Enlist arabbers to distribute locally grown food

November 27, 2007|By Tracy Durkin

According to farmers and environmental activists, both the supply and the demand for locally sourced food have increased exponentially each year. The benefits of this movement are many, from the preservation of farmland and the slowing of sprawl to the reduced carbon load (grocery store produce travels an average of 1,500 miles to your table). Plus, let's face it: Fresh produce (and meat) tastes better.

However, because of the complexity of food distribution networks at the grocery store level (even Whole Foods only makes local produce available at a farmer's market once a week in front of the store, not in it), local produce is not widely available to consumers.

That needs to change. And Baltimore, perhaps more than any other city in the nation, has a special asset that could expand the distribution of locally sourced food, particularly to poor communities, where a lack of fresh food has been linked to higher incidences of disease, while creating hundreds of new jobs and supporting an important Baltimore tradition.

Baltimore's authentic "green" food distribution network, the arabbers, are struggling to maintain their livelihood in the midst of city regulation.

In 1940, there were as many as 50 arabber stables. Today, there are only three.

Why not invest in this unique Baltimore distribution network and make a goal to not only support them but also to see them expand to their original numbers?

The key to success will be fresh produce that consumers will want to buy - foods, like the Maryland pawpaw, that could be sourced by Maryland farmers.

At the first Baltimore Bioneers Conference in October, all of the speakers were inspirational, but none more so than Van Jones, founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and a former Urbanite guest editor. Mr. Jones is leading a national effort to ensure that African-Americans take an active role in filling the green jobs that will be created in this new economy. Many conference attendees were inspired by his call to action and felt that creating green jobs through our local food supply was the best place to start in our region. An investment in the arabbers could make this a reality, and for relatively small cost.

Why start with the pawpaw? It's a native Maryland tree that grows along streambeds and produces the pawpaw fruit. Often called a "poor man's banana," it can be substituted for bananas in most recipes. It is relatively easy to grow and tends to be resistant to pests, but its three-day shelf life has prevented mass distribution. It requires a distribution system that is time efficient.

The pawpaw is a fitting symbol for a return to locally sourced food supplies: It's a fruit that requires urgent attention, as do our farmers, our youths and our arabbers.

Tracy Durkin is the publisher of Urbanite. This article and responses to it are posted at www.audaciousideas.org, a blog created by Open Society Institute-Baltimore to stimulate ideas and discussion about solutions to difficult problems in Baltimore.

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