This article originally appeared in the September/October 2011 edition of Museum magazine.
A Conversation with Michael Babin and Laurie Ossman
At Northern Virginia’s Woodlawn—a historic site that was once part of George Washington’s farms at Mount Vernon—a new farming and food project has blossomed. Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture has established its operations on Woodlawn’s grounds, returning the property to its farming roots while engaging today’s community. One hundred acres of the former plantation’s property is now dedicated to sustainable farming. Arcadia plans to grow food there for the local school system, provide education about nutrition and environmental stewardship, and create a distribution system for fresh local food to schools, restaurants, and other establishments.
In 2008, I was charged by the National Trust with reinventing this lovely, yet overshadowed, deficit-operating and increasingly superannuated historic site. The most intriguing proposal I heard was, “What about sustainable farming?” Not only did this fit the Trust’s core value of sustainability, it had the added advantage of being true to the site’s history.
A sustainability advocate introduced to me to Michael Babin, co-owner of the Alexandria, Va.-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG). Michael had the vision—a nonprofit venture aimed at training young growers, educating kids about good food and scaling up the local food economy by coordinating sales and delivery of the area’s sustainably raised foods to restaurants, schools, groceries, not-for-profits and consumers—and Woodlawn had the land. On the practical side, Michael also provided (through his restaurants and affiliated businesses) a core market, a network of slow food advocates and culinary junkies, deep knowledge of the food industry and (drumroll) start-up funding.
In the first year, Arcadia will start by farming six acres, emphasizing heritage varieties, before branching into larger-scale crops and a distribution hub as land is cleared and becomes available. Within three years, Woodlawn projects a substantial increase in revenue from events, while the National Trust will continue to work with Arcadia to expand farming, educational programs, and hospitality services slated to cover 100 acres of our 128-acre site in five years. We hope Michael will have his new restaurant at the site long before then. –Woodlawn’s director
Here at Woodlawn, we’re seeing some of your wonderful volunteers putting in crops that are going to be harvested this summer and used in a number of ways. Can you tell us a little bit about what made this come into being here?
Babin: I’ve been in the restaurant business for about 14 years, and all of the restaurants that we have are chef-driven. Each one has its own chef, and they have a tremendous amount of autonomy. The main thing that I tell them is to buy the best stuff that they can. The effort to do that is difficult. In this area, it means working with a ton of small farms that don’t have a good distribution system. When the farmer or his son gets sick, deliveries don’t come and everybody’s got to scramble. There are a lot of farms we’d like to work with that just won’t come all the way to
us to deliver. We’ve known for a long time that the food system is broken in fundamental ways. These guys are struggling to make a living and they’re having trouble getting their products to ready buyers.
Several years ago, we decided that as a restaurant group that is socially engaged in our community, we wanted to do more than just throw donations over the fence to this or that cause. We wanted to get engaged in the arena that we live in, that we work in and that we’re committed to. Arcadia was founded to improve the food system here in the Washington, D.C., area. Distribution is one piece of that. The other piece is trying to affect the ability of consumers/
eaters throughout the region to make better choices for themselves and their families—choices that are going to
make them healthier. Right now we have serious public epidemics that are nutrition-related, nutrition-based. We have hunger and food insecurity in the same households where we have obesity, diabetes and other [problems] that go along with overeating. It’s a sticky puzzle.
You’re tackling this on many fronts at once. You started with the practical issue of getting healthy sustainable local food for your restaurants. But now the system that you’re building here is going to touch the school system and the “food desert” areas of D.C. It’s going to be doing education through Woodlawn. Tell me a little bit about that whole suite.
Babin: It’s a very complex system. You’ve got growers. You’ve got the people who are eating. You’ve got the distribution network that connects them. Seventy years ago, the ring around the urban center that grew the food was tightly connected to the people in the center who were consuming it. With the rise in industrial agriculture, that connection was broken. Now, more than 90 percent of the food that we consume is grown far away on major industrial farms that most people know nothing about. We’re starting to know more, and everything we learn is scary.
The goal of Arcadia is to look at the big picture. How do we make meaningful connections again between the local growers and the people here in the community? What can we do to make those connections stronger, richer and more mindful of all of the outcomes of what we do—environmental, everything? We’re taking a limited geographic area, but we’re looking at the biggest picture possible.
If you don’t do that, then the law of unintended consequences can run wild. If you go in and say the one issue we care about is supporting farmers, then you’re probably going to end up with the system that we’re developing right now, where you’ve got grocery stores for some people on one socioeconomic level and really nice farmers’ markets that are selling very expensive food. The farmers who participate in the market are doing a little bit better because they’re able to charge high prices, but it’s a stratified system that’s not getting that great food onto the tables of the
people who really need it the most. By the same token, if the only thing you’re concerned about is food access, then you could end up pushing down the prices for what farmers are growing and pushing farmers to use practices that aren’t healthy and sustainable.
