Restaurateur's vision: a hub for sustainable food

Restaurateur Michael Babin hopes his new nonprofit venture will help bring locally sourced food to area restaurants, schools and consumers.
By Kristen Hinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 11:50 AM

Scanning the horizon from the hill atop Woodlawn Plantation in Fairfax County, Michael Babin can picture his agrarian ideal. A produce garden flourishes on a three-acre spread to his right. An orchard blooms on the sloped terrace at his feet. Subdivided plots tended by apprentice farmers stretch across 100 acres surrounding the plantation house. Babin can even see biodiesel-fueled trucks, powered with waste from the nine eateries in his Neighborhood Restaurant Group, carting the plantation's haul to schools and corner groceries, then returning to Woodlawn with food scraps for its organic compost pile.

It's an efficient, regional, environmentally sensitive food system. And it's largely still a vision. But Babin is closer than ever to fleshing out his ambitious, years-old business idea.

Last month, the 42-year-old restaurateur broke ground on the site that will become the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit venture aimed at training young growers, educating kids about farming and, perhaps most significant, scaling up the regional food economy by coordinating sales and delivery of the area's sustainably raised foods to restaurants, schools, groceries, institutional clients and consumers.

"It's all about, how can we make the connections tighter between the urban area and this 11/2- to two-hour rural ring outside of it?" Babin said.

As small and medium-size farms across the country have found that large-scale wholesale suppliers can't help them meet the growing demand for local foods, hundreds of similar ventures have formed. Now, the Agriculture Department is going full throttle to promote these middlemen, or "food hubs" in ag parlance. In October, the agency partnered with the nonprofit development agency Winrock International's Wallace Center to take a nationwide inventory of food hubs in all their myriad forms.

"There are producer-centric models, retail-oriented models, for-profits, nonprofits, co-ops: a variety of types," said Marty Gerencer, who oversees the partnership for the Wallace Center. "A food hub that works in Michigan might not work in New Mexico, and vice versa. There has to be some customization by culture and climate. What we're doing first is trying to come up with the national landscape."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants a start-up guide for food hubs on his desk by next September.

But that's too long a wait for Babin.

For years, the restaurateur has struggled to help his chefs at Tallula, Rustico, Birch & Barley and other eateries source consistent supplies of locally grown produce and meat. "These small growers do a lot of great things, but their distribution system รข??consists of them and a pickup truck," he said. "We've literally had growers who'll deliver to one of our restaurants but won't go to another just one mile down the road."

Was there a way for the restaurant group to produce its own food?

Babin began to search for real estate. But three years in, he kept finding himself on land more than 90 miles outside the District. He wanted a plot much closer to the city, accessible for visits by urban school groups, chefs and city dwellers, high- and low-income alike. "I didn't want to do a food hub just for high-end restaurants," he said. "I wanted to do one with great reach into food deserts."

The restaurateur found an ally this past summer in Laurie Ossman, director of Woodlawn Plantation, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The plantation's history - its first owner, Eleanor "Nelly" Custis Lewis, was known as a great entertainer - seemed to dovetail perfectly with Babin's vision. "A lot of artisan food was being grown and made here in her time," Babin said. "Then, about 15 years before the Civil War broke out, two Northern families bought the plantation and immediately started operating it only with free labor."

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