This week Theresa Marquez interviews Pamela Hess, executive director of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. Arcadia is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more equitable and sustainable local food system in the Washington, DC area. Arcadia manages four distinct program areas that address a specific need in the community, while collectively engaging consumers, farmers, schools, and institutions:
The Arcadia Farm is a demonstration farm that brings environmentally and economically sustainable growing practices to life.
The Mobile Market brings fresh, affordable food to underserved DC-area neighborhoods.
The Food Hub provides services that support and advance local, sustainable farms.
The Farm to School Program brings fresh, locally grown food from the farm to school cafeterias and provides hands-on food education.
Pam’s path to Arcadia was roundabout. She was a career national security journalist and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for a time, was a communications director on Capitol Hill. In 2011, she returned to her first love – food and sustainable farms – by taking the helm at a local food and wine magazine, and eventually she found her way to Arcadia.
We hope you enjoy this chat with Pamela Hess.
Interview with Pamela Hess
November 2, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. I am very, very excited today, because I’m in Washington, D.C., a big, vibrant, exciting city, where so much is happening all the time. And one of the more exciting things that’s happening is with Pam Hess and a wonderful organization called Arcadia. And good morning, Pam.
PAMELA HESS: Good morning, thank you so much for having me. It’s really nice to see you again.
TM: You too. I just enjoyed our conversation that we had the last time we spoke. And, you know, I thought a lot about it and am excited to be getting to talk to you some more about your rich background and also life here in D.C., and what you’re doing with Arcadia, which is amazing. For our listeners, Pam actually is a journalist who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and then, after doing that, she came here to Washington, D.C., and, you might say, took on another kind of warrior situation—warrioress situation—of helping to bring good food to everyday people, low-income people, your average people. How is it that you made that transition?
PH: I have—I was a national security journalist for twenty years. I’ve actually been in Washington since 1985, so this is very much home. And as a wire service reporter I was covering the Pentagon, and so I would go over to Iraq or Afghanistan for one or two months at a time. I did that for about six years, so that I could actually see what was happening for myself instead of just sitting in Pentagon briefings and listening to what they thought was happening.
But I’ve always been into food, and I grew up with a mother who was a home ec teacher and had a garden in the backyard. And our summers were marked by blackberry picking and our falls were marked by apple picking. And I grew up with this kind of focus on food in its most natural, greatest form. And it was all parts of it: the finding of it and the harvesting of it and the preparing of it. And every season—growing up this way is really wonderful, because every season becomes a celebration. Just when you’re tired of the asparagus coming out of the backyard, it’s time for strawberries, and then it’s time for blackberries, and then it’s time for these gorgeous tomatoes, and then it’s time for apples and butternut squash. So that’s how I grew up, and so food has always been pretty critical to me.
And in 2006, I think, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it was really eye opening, but also really weirdly confirming. I’d always felt like there were things that were going on that I didn’t quite understand. And it explained, yes, in fact, it does, and it gave me enough of the factual basis that I was able to really start thinking through the stuff. As I was—in national security journalism, I was also freelancing in some food writing, telling stories about local farmers, and ended up becoming the editor of a very small, and now defunct, local food magazine that was really wonderful. And, in the course of that, got to know Arcadia.
It was started by a restaurateur who’s local to Washington, D.C. His name is Michael Babin, and he began Arcadia around about 2010 or 2011. He had been looking for more local, sustainably grown food for his restaurants and ran into a huge problem. And that is that there is a limited supply and what is out there is quite expensive. And to his everlasting credit, he thought, “If I as a restaurateur am having this much trouble getting this food, what’s everybody else doing?” And that led him to the public health crisis that’s associated with our food system.
I think most people know that our nation is now something like two-thirds overweight, a third obese. It’s really unfairly distributed though. The poor are two times as likely to be overweight or obese as the wealthy, and low-income people have a much higher incidence of diabetes and other chronic diseases that are related to the food that they have access to.
I think this is one of the things that I feel really passionately about. It’s very easy, if you haven’t really exposed yourself in a low-income neighborhood, to understand what kind of food environment they’re operating in. It’s really easy to think that this is all about personal choice. And hey, if I can get apples, they can get apples. But it’s really not the case. The neighborhoods that Arcadia serves with our Mobile Markets do not have access to fresh food of any sort. And so people will say it’s really about them making bad choices, but it’s not. You cannot make a bad choice if you don’t have a choice to begin with.