That’s a tough one. You’re launching a wonderful project that’s going to bring locally grown food to “food desert” areas in D.C. How do you make that economically sustainable so that you’re delivering food that meets your criteria for being healthy, sustainable and still affordable for the people you hope will buy it?
Babin: If there was an easy solution and I had the perfect answer, then somebody else probably would have done it. There is always an element of experimentation in these things. We have this great old school bus. We’re going to put local products on it, roll it into these neighborhoods and communities and have markets, say, once a week. We’re going to sell that food at a price that is less than they could expect to pay at a farmers’ market. It’s going to be a
lot cheaper. We can still pay the farmer a fair price because we’re not asking them to pack their truck at 4:00 in the morning and spend an entire day sitting in the sun at an urban farmers’ market. It’s a lower-cost distribution for them, and we’re going to reflect that cost. We’re going to accept all the forms of food assistance that are available.
The access part of the Mobile Market is the easier part in some ways. Figuring out the logistics of a better distribution model that’s fair to small and medium-size farmers and pays them a little bit more is relatively easy. The harder part is [getting] the people whom you’d like to buy this food to see it as a real option to understand that their food dollars are going to go just as far if not farther when they buy fresh food, learn how to use it well and make their meals out of it as when they get frozen pizzas and pop tarts.
So, there’s an element of educating the consumer.
Babin: There’s a huge element of educating the consumer.
Is that where the contact with the school system comes in?
Babin: It is. The school system contacts are going to revolve around one part of education. The other part is that getting better food into the lunchroom has its own complex of difficult issues. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, habit, rules, and regulations that I’m sure had a good meaning at some point, but now have gotten in the way of getting better food on the kids’ plates in schools. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence ·that if all you do is drop this beautiful produce into the system that these kids have never seen before, they’ll throw a lot of it away. So, there has to be a lot of education. The logic behind it is pretty simple. Somebody who works in one of the local school systems recently described how these kids eat peaches every day because peaches come in giant jars filled with syrup. He brought a basket of peaches into the school, and many of the kids had no idea what the fruit in its natural state actually looked like.
Or that they grow on trees.
Babin: Exactly. The degree of work that has to be done to reconnect people to the sources of their food—to get them to look at it differently and make smart choices about it—is pretty extreme. We’ve got to start at the schools, but it’s also going to happen on these market days when hopefully the kids, their parents, their guardians will be out there buying and learning. We’re going to do a lot of teaching out there as well.
Woodlawn traditionally was a working farm, but for a long time, the site didn’t have the resources to run it as a farm. It had all been given over to lawn.
Ossman: Correct. Beginning in the early 20th century as part of the colonial revival, the owners chose to interpret the hilltop as a “play farm,” for lack of a better word. Then under the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s ownership in the 1950s, which was the very model at the time, a lot of what had been kitchen garden space and working space was transformed into decorative space, and formal boxwood mazes and rose gardens were put in place. But Alden Hopkins, the great colonial revival landscape designer, intended this field to be used as a vegetable garden … What was great about working with Michael was his idea that our history and our mission of historic preservation—and
the mission of sustainability and food equity—could be [joined]. We could help each other, broaden both of our audiences, bring them together and open up an interesting dialogue.
What do you see Woodlawn bringing to the table besides land? You want people to see this actively, right?
Babin: Absolutely. The interpretive stuff that Laurie has either put in, inherited or added to is going to grow and reflect more and more of the agricultural history—which, of course, is a social history, political history and so much else. The agricultural future of the place will become an interpretive lens, helping to make it a rich experience for anybody who comes here.
What would be your advice to other people in the country who might look at this model and consider doing something like this? What are the lessons to take away that aren’t unique to Woodlawn and Arcadia?
Ossman: Don’t try to force a synergy. I talked to a lot of people who were interested in partnerships with us who did not get it. Also, in our case it works because agriculture is part of our heritage. We chose from the 1950s to emphasize a story of domestic gentility and not the story of the working farm. But as this area became so densely developed and urbanized, the agricultural story that was taken for granted has become a more important narrative that we feel we need to revive and share. It engages with a larger part of our community because there were so many more people here who worked on the farm than people who sat in the parlor playing the harpsichord. We can give people a way to connect through their own heritage to the story and to the lessons that Michael is trying to teach about nutrition, good food and being responsible consumers.