The joy of food often starts with a seedling and ends with loved ones sharing a meal around the table. Food unites people under your roof, and links those within the community. Buying food locally establishes relationships with local food producers and teaches us about how it gets from farm to fork. In the Lynchburg area, we have organizations dedicated to just that—feeding our mouths and souls with rich, flavorful, local food. In particular, produce grown right here in Central Virginia abounds, ripe for the picking.
There are many benefits to purchasing your produce locally by getting a community-supported agriculture (CSA) membership, hitting up your local food cooperative or frequenting the weekly farmers’ market. By buying locally, you are supporting small independent farmers who are a part of a high-risk enterprise that is getting smaller and smaller in our country. You are also keeping cash flow in the local economy and reducing your carbon footprint. While all of these are important reasons to buy locally, most people forget about the simple fact that by buying local veggies and fruits, you are eating fresher and more flavorful food. This freshness and tastiness are the key ingredients for joyful cooking and eating, and lead to healthy diet decisions at home.
Embrace Local Options
Frog Bottom Farm is a community-supported vegetable farm in Pamplin that serves Lynchburg and surrounding areas as far as Roanoke and Richmond.
Husband and wife team Ali and Lisa Moussalli bought the farm back in 2008 and started growing in 2009. They are going into their third season here in the area, and previously farmed on rented land in Northern Virginia. The Moussallis grow on about 11 of Frog Bottom’s 25 acres.
Purchasing a CSA share with Frog Bottom gives you 26 weeks of fresh produce, from June to Thanksgiving. The Moussallis drive in to Lynchburg on Wednesday afternoons and make drop- offs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
You pay up front before the season starts: $650 for a full share (feeds a family of four omnivores or two zealous vegetarians), or you can opt for the half share at $350. The full share breaks down to $25 worth of items a week, with around eight to ten veggies.
There are risks associated with buying produce from a CSA. Ali Moussalli says that some weeks are more plentiful than others, due to weather and bad crop seasons. “You are getting a part of what we grow, so you are taking a risk if it’s a terrible tomato year. You may not get good tomatoes … but it may be a good lettuce year,” he says.
June’s weekly CSA package typically includes two heads of lettuce, two bunches of Swiss chard, two bunches of beets and some scallions, as well as summer squash or zucchini. Toward the end of June, the Moussallis throw in potatoes, and in the middle of summer you will get four pounds of tomatoes, two pounds of onions, carrots or other root veggies, and a couple pounds of squash, cucumbers or red peppers.
Purchasing locally also keeps you aware of farmers’ practices. “We aren’t certified [organic], but we use sustainable methods,” Moussalli says. “We don’t use any toxic pesticides and we don’t use any herbicides, and everything we spray on the plants is certified organic.”
Moussalli feels that in a smaller community, the organic stamp isn’t necessary. Organic approval in big farming operations shows that they are abiding by food regulations —a reassuring step to consumers who can’t see where food is coming from and what practices are being used. If you can visit a local farm yourself and see if the farmer is making wise decisions and using sustainable practices, it isn’t completely necessary for the farmer to go through the time and expense of getting organic certification, according to Moussalli.
It’s difficult to compare price points when buying produce from a CSA and buying produce from a chain grocery store, because there are many factors to consider. For instance, when you buy non-organic produce from a grocery store, it is almost always going to be cheaper than buying locally grown organic produce. On the other hand, it may cost less than organic produce sold at higher-end chains like Whole Foods in Charlottesville.
“It’s hard to compare to retail purchasing in general when I look at health food stores like Whole Foods produce section,” Moussalli says. “I’m surprised at what they charge. Our prices are better than what I see at those kind of stores for organic produce.” While buying from a big chain like Whole Foods may ensure availability of certified organic foods, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee freshness and tastiness, which is what you get when buying produce that was grown nearby and just pulled out of the ground, Moussalli says.
“We grow varieties that are meant to be in gardens and not big farms,” he says. “We grow varieties that are chosen for their flavor.”
