Local Girl: Dealing direct with regional producers expands notions of local

story by Stephanie Kane | illustration by Sarah FeroneNot long ago, people would react with surprise when I told them that what brought me to Philadelphia was my desire to work in the local, sustainable agriculture movement. But Philadelphia has long been at the forefront of the local food movement, and as you can see from the ever-expanding Local Food Guide, more and more people—more and more Philadelphians—are learning what it means to be connected to their food.

I became aware of the importance of that connection at a young age, but it had nothing to do with bucolic ideals or insight into the plight of the modern farmer. Growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio, the connection was as simple as the Midwestern ideal of home-cooked meals, made-from-scratch. Early on, I was obsessed with the queen of all things homemade—Martha Stewart—and I grew up most interested in learning how to make the perfect piecrust. But despite my suburban roots, the memories from my childhood that stand out the most are of pick-your-own berry farms, bonfires, and hands stained from cracking piles of black walnuts from our neighbor’s tree.

I was already acting locally, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned to “think globally” about it. Books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma made me realize that my delight at receiving free walnuts from a neighbor’s yard was my first foray into foraging. I also realized that a commitment to local, while not always easy, was also no hardship: the locally grown apples in those pies I was baking were so superior to the tasteless supermarket varieties that supporting local farmers didn’t take too much convincing.

While working on an urban farm in Columbus, I saw Philadelphia emerging as a center for urban agriculture. I stumbled across organizations I now know so well—Greensgrow Farms, Fair Food Farmstand, Urban Tree Connection, Mariposa Co-op. When I found Weavers Way, with their cooperatively owned markets and urban farms, I knew it was a perfect fit.

In the three years since I started working in the produce department of the Co-op’s new store in Chestnut Hill, I’ve seen change and growth in Philadelphia’s local food scene. Every day a different farmer would come in with a new bounty—crisp asparagus, juicy heirloom tomatoes, sugar-sweet peaches. As I got to know these farmers and their stories, I shared what I learned with shoppers and readers of the Co-op’s newspaper, The Shuttle. Before long, Weavers Way realized it needed someone dealing directly with a few of these farms, and created a part-time Local Produce Buyer position.

I was excited at the opportunity to work more closely with the farmers and to act as Weavers Way’s liaison to the local food community. I loved making it my personal mission to help our community understand why this food was so important. And I was proud that Weavers Way was ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance of having a staff person dedicated to working with the local farmers.

Now, I am even prouder that Weavers Way is once again ahead of the curve, expanding the job to encompass more than just local, and more than just produce. As Weavers Way’s new Local and Direct Product Coordinator, I will be working directly with more local producers and with non-local producers as well, developing relationships with them so we can assure our consumers of the health and integrity of the products we sell and the ways these products are produced, to better integrate sustainable producers throughout the store and to ensure that our values, and our shoppers’ values, are being met.

I now talk to local dairies and bakers, and an occasional pecan farmer in Texas, as well. In addition to looking for new producers, my role involves researching our current vendors, including visiting their facilities and passing this knowledge and trust on to our customers. The position also includes working with Weavers Way’s own farmers on our own farms less than five miles from the store—the most direct producer relationship we have. It’s incredibly exciting to watch as Philadelphia continues to reinvent itself, and even more exciting to be part of a local food system that is expanding to include a broader network of producers and retailers, forming direct relationships and dealing with each other as people dedicated to supporting a region that nourishes us all.

 

Stephanie Kane is Local Product Coordinator at Weavers Way Co-op. When she's not out visiting farms, she writes about food and sustainability for Weavers Way's newspaper The Shuttle.

Each month, Dispatch features personal reflections on adventures in sustainability. Have a story you’d like to share? E-mail getinvolved@gridphilly.com