According to farmers and environmental activists, both the supply and the demand for locally sourced food have increased exponentially each year. The benefits of this movement are many, from the preservation of farmland (and the slowing of sprawl) to the reduced carbon load (grocery store produce travels an average of 1,500 miles to your table). Plus, let’s face it: fresh produce (and meat) tastes better.
However, due to the complexity of food distribution networks at the grocery store level (even Whole Foods only makes local produce available at a farmer’s market once a week in front of their store, not in it), local produce is not widely available to consumers.
That needs to change. And Baltimore, perhaps more than any other city in the nation, has a special asset that could expand the distribution of locally sourced food to the community, particularly to poor communities, where lack of fresh food has been linked to higher incidences of disease, while creating hundreds of new jobs and supporting an important Baltimore tradition.
Baltimore’s own authentic “green” food distribution network, the Arabbers, are struggling to maintain their livelihood in the midst of city regulation. In 1940, there were as many as 50 Arab stables. Today, there are only three. Why not invest in this unique Baltimore distribution network and make a goal to not only support them, but to see them expand to their original numbers? The key to success will be fresh produce that consumers will want to buy: fresh produce that could be sourced by Maryland farmers.
At the first annual Baltimore Bioneers conference in October of this year, all of the speakers were inspirational. But none more so than Van Jones, founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (Van was an Urbanite guest editor, for our “Sustainability” issue this year). Jones is leading a national effort to ensure that African Americans take an active role in filling the green jobs that will be created in this new economy. Many conference attendees were inspired by his call to action and felt that creating green jobs through our local food supply was the best place to start in our region. An investment in the Arabbers could make this a reality, and for relatively small cost.
Why Pawpaw? The Pawpaw is a native Maryland tree that grows along streambeds and produces the pawpaw fruit. Often called a “poor man’s banana,” it can be substituted for banana in most recipes. It is relatively easy to grow and tends to be resistant to pests, but its three-day shelf life has prevented mass distribution. This native Maryland fresh fruit requires a distribution system that is time efficient. Pawpaw is a fitting symbol for a return to locally sourced food supplies: it’s a fruit that requires urgent attention, as do our farmers, our youth, and our Arabbers.