TM: Wow, that—I can see that there’s a lot of tenacity in what you had to do as a journalist in Afghanistan, and I see there’s a huge amount of tenacity that you have to have working, trying to look at this food desert and food insecurity, and I think what your founder—I think I read a couple things by him—really refers to as a broken food system. And everyone keeps thinking that all we have to do to feed the world is just grow more food, but it’s certainly much more complicated than that.
PH: It’s way more complicated than that. When the answer comes out, “We need to grow more food,” what people are really talking about is growing more corn and soy and making more processed foods that can then be shipped across the world. But you’re just exporting disease that way. What we need are a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables, a lot more grass-fed meats and pastured animals, so that things are growing in the way that they’re supposed to be growing and that promote health. There is a cost associated with it, but there’s an even greater cost associated with not doing that.
We spend something like $290 billion on chronic diseases every year. These are like diabetes and some forms of cancer and heart disease and hypertension, all of which are avoidable if we changed the food we eat. And again, you can change the food if you have money. You can go to the Whole Foods, you can get Peapod delivered to your house, you can change the food you eat. It’s really hard; dieting is really hard. But if you’re low-income, it’s really, really hard. You not only have to exercise all of that will to eat healthy foods, you have to find it and afford it and have the time and the optimism required to prepare it. So it’s tough. And so what Arcadia is trying to do is close that gap, at least on the supply and on the price and on the convenience.
TM: And it looks like you’re making some big inroads. You’re really growing fast, aren’t you?
PH: We are. It’s an interesting process and one that I’m still figuring out how to manage. But, yeah, we started out with one Mobile Market, which was a school bus loaded up with food, and we have racks that hook to the outside and an awning that we roll out. And so the first year, we made eight regular, weekly stops in neighborhoods that were low-income, high use of food stamps or SNAP, low car ownership, and no grocery store within about a mile.
By 2014 we’d added a second vehicle, and we’re now up to nineteen regular weekly stops between May and November. We would like to, and we’re trying to figure out how to, extend it into the winter, but because we are basically an outdoor farmers’ market that is in place for two or three hours a week in each of these neighborhoods, we’re trying to figure out if people will actually come outside. Like when it rains, our folks, the attendance really drops off. It makes perfect sense; nobody wants to go shopping for their food in the rain. So we’re trying to figure out how we manage this for the winter.
But our Mobile Market has never been the goal. The goal is to build demand and demonstrate demand and show the rest of the city that, yes, this neighborhood does want this food. It has to check these boxes: it has to be convenient, it has to be really high quality. You can’t expect low-income people to buy low-quality food. They’re too smart for that. They know that if they get a peach that is bruised, that peach is going to go bad in a day, and nobody’s going to eat it. They know that if they have a tomato that is getting mealy, nobody’s going to eat it, and that’s wasted food and wasted money. So the food has to be really high quality and it has to be, as I say, convenient, and the price has to be right.
And one of the ways that the price is right is through a donor-funded program called Bonus Bucks. We accept food stamps, so SNAP, WIC, and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Vouchers. And we double those. So if you spend five dollars with us, or ten dollars, you get ten or twenty dollars in food. And so that’s a really important attraction for our customers, that they know they’re going to get a good deal on the highest quality food.
And D.C. has a really interesting program, for the second year in a row. I think they’re the only ones in the country that’s doing this, and it’s a city government program called Produce Plus. Anyone can show up at the market who meets certain income guidelines, and there’s like eight ways that you can show that you meet the guideline. And you can get a voucher for ten dollars in free fruits and vegetables every time you go to the market. So if you had the time—and there are some senior citizens who have this time and the wish—you can go to multiple markets in a week and end up with a ton of really great, top-quality, local, sustainably grown produce. It’s an amazing program. And when it ends—for the last two years, the money runs out in September because it’s just for the fiscal year—people are heartbroken.
But it makes such a difference and it dwarfs food stamp use at farmers’ markets. This year I think D.C. funded it at $400,000 and it ran out of money. And I think SNAP spending, food stamp spending, at farmers’ markets is around $39,000 per summer. So the need is spectacular, and people’s willingness to make the check to the farmers’ market because of this benefit is huge, and it’s a great program to introduce people the first time.
