Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

From Soil to Salad

As American farmer and social critic Wendell Berry once memorably said, “Eating is an agricultural act.” In today’s society, where fast food restaurants sit on every corner and advertisements for microwaveable meals penetrate the airwaves, Barry’s words seem to have lost their luster. Identifying the true agricultural components of the food we consume each day has become an almost impossible feat.

Many remain ignorant of the behind-the-scenes life of the farms, factories and manufacturers that produce the items on their dinner plates.

In search of greater health consciousness, many of today’s food lovers have turned to farmers markets, a niche industry that has surged in popularity in recent years.

For Robin Shuster, director of Markets & More, a company that organizes local farmers markets, the question about the source of food on display at the markets often arises.

“Many people ask me, ‘How do I know where the food is coming from?'” she says. “I know because I go there.”

One of the greatest values of farmers markets is their commitment to local vendors, who sell their products directly to consumers without a middleman. This seamless chain from farm to market to table clears any confusion surrounding the starting point of the buyer’s food.

Shuster plays a key role in that chain in her role running the 14th and U Streets market on Saturday and the Bloomingdale market at 1st and R Streets on Sunday. Her passion for food and learning about its roots has been constant throughout her life.

Growing up in New York state, Shuster was exposed to the benefits of locally produced food at a young age. Long before organic farming was considered trendy, Shuster’s father planted an organic garden at the family home, where the produce was often included at the dinner table.

Then, at age 12, Shuster received a subscription to the Time-Life series “Foods of the World.” Perhaps a sign of things to come, Shuster took a job with Time when the magazine decided to relocate its book division to Washington from New York.

For 20 years, she served as the company’s head of new product development for the cookbook division. Now, Shuster is combining her skills in marketing and her love of food by running Markets & More.

All over the country, farmers markets are sprouting. From small stands on street corners to entire blocks fenced off for a collection of vendors, markets have emerged as a healthful antidote to the nation’s unwholesome eating habits. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 6,132 farmers markets operating in America. A 16 percent increase from a year ago, this is more than double the number of markets in existence in 2005.

One of the markets’ most outspoken advocates is first lady Michelle Obama, who opened the White House Farmers Market on the same day the USDA launched the Farmers Market Promotion Program, a $5 million a year grant program dedicated to helping local markets grow.

With such strong support by the first lady to push nutrition reform, it is no surprise that D.C. has become a city of many markets. On any given day in the District, at least one market can be guaranteed to be showcasing its harvest.

“This is the ultimate job because it threads all aspects of my life,” Shuster says proudly.

Each weekend her presence is well known at her markets. She is constantly running around, speaking with vendors and chatting with customers about the best ways to prepare the local produce. During the week she often posts on the markets’ Facebook pages about what to expect that weekend, also including recipes for highlighting seasonal ingredients.

Although smaller than the popular Dupont Circle Sunday market organized by the nonprofit company FarmFresh, Shuster’s markets are ideal for anyone eager to speak directly with the farmers.

Luke Hall worked as a manager for Markets & More for two years before leaving to work on a farm in central Pennsylvania, where he helped raise chickens, pigs and sheep. In addition to leaving his position at the markets, he quit his full-time job as a lawyer to pursue farming as a career.

Hall emphasizes the effort it takes to commit to a life working from the land, especially when transitioning from a city life.

“There is something really beautiful about producing food,” he says. He recalls the first time he sold a customer a chicken that he raised, and the satisfaction he felt afterward. Just as it is important for the consumers to know where their food is coming from, farmers like Hall are equally interested in knowing where their food is going.

“It was an amazing feeling to know that I raised this bird from start to finish, and now it was going to nourish someone,” Hall says.

Hall also believes that the markets have become a gathering area for the community.

“I have always seen the market as a vital community space where we all belong,” he says. “It is a central place to meet your neighbors.”

New concerns about food safety have also made the forums for food more attractive to consumers. With this summer’s wide-reaching egg recall, many worry about the reliability of the nation’s food safety standards. Buying local fare helps to eradicate concerns about the effects of mass production on food.

“Everything just tastes better at the market,” says Michelle Leeds, a weekly shopper at 14th and U. “And there are no worries about recalls.”

Although Washington doesn’t spring to mind as an agricultural center, farms along the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have grown to be the primary suppliers to the District’s markets. Many farmers from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia pack up their trucks weekly to make the trip to the nation’s capital and sell their freshest goods.

On a typical Saturday, the 14th and U market will host about 12 producers lining the street, and some of the vendors perched behind the stands are award winners. Shuster says, for example, that it was the markets’ selling of Pecan Meadow Farm’s pumpkin whoopie pies that launched the city’s whoopie pie craze. Cherry Glen Farm in Boyds, Md., proudly sells its awarding-winning goat cheese. The farm’s most notable product is its Monocacy Chipotle goat cheese, which recently received a blue ribbon at the 2010 American Cheese Society Competition.

Many of the products sold are of top restaurant quality, according to Shuster. Pastas from Copper Pot Food Company, owned by Stefano Frigerio, the former executive chef at the now-closed Maestro, are the foundations of an easy, inexpensive yet sophisticated Italian meal. Panorama Bakery, based in Alexandria, Va., sells loaves of its homemade bread, as well as chocolate croissants, muffins, sticky buns and other assorted pastries. Panorama’s products are served at many of D.C.’s most popular restaurants, including Centrale, City Zen and Citronelle.

The markets do have their critics, however. With so much emphasis on the nation’s high obesity rate and the need to eat healthier, many argue that those most in need of fresh food are unable to foot the bill. Often, the prices at the fresh markets are significantly higher than grocery store products. Haggling for lower prices is rarely an option.

Some markets are dealing with these concerns by supporting the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and accepting food stamps. Both of Shuster’s markets support these programs to make buying healthier affordable for all.

For the cash-strapped college student eager to keep the grocery store at arm’s length, Shuster suggests organizing a buying club for farmers market trips. Typically, vendors sell their products in bulk, so it is often cheaper for students to split the cost among a group for a heftier purchase. Shuster also recommends taking advantage of the seasonality of ingredients.

Today, local markets have become the source for buying from the source. As new markets crop up across the District and with each buyer-vendor exchange, perhaps eating is — once again — an agricultural act. 

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