What’s happening with the Washington Metro Food System?

Star Gazing Farm, Boyds, Maryland, photo by Sheila Crye

Star Gazing Farm, Boyds, Maryland, photo by Sheila Crye

Sheila Crye
Young Chefs, Inc.

The National Capital area is home to more than 6.52 million socioeconomically and culturally diverse people. Urban areas are surrounded by a rich agricultural community that comprises 28 percent of the region’s land mass and contributes about $1 billion per year to its economy. Because the much of population is relatively well-educated and affluent, there is an increasing demand for locally-sourced foods.

The food movement provides both an opportunity and a dilemma for regional farmers and producers of value-added products. There are growing numbers of new farmers and food entrepreneurs ready to expand small-scale, local food production. Local governments support the training of more table food producers to meet the growing demand for local, sustainable food, because they see it as a long-lasting element of their economy.

Farming is only sustainable if it is profitable. The dilemma for the prospective farmers comes from agriculture’s many challenges, particularly the high cost of land, labor and housing. Because the average cost of an acre of land in the Washington region is more than $75,000, prospective farmers often rent or lease land.

In an effort to control nutrient runoff that continues to foul the Chesapeake Bay, farmers must deal with extensive Federal, State and County regulations. Small-scale farming yields a low return on investment, and many farmers must seek off-farm income to make ends meet. Farming is hard physical labor. Unirrigated farmland is a high-risk endeavor, but water access can be difficult. There are comparatively few new farmers. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, the average farmer is 60 years old.

Much of the Chesapeake region’s 1.5 million acres of agriculture is dedicated to growing corn and soybeans for animal feed. Most of this goes to the Eastern Shore poultry industry, ranked sixth among the nation’s poultry producing areas. Delmarva chickens consumed over 104.3 million bushels of corn and soybean feed in 2013.

Some counties, such as Loudoun in Virginia, have begun developing a food hub to aggregate local produce and work out the logistics of implementing farm to school programs. The D.C. Central Kitchen is the only USDA-recognized food hub in the District of Columbia, aggregating and redistributing more than 200,000 pounds of local produce each year. In northern Virginia, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture includes a farm, mobile market, food hub and new farmer education program.

Without a doubt, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), affiliated with the Bloomberg School of Public Health, is the region’s leader in educating food policy councils and coalitions as well as high school and college students.

On October 5-8, 2014, the CLF hosted the Chesapeake Food Policy Leadership Institute. The goal was to build a network of food policy leaders who can more effectively lead food policy groups and better understand food policy actions.

“Teaching the Food System” curriculum, created by CLF, is free and downloadable. It includes topics like food history, food and animal production, processing, and distribution, food marketing, and food security. The curriculum is geared toward high school and college students and aims to give them a big-picture understanding of agriculture today.

“Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity,” edited by Roni Neff, PhD, CLF Research and Policy Director, was published last month, October, 2014. The textbook looks at a variety of food system issues and focuses attention on connections to public health and other fields.

Silver Spring Fresh Farm Market, Silver Spring,  Maryland

Silver Spring Fresh Farm Market, Silver Spring, Maryland. Photo by Sheila Crye.

In 2012, CLF published a Baltimore City Food Environment map of businesses where residents could buy food, along with neighborhood demographic data. The map pinpointed where healthy food choices were and weren’t available. It was the precursor of CLF’s Maryland Food System Map, an interactive mapping tool and database to investigate Maryland’s food system, including how food is grown, processed, sold and consumed.

Currently CLF is working with Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture to develop a foodshed plan for the mid-Atlantic region. They’ve partnered with the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission to better understand what food deserts mean in rural areas and how to map them accurately. And they’re working with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, which approved use of the map for city programs and policy development.

Sheila Crye is a founding member of the Montgomery County Food Council, where she chairs the Food Literacy Working Group. Her business, Young Chefs, teaches healthful home cooking skills to disadvantaged middle school youths through a grant-funded after-school program called Excel Beyond the Bell.

1 Comment

Filed under AAA 2014 Washington DC, farmers market, food policy, Food Studies

One response to “What’s happening with the Washington Metro Food System?

  1. This is such an important issue and I’m glad you wrote about it! I’m from upstate NY and currently living in New York City and it seems like people are finally figuring out ways to connect the upstate agriculture industry with the downstate restaurant and general food demand…. EVERYone wants to eat logical so it seems like a logical connection to make. Young Chefs is a great idea too 🙂

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