And there’s something else I want to say—and thank you for this, because this came out of our conversation, I guess it was last spring. One of the ways that we leverage the food that we sell, we understand that a lot of people haven’t had access to this food for a very long time, and so maybe they don’t know what to do with it. And almost anybody faced with a kohlrabi or a rutabaga or a butternut squash is flummoxed. It doesn’t matter where you live or how much money you make. So we produced a cookbook a couple of years ago and Organic Valley sponsored the cookbook’s last printing. We’ve been through 1,500 books since you guys sponsored it. And the books go free to every one of our customers who use federal nutrition benefits and also Produce Plus at the market, so that people are inspired to cook and have a lot of information about the food. And the recipes are delicious and easy. They were written by our culinary educator, a really remarkable woman named JuJu Harris.
And JuJu has this really crazy background. She’s the daughter of a Tuskegee airman, she grew up in Oakland, she was sort of a hippie, she went to Berkley for a while, I think dropped out, joined the Peace Corps along the way, learned Italian cooking from an Italian family, moved to Paraguay and lived in a hut, ended up marrying a Paraguayan, and found us when the Mobile Market was just first out on the street, and sort of walked on the bus and said, “I will be working with you from now on.” And we said, “Okay.”
And she’s amazing, because when—for about eighteen months her family used SNAP when her husband was injured, and she used WIC when her children were small. So she really understands what our customers are up against. And our customers love her and understand there’s no judgment, she understands that, you know, life is hard, and especially since 2008 it’s been really tough. So she creates a really wonderful community around the Mobile Market and it’s all focused around just cooking at home.
TM: It is so important to know how to cook—it really does. And I’m so impressed with the cookbook. I just love it—simple recipes, using fresh ingredients, so worthy of having, for those of you out there; and towards the end of the show I’ll make sure that we get your address where people can, or your website. That would be great.
You know, this idea of food desert. Maybe some of our listeners, I hope that you all know about food deserts. It’s rather chilling to come to D.C. and get stuck in traffic and realize that there’s areas in D.C. where for a couple, three miles even, there won’t be even a grocery store. And I just want the listeners to know that there’s food deserts all over the United States. Terrible food deserts in New Mexico where some of the Native American population have to travel a hundred miles round-trip just to shop. And so it’s interesting that here in the land of plenty we still are not being able to distribute food in a democratic way, you might say.
PH: It’s true. In Washington, in the wealthier neighborhoods, there’s one full-service grocery store for every 12,500 people. In the poor neighborhoods, there’s one for, particularly Ward 8, which is almost completely African-American and heavily low-income, there’s one grocery store for 77,000 people.
So it’s—the grocery stores make an economic calculation: how much money can they make per square foot? And they just determine that they can make more money, of course, where people have a lot more money. So if you come to D.C. as a tourist, you will probably never see the neighborhoods that we serve.
And again, you really have to exercise your empathy to understand that I actually talked to somebody on the City Council who said, “Why don’t people just get in their cars and drive to the grocery store?” And I had to say, “They don’t have cars and they’re reliant on public transportation.” And public transportation is going to cost them four or five bucks round trip to the grocery store. It’s probably going to be forty-five minutes to an hour each way, with waiting for the bus and transferring the bus. And that represents maybe 25 percent of their weekly food budget.
TM: I was going to say, that’s probably one or two or three meals even.
PH: Yeah, it is. And when I’m out on the Mobile Market—which isn’t very often; there’s a staff that handles that and they’re really good at it, but I’ll fill in once in a while—I’m always surprised and humbled and elevated by what I see. People who you would sort of look at and think, “Oh, they’re not much of a cook,” will come up and buy huge amounts of food and regale you with what they’re going to make with it.
I remember, out in May we were at a new stop called Berry Farm. It’s a large, historic, public-housing complex. And this guy walked up—he was about three hundred pounds, sweating, smoking, carrying a Diet Coke, with a towel over his head and was standing in front of all of the vegetables. And so I got up and said, “Can I help you?” thinking that he was just looking and was going to walk on by because he had kind of shuffled up really slowly. And he immediately got four huge bunches of kale, four pounds of apples, and ultimately ended up with an $80 bill, which is quite a lot of food, that was cut to $40 because he was using a mix of SNAP and WIC, and told me all of the things that he was going to be doing. He was going to turn the collards into greens for the week; he’s feeding four kids at home; he’s the main cook; the kids would have apples as their snacks; and he bought a bunch of our only pastured and grass-fed meats that we sell from local farms. And we had a great talk about the food that he was going to make. And it just teaches me, every time I’m out there, not to make assumptions about people, and that everybody’s the same. Everybody just wants to feed their families good food.
TM: I do want to call out, while I’m thinking about it, the Wholesome Wave folks, Michel Nischan and Gus Schumacher, who really charged the hill to get those double food stamps. So if you get food stamps, you can actually double, as you were saying, if you buy from like the Mobile Market or farmers’ markets.
