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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.

Once Ossman had offered some of Woodlawn's 126 acres for the project, Babin chose Erin Teal Littlestar, who helped create D.C. Central Kitchen's successful local-food-buying program in 2008, to become Arcadia's executive director.

The first arm of the center to open for business, by spring, will be a three-acre demonstration garden meant to educate both aspiring backyard gardeners and schoolchildren.

Andrea Northup, coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network, says she loves the concept. "Even though we've spent a ton of time growing the local food supply and getting it into some schools, we're learning that the kids aren't eating the food," she said. That changes, she added, if they "get their hands on and feel invested in something."

A mobile produce truck to troll District streets is also on the docket for a spring launch. Babin said Arcadia will establish a farmer-apprentice program to increase the area's supply of local foods. He said he's also interested in partnerships with rural landowners who would lease some of their property for sustainable cultivation. He expects to open a produce stand on-site at Woodlawn and envisions "a monster CSA," or community-supported agriculture operation, that will eventually draw from all of the farmers in the Arcadia network.

A warehousing and delivery system, overseen by Arcadia's staff, is crucial to the business plan. As Littlestar put it, "You can educate people about eating fresh local foods all day long, but unless you get it to them you're not going to do any good."

Establishing Arcadia as a nonprofit entity was important to the pair. "We want to provide complete transparency," said Babin. "The goal is to let the farmers know they're getting a price the end user will pay, less the actual cost." He said he expects restaurants, including his own, to pay more than schools will.

A similar tack is working for the nonprofit Local Food Hub, which launched last year in Charlottesville. According to spokeswoman Emily Manley, spelling out informal contracts with the group's 40 farmers and its institutional clients, such as the University of Virginia Hospital, before the growing season was key to keeping the group in the black.

"The biggest thing we learned is that it didn't work to be a reactive model," Manley said. "If a farmer called us and said, 'Hey, I've got way too many tomatoes,' that meant everybody else had way too many tomatoes as well. We started arranging meetings with buyers and farmers, getting them each to commit to what they wanted and what they would grow."

Other nonprofit food hubs have struggled with the economics of distribution. The Boston area's Red Tomato, for instance, invested in a warehouse and trucks in 1999 to handle deliveries of its 40 growers' produce to grocery stores. Several years later, its largest customer "dropped us overnight," recalled Michael Rozyne, the co-director. "It was very traumatic." Ultimately Red Tomato repositioned itself as a broker. The group now develops sales accounts, handles customer service and coordinates traffic flow for its growers, all of whom sell under the Red Tomato brand. Last year, Red Tomato rang up $2.65 million in sales.

Donations and funds from Babin's restaurant business are providing Arcadia's estimated $300,000 in startup money. Littlestar said the venture will strive to sustain itself with proceeds from a composting operation.

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in November, as she and Arcadia's farm manager, Maureen "Mo" Moodie, first stuck their hands into the Woodlawn yard that will be transformed into the demonstration garden, the mood was upbeat. "Worms!" Moodie cried. "They're everywhere!" Littlestar marveled.

Squirming purple critters in earth that hadn't produced food in decades? A propitious sight indeed.

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