territory. There's a down payment of about one-third, and the owners then have five years to pay off the balance; they also give the parent company 5 percent of ad revenue. In return, they get some training in everything from layout to billing and marketing, as well as a network of fellow publishers happy to share their expertise.

Renee's staff works part time; she has four ad salespeople, a managing editor (Kristi), photo editor and designer, and 12 to 15 contributors. The summer issue of the 48-page quarterly includes articles about the culinary uses of lavender, home-brewed beers, nightshade plants such as tomatoes and eggplant, and grass-fed cattle.

Since Renee's purchase, the magazine's press run has increased from 25,000 to 40,000; she raised ad rates in 2007 and 2008. Last year, Edible Chesapeake broke even, and Renee is happy that despite the recession, her page count and print run have stayed steady this year.

Renee says her readers' passion about the subject helps keep her passionate. "It's great to be able to hand this to people and say, 'This is what I do.'"

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