PH: Yeah, that’s a federal program called FINI, and I’ll mess up what the acronym stands for, but it’s basically an incentive program. And that means if you go to a market that gets funded by FINI—you have to apply to the federal government to get this funding—it will match fruits and vegetables, depending on what you ask the government for, but basically dollar for dollar. And there’s $100 million in that account for the next five years, so it will be about $20 million a year, which is roughly equivalent to what is spent on SNAP. And this only doubles SNAP, but what is spent on SNAP at farmers’ markets each year is about $20 or $21 million, although it continues to grow. Still, that’s a tiny percentage of what the SNAP program is. It’s something like in excess of $75 billion dollars that gets spent every year through SNAP. So we’d like to see that grow at the farmers’ market.
TM: You know, I just have to make this comment. It’s so wonderful to be interviewing someone who’s a journalist, because they always have so much information and you can count on them for having a lot of factual information.
PH: Thank you. Yes, it’s a professional point of pride. And it’s funny because I still self-identify as a journalist although I have done it for about four years now.
TM: Well, you might get back to it yet. I’m so impressed with the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, which is the full name for the Arcadia Center, because I—you’re growing, is it just like on five acres?
PH: We are growing actually only on one acre, but we have just been granted a no-cost lease for twenty more acres adjacent to our property. So we will be expanding, I think, probably to four acres next spring, and then we’ll continue to add to it as time goes on. But we have access to this. We are on an amazing property. It’s Woodlawn Pope-Leighey. It’s the first house that the National Trust for Historic Preservation ever purchased. They’ve owned it since, I think, the 1950s. And it used to be Mount Vernon’s Dogue Run Farm, so George Washington used to farm this land.
TM: You’re kidding!
PH: Well, but the property actually is really inspiring to us.
TM: But that was his property that he farmed?
PH: It was his property and he was—well there’s two really cool pieces to this.
One, he was using this property to do sustainable agricultural research. He saw what tobacco had done to the land, so he started planting cover crops and those cover crops were giving him grain. And so he built his mill and distillery to turn the cover crops into a cash crop for him and to get away from tobacco. And he was very obsessed, in a weird way, with manure. And he didn’t really understand what it was, but he knew it was dark brown and very fertile. And so he was working on compost and manure and beginning to really understand crop rotation and fertilization of the soil, building the soil.
But then there’s this other cool piece that kind of rounds out the picture for us. And that is that George Washington gave this property to his step-granddaughter upon her wedding, and they built this big beautiful mansion that’s there, but in 1846, her family sold it, and they sold it to Quaker timber merchants who wanted the trees that were on the property. And the Quakers came down, took it, cleared out some of the trees because they were building clipper ships. But they were also abolitionists.
So twenty years before the Civil War, on the farm that we farm now, they abolished slavery in Virginia, and on the two thousand acres that they had they established it as a free-labor zone. And they sold land to African-American freemen farmers, and they sold land to Irish and German immigrants who were almost as equally unwelcome. And for the first time in the history of this property, it actually turned a profit growing food, once they got rid of slaves. And this was twenty years before the Civil War.
So it feels like kismet to us that Arcadia is there farming now, because the Quakers established this farm to use food and agriculture in pursuit of social justice, and that’s what Arcadia is doing. It’s got a little bit different flavor now, but we are growing food for people who, through lots of reasons, and some of it institutional, otherwise don’t access to it. And we’re trying to bring equality and sustainability back to the food system.
TM: That is a beautiful story. You’re actually evolving what started there after George Washington. What a beautiful and actually a democratic story in some ways. I keep hunting in this city for little bits of rays of hope and light that democracy might still be alive in Washington, D.C.
PH: Good luck! Yeah, there’s little bits of it.
TM: Little bits of it. You know, just to keep going back to the Arcadia Center, and also a little bit of a connection with you having been around soldiers, don’t you have a veterans program?
PH: We do, and we’ve just started it, and it’s so exciting. So one of the other great things about having this property where George Washington, the original veteran farmer, was is that we have begun a pretty intensive program to help a small number of veterans become farmers. Farming is a really hard business to get into if you don’t have access to land. If you didn’t grow up on a farm, it’s very difficult to do. You could join a training program, but generally you are either paying or you are volunteering your time.
