Forget fuel

let's focus on local food

July 24, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Even if the price of oil falls, the governor should launch a full-fledged sustainability effort to promote an expansion of farming here and the production of more Maryland food for Marylanders. In fact, all the governors of the Chesapeake watershed should work up a 20-year strategic plan to expand agriculture and environmental education, create more farming opportunities for a new generation of growers, promote more aquaculture and organic farming, and create regional networks for getting local food to consumers.

Bring back the canneries, too!

All things considered, this is a lot more important than planning for the next terrorist attack.

Everyone by now has seen how the cost of oil inflates the cost of food. If we expand the regional supply of food and reduce the use of petrochemical fertilizers and the costs of transportation, we provide our families and descendants with food security. We keep food affordable, reduce our carbon footprint and create jobs.

You're not merely engaging in wishful thinking when you express belief that the "buy local" thing, a nascent movement just a few years ago, will grow and become the new ethos among consumers. This is real. Americans appreciate the wonders of globalization but have begun to see the foolishness and arrogance in the expectation of having kiwi fruit at the supermarket 12 months of the year.

It will take a decade or more to get Marylanders into the swing of this - expecting more regional produce, meat, fish and dairy at their supermarkets; making regular trips to a growing network of farmers' markets; signing up for community-supported ag programs; getting reconnected with the land and the farmers in our midst.

It will take a while for the ag community to reconfigure its business models and for the ag-education system to sell our kids on farming as a career.

But it won't happen without leadership that recognizes a permanent shift in public sentiment and taps into it.

Here's some leadership for you: Bon Appetit Management Co., a California-based company committed to purchasing up to 30 percent of its food products within a 150-mile radius of the institutional cafeterias it operates in 28 states. The company made $55 million in what it calls "farm-to-fork" purchases last year, said Maisie Greenawalt, company vice president.

Instead of a mission statement, the company published its "dream" on the Bon Appetit Web site: "Our Dream is to be the premier onsite restaurant company known for its culinary expertise and commitment to socially responsible practices."

Bon Appetit handles food services at Goucher College in Towson and St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland. In the Washington region, it has contracts with, among others, the University of Maryland's advanced education program at Shady Grove, American University, Georgetown Law School and Gallaudet University.

Norm Zwagil is the general manager of Bon Appetit operations at Goucher. He's excited about his work and the company that employs him. He has been at Goucher for eight years and seems to know every farmer who grows for the markets, and even the ones who don't.

"The atmosphere is hot right now," Zwagil said the other night, and he wasn't speaking of Baltimore's July weather. He was talking about the buy-local movement. This is not some quaint, touchy-feely, bred-in-California trend. It's not about aesthetics. It's about something practical - the cost of producing and transporting food, a rejection of what globalization and industrial agriculture has given us.

More and more consumers get this. The farmers are starting to get it, too. "In some ways, it's easier to locate and purchase food from them now," Zwagil said.

He can list the farmers that feed Goucher - black Angus burgers and top round from Roseda Beef in Monkton; produce from One Straw Farm in White Hall, said to be Maryland's largest organic vegetable farm; shrimp from Marvesta farms in Hurlock on the Eastern Shore; and more produce from a robust growers' cooperative in Tuscarora, Pa.. The eggs that Goucher students eat come from cage-free chickens from various sources in the region. There's never a problem, Zwagil said, getting local cheese and other dairy products, chicken, beef and bread.

He's a big fan of One Straw, run by Joan and Drew Norman. "Last year, Zwagil said, "they had a bumper crop of tomatoes. They were able to find a cannery in southern Pennsylvania and we ... ended up with a great marinara sauce."

When he started pulling resources together for Goucher's dining hall, Zwagil hit the farmers' markets. That's where he met a lot of the growers who supply the campus kitchen with 20 to 25 percent of its food. Some products come off the local farms all year, some only seasonally, starting in spring with loads of greens and continuing into early December with hard squashes and storage apples.

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