Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Buy local, buy organic, but keep it convenient!

That’s the challenge facing the healthy food movement stirring appetites among Arlington shoppers, government staff and nonprofit activists.

“There is tremendous interest from people who live here to connect with the earth, to feel they can produce food that is pesticide-free, who’re actually gardening, putting hands in the dirt and producing something from a seed growing to a plant that produces food so satisfying to many people,” says Kirsten Ann Conrad, the Agriculture Natural Resource Extension Agent at Virginia Tech’s office in Fairlington.

“We’re a more resilient community if we’re not relying on imported things,” I’m told by Robin Broder, the new president of the nonprofit Arlington Friends of Urban Agriculture. She cites high demand among Arlington’s “sophisticated, educated” residents in a culturally diverse market.

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“On the environmental side, we want to reduce transportation of produce and mass-produced packaged products that burns fossil fuel, and keep dollars in the community. If people ask where their food is coming from, they’re more likely to demand food that was produced in a more sustainable fashion.”

A study on that question out last year from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments singled out Arlington for having the nation’s highest number of farmer’s markets per capita (11), a 57 percent growth since 2007. Though our last commercial farm folded in 1955, we have three urban farms and five farmers, 36 school gardens and 57 community garden plots, COG said.

The movement got a boost in 2013, when Arlington’s Urban Agriculture Task Force sketched out a food action plan. The result was the county’s appointment of Kimberly Haun as the region’s first urban agriculture coordinator.

A huge driver, Broder notes, is ongoing demand for donated fresh produce for the Arlington Food Assistance Center charity, whose “Plot Against Hunger” program receives organic offerings from sites like the volunteer garden at Potomac Overlook Park. Many stores define “local” flexibly, a 250-mile radius, while the county puts it at 120 miles.

“Local foods do not equal organic foods, and organic foods are not necessarily local,” cautions Conrad, who helps Arlington’s master gardeners with 60 programs a year. “We don’t want to imply that ‘organic’ food is necessarily more nutritious.”

But overall, Conrad sees the food push in Arlington as a “huge success story,” both on grocery store shelves and in the more local supplies now ordered by restaurants. “Consumer budgets have driven prices down.”
Given Arlington’s scarce land options, rooftop gardens are the most promising future resource, she says. Her colleague, Aisha Salazar, conducts seminars for all ages on related but broader topics: nutrition, food safety, cooking, food finances, sustainable energy and affordable housing.

A more centralized school program is needed, Broder advises, one that integrates local organic principles with math and science curricula countywide. “The programs tend to pop up as PTA grants, but when the kids graduate” they can fade.

My nonscientific survey (shopping trips!) shows the most dramatically organic stores are MOM’s Organic Market and Whole Foods, both of which bombard customers with notices.

MOM’s posters offer classes on the organic industry and boast of staff environmental commitments. Whole Foods’ posters shout, “Grown without the use of potentially harmful pesticides.” Giant, Safeway and Harris Teeter have special sections. Safeway’s is the more dramatically marked, with HT appealing to pocketbooks: “Priced Low on Organics!”

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High school athletes’ National Signing Day has become a formalized event.

On Feb. 5, I watched the ceremony in the cafeteria of Yorktown High School, where 20 male and female seniors announced plans to play collegiate-level football, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, baseball, tennis and track.

Only 1 in 50 high school athletes play at competitive colleges, said activities director Mike Krulfeld.

Yorktown football coach Bruce Hanson told me this year’s crop was a rarity in that his team sent two players to FBS college teams: Quarterback Grant Wilson to Fordham University and defensive end John Pius to William and Mary.

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