So every year, we now have about 250,000 veterans who are leaving the military. The nation needs 100,000 new farmers over the next ten years. And there are a number of veterans who I know who are already farming, and a number of veterans who I know who want to do something meaningful. They don’t want to put on a tie and sit in a cubicle and sign new defense contracts. They want to do something with their hands; they want to do something that they can feel and hold and touch, and something that really leverages the skills that military service engenders. And I’m not talking about shooting or logistic. I’m talking about the mission orientation, the ability to stick with a job until it is done, because that is absolutely what is needed in farming; the ability to learn, because farming is learning every single day; the ability to accept training; the ability to work as a team or independently and to not be flipped out by a crisis. Farming is nothing but crisis after crisis that you have to solve.
So if we can divert a small number of our veterans who are leaving military service and really capitalize on this capability, then I think we can solve the farming crisis that’s coming with all of the farmers who are aging. The average age of a farmer in Virginia is, I think, fifty-nine. So if you’re looking ten years down the road and you’re not replacing those farmers with people who are going to be growing great food, you’re going to be in trouble.
So we have collected some grants and have hired our first veteran farm fellow. We’ll be paying him to join our farm. He is an eleven-year army veteran; his name is Leron Morell (?). He’s from North Carolina, where he has inherited fifty-five acres of farmland from his grandmother. It has been farmed, I think predominantly in tobacco and hay. But he’s very focused on the health of his community, and he contacted us and applied for this fellowship and really wants to learn how to grow vegetables and be a healthy farmer for his community back home. So we’ll be training him for the next year, and we’ll be looking for additional funding for the following year, because what we’d like to do is have a two-year program. One year on our farm getting the basics of farming, and then the second year, farming him out, so to speak, to another farm, so that he can learn from a new farmer and also pick up some skills that perhaps we don’t have. And all during this, he’ll be developing his business plan.
In January we start another program that’s a little easier for someone who is not quite sure they want to be a farmer to join, and it’s called the Reserve Program. It’s based on the concept of the military reserve: one weekend a month, two weeks a year. So we’re going to take ten veterans who want to explore farming and work with them one weekend a month in classroom and on-farm training and field trips to farms, help them develop business plans for what they might like to do. And then during the course of the year, they’ll spend at least two weeks on our farm, working and understanding the rhythms of farming and the physical demand that is placed on it.
But sort of a hilarious piece of this is, when we were interviewing our fellows, our wonderful farmer Anita was trying to explain to them this is really hard work. And she said, “Like last week it was ninety-five degrees with ninety-nine percent humidity and I still had to get out there and harvest and hoe and I couldn’t take a day off.” And she said, “Is that something that you feel capable of doing?” And this guy said, “I was in Fallujah for six months and it was a hundred and thirty degrees and I was wearing forty pounds of armor. I think I can manage.” And so we had to start changing that quickly. There’s nobody tougher than farmers and soldiers.
And you know, there’s something else that’s really important, and I hope this comes across. There’s this popular notion that our veterans are somehow victims and that we need to help them. And that has not been my experience at all. They are going to help us. There are a lot of people that are managing some emotional crises that comes that would happen to anyone if they saw what some of these people saw and went through. It’s—if you were in a car accident you would be experiencing the same kind of stress. But it goes away. For most people it goes away just over time.
And one of the great ways it goes away is by being physically active and by being outside and by being in a situation where people aren’t kind of hammering at you all the time, and where you have a lot of autonomy and you can make a lot of independent decisions. I don’t like to promote farming as therapy for veterans. I think farming is therapy for everyone. I’m out there once a week at least with volunteers, and I always feel better when I do. But I think in the end that it’s going to be the veterans that save us again.
TM: What a lovely sentiment that is. And yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it, but yes, farmers and soldiers, tough, tough. In fact, you know, I’m from Wisconsin, and in the Midwest a lot of our young men are soldiers. They recruit heavily in the Midwest, and these farm boys are tough. Go Packers!
I do want our listeners out there to know that they can make a donation to you that’s tax deductible. They can buy your cookbook, which is helpful. And also, that’s a win-win, I will tell you, because it is a beautiful book and very accessible. But how would our listeners and others that you might know and want to talk about this beautiful model here in D.C. actually doing so much, how would they donate to you?
PH: The easiest way is by going to our website, www.arcadiafood.org, and there’s a Donate Now button. Very simple, just click that. Or you can read about all of our programs, and there’s contact information in there for me. We are a small staff and I see everything that comes in.
TM: And once again, thank you so much to Pam Hess, who is our guest today. It’s been an honor to be talking with you.
PH: Thank you very much.
Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.