Moussalli says his customers appreciate the local flavors. “A lot of customers say things like, ‘This is what food tasted like in my Grandma’s garden’ or, ‘This is what a tomato tasted like when I was a kid.’ So just the basic quality of the produce makes people eat more vegetables than they would. We have people saying they didn’t know beets tasted good. A home garden beet is better than the canned beet you grew up with,” he says.
Start Them Young
Moussalli also encourages consumers to involve their children in shopping locally. He says giving kids the opportunity to come to the farm and pick out their veggies allows them to feel connected to the food, and therefore makes them more inclined to eat it and enjoy it.
“Because they are involved in it, they aren’t afraid of it. They will eat all sorts of things that they don’t eat at home, like collard greens,” he says.
Lynchburg Grows, an urban farm next to the city stadium, provides families with a $15 weekly CSA package, as well as gardening and education opportunities for kids of all ages.
“The sooner a child realizes where food comes from, the better,” says Aaron Lee, operations manager at Lynchburg Grows. “And oftentimes, it’s a learning experience for the parents.”
The Lynchburg Parks and Recreation Department teams up with Lynchburg Grows for a program called Wee Wild Ones every last Tuesday of the month, where seeds of curiosity are sowed through crafts, story time and planting. Lynchburg Grows also hosts First Saturdays on the Farm, where families come out for tours, pony rides, workshops, and to check out the chickens and Tom the Turkey.
The farm also organizes programs for college groups, high school students who have severe disabilities, kids from the juvenile detention center and at-risk youth.
“We’re not expert farmers at Lynchburg Grows,” Lee says, “but we’re trying to at least be a place in the community where the public can come and learn about growing food. We especially strive to be a place where the disadvantaged—mostly at-risk youth and disabled adults—in our community can come and be a part of something that won’t judge them, but will instead embrace their talents and hopefully help them discover new ones.”
Rediscover the Joy of Cooking
Buying local produce also reintroduces people to the culinary world. Getting adventurous in the kitchen, whether sautéing or blanching a new veggie or trying a new recipe, allows you to appreciate your meal on another level: In addition to knowing how fresh your meal is, you also contributed to its deliciousness.
“One of the things I really push is that people shouldn’t feel intimidated about cooking this food,” says Brett Wilson, owner of Horse and Buggy Produce, a food cooperative out of Charlottesville that caters to Albemarle County, Lynchburg and Richmond. “It’s so fresh that you don’t have to do something complicated to cook it.” He recommends sautéing vegetables—everything from green beans to Swiss chard. “If people knew how quick and easy it is to prepare—how uncomplicated the preparation of it can be—a lot more people would participate. You don’t have to be a cook to cook this stuff.”
Wilson started Horse and Buggy Produce in 2006. He purchases in bulk from farmers in the area and then delivers it to drop-off locations, as well as homes and offices in the area. Horse and Buggy comes to Lynchburg’s First Christian Church on Rivermont on Thursday afternoons for a drop-off.
“Everything comes from our initial attempt to get things that occur within 100 miles of Charlottesville, and if we go beyond that, we let our customers know,” Wilson says.
Horse and Buggy gets its apples and peaches from Nelson and Albemarle counties, and Wilson ventures to Hanover and Cumberland counties, and sometimes as far as Fredericksburg, for produce. A majority of his produce comes from Mennonite farmers in the Shenandoah Valley.
Horse and Buggy doesn’t just provide fresh fruits and veggies, but also local bison, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, goat cheese, bread, granola and eggs.
“First of all, while eating locally may be a benefit to the planet and local economy and that may make people feel good about their purchases, the main thing I tell people is that this is so much fresher than what you are used to getting,” Wilson says. “When people get produce from us, they are going to eat it because it tastes so good and they are more apt to eat more fruits and veggies.”
Organizations and resources to help you get involved with the local food scene:
Frog Bottom Farm CSA
Horse and Buggy Produce
Lynchburg Community Market
Lynchburg Real Foods
Virginia Cooperative Extension