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Rebuilding Our Local Food Economy, One Tomato at a Time

You may know that Our Common Table is Chef John Shields’ call to action to rebuild our local food economy through supporting and creating initiatives and partnerships that engage communities to live, learn, and protect the bounty of the Chesapeake region. But you might be wondering, what exactly is a local food economy and how do we rebuild it?

A local food economy is a local food system where food is grown, processed, sourced, and consumed in a given region. Supporting a local food economy means that you are choosing to buy and consume food from your local area whenever possible. In Maryland, our local food economy consists of our city, state, or larger Chesapeake region depending on where you live and what type of food is being sourced. What defines “local” in a local food system relies greatly on what is available in the area.

Some areas have higher access to locally produced foods, such as big cities making the geographic location of their local food system smaller and more compact. Local food systems in rural areas might have to be much larger to provide access to the same types of foods. Regardless of the geographic size of your local food economy, many different groups benefit from a healthy local food economy. These groups include local farmers and producers, our communities, our environment, and ourselves!

Now, what can we do to help?

Try to Buy as Much of Our Food as We Can as Locally as Possible.

At Farmers Markets

The easiest way to do this is at a farmers' market. Fortunately, there are farmers' markets galore these days. Why are farmers' markets so helpful? For one thing, it's great to be able to have a genuine relationship with the people who grow your food. Since I've made the acquaintance of my friend David Hochheimer, who owns Black Rock Orchard in northeastern Carroll County, I appreciate a whole lot more all that it took to grow and bring to market that apple that I eat every day on my way into work.

The food offered at your local farmers' market is grown by small family farmers who are personally, philosophically, and financially invested in their land, which in turn means they practice responsible farming. Due to the increase in the popularity of farmers' markets, older farmers are better able to hold onto their land while mentoring a new generation eager to farm. When we do our shopping at farmers' markets, it makes it possible for these hard-working neighbors to make a good living and support their families.

And the best news is that the money generated stays within the community. It's not sent thousands of miles away. It is the economic engine that makes it possible to rebuild our local food economy (an economy that was dismantled by an industrialized food system that only came into major play during the last century). And, farmers' markets help us to eat fresh food seasonally, which is really good for our bodies.

The Dupont Circle farmers market is the jewel in the crown for the Potomac/DC area and has helped put the local food movement on the map. Because it draws huge crowds each week, farmers must apply years in advance just to get a spot. Over the years, it has given many farmers and artisanal food makers a fantastic showcase for their products. In so doing, it's made it economically feasible for these folks to expand their operations and continue in the business of farming. Dupont Circle Market is operated by FreshFarm Markets, a nonprofit organization that now runs a dozen local farmers' markets throughout Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

In the Baltimore area, the Waverly / 32nd Street Farmers Market is the granddaddy of them all. It is the only year-round farmers' market in the Baltimore metro area and draws hundreds of neighborhood shoppers each Saturday, with more than fifty local vendors bringing their wares each week. There is also the lively Baltimore Farmers' Market, which operates under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown. It's a virtual festival of food happening every Sunday during the growing season.

Virginia Beach, the largest city in the state of Virginia, is home to two large farmers' markets. The Virginia Beach Farmers Market operates year-round and offers local produce, meat, and seafood seasonally. The newer Old Beach Farmers Market is nestled in the heart of the resort area and features a great selection of produce, cheese, seafood, meats, and prepared creations from local chefs.

To find a farmers market near you, visit your state’s Department of Agriculture website or other similar websites. There you will find an ever-growing list of local, seasonal farmers' markets, usually quite near your own home. So, at least during the growing season, there is never a shortage of places to find local products and have an opportunity to deal directly with the folks who grow, raise, and harvest your food.

To find a farmers market near you, we recommend checking out the following sites for each state in the Chesapeake watershed:

At Small Independent Food Markets and Grocery Stores

In the olden days, most shops and grocery stores were based in neighborhoods and were, by nature, independent. Globalization and supersizing of companies has changed all that, and most of the small local groceries have been gobbled up or put out of business by large chains. But not all the independent groceries have succumbed. There are still quite a number of local food businesses all around the region, and they are the next best choice in shopping after the farmers' markets. Money spent in these stores stays in the local community and helps keep people employed. The small independents are normally extremely involved with the community and in supporting community endeavors. Sometimes the small grocery is a bit more expensive than well-known chain store alternatives. That's because they cannot buy in the same huge quantities as the large chains. But most of the independents I've shopped at have been more committed to buying local products and local produce than many of the large chains. It's a little extra money well spent.

At Larger Regional Markets

In many areas around the Chesapeake region there are only large, chain grocery stores. There is nothing wrong with these stores at all, and they employ many in the community. For those of us who are committed to a local food economy, I find the best strategy is to develop a relationship with the store management. Let them know what you like to buy and the plus sides of buying local. Help them make contact with local farmers and the producers of local goods.

It could be they had just never thought about buying locally. And should they start bringing in local products, make sure to support them and send other customers their way. This is how change happens through face-to-face relationships.

In addition to eating locally, another way that we can help is by growing. We've talked a lot about farmers and the environment in pondering how to rebuild our local food economy, but the most important step we can take is to grow something ourselves. Growing an herb, a plant, or a small fruit tree does not require an enormous amount of space or land.

I've helped lead a gardening series for a number of years, and I always reiterate to the participants, "Just grow," even if it's only some flat-leafed parsley this year. I find the act, the miracle of growing–seeing something spring forth from a seed and make its way into a full-fledged item of food--always amazes me. Always!

By growing, we reconnect with life. We slow down, and the process makes us realize just how precious food is and all the effort and care required to grow it. Food is not a mere commodity. It is life. So, in envisioning a Chesapeake kitchen for the twenty-first century, I think even simple growing, by each of us, is essential. Some sort of window sill, balcony, or driveway container garden will help physically and psychologically reconnect us to the land, the soil, and to our very own local food economy.

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