March 6, 2012

Field Trip Day

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

After six weeks of engaging in thought-provoking, interdisciplinary discussions on challenging topics ranging from waste to land use to the economy, we finally had the opportunity to step outside of the classroom and experience first-hand these issues in the greater Baltimore community. [This was the seventh and final session of the Baltimore Food and Faith Project’s Enoughness series.] Angela planned an ambitious agenda, consisting of an early morning trip to the Maryland Food Center in Jessup, followed by a visit to Prigel Family Creamery in Glen Arm, concluding with a stop at Eastern Sanitary Landfill in White Marsh—all before 1:30pm, when we would gather for a celebratory pot luck lunch.

Naturally, things didn’t go according to our tight schedule with Beltway traffic and so many questions to ask at each stop, so unfortunately, we had to skip the landfill trip. It’s too bad we didn’t get a chance to see for ourselves the consequences of our exceedingly wasteful lives. I’ll just let my imagination suffice for now and hope that one day I might finally learn where my trash ends up…

With our first stop at the Maryland Food Center, a 400-acre facility with over 3,500 employees who process, package, and distribute virtually every category of produce and seafood from all over the world in the Mid-Atlantic region, it’s no wonder how our day got off track so quickly. Talk about overwhelming. And we only visited one produce distributor and one seafood distributor out of the hundreds of other companies on site that are all in competition with one another for products and customers.

At Sudano’s Produce, Ben Sudano, owner, and sales rep, Sam, wowed us with their knowledge of produce varieties, seasons, and costs from farms all over the world, and shared interesting, yet slightly disturbing facts—like how much grocery stores mark up their selling prices for produce that hardly costs them a dime, and more shockingly, that most oranges naturally ripen green on the tree and are dyed orange to satisfy consumers. Who knew?? I mean, I knew that most tomatoes are prematurely picked green to sustain long traveling and then artificially gassed to turn red, but the fact that we actually artificially dye most oranges just blows my mind.

At NAFCO Seafood, Inc., we met owner Jeff Pearlman, and while shivering in the cold, wet storeroom, standing around a large tub of fish scraps, and breathing out of our mouths to avoid the pungent smell of dead fish, we listened to Jeff explain how NAFCO supplies the entire northeast coast with recognizable, affordable fish that appeal to average Americans. We heard similar stories from both Jeff at NAFCO and the men at Sudano’s Produce about the challenges of fluctuating product prices, fading customer loyalty, long hours and hard labor, and increasing governmental regulations. We empathized with the human side of these hard-working distributors just trying to make a buck in this tough economy like the rest of us. But, of course, we also challenged them with difficult questions about sustainability and their role in the future of our food system. While Sam and Ben at Sudano’s didn’t seem to believe in the value, feasibility, or cost-benefit of purchasing local and organic produce, Jeff at NAFCO has witnessed changes in the seafood industry over his lifetime due to biomass depletion and previous lack of regulation, so he embraced the idea of sustainability and socially responsible business practices to ensure a future of seafood supply, on which his livelihood depends. We could have stayed all day to talk to him about these issues, but unfortunately we were already running an hour behind and had to say our goodbyes to travel to our next stop.

We then headed to Prigel Family Creamery, located on family-owned property of Bellevale Farm out in the beautiful Long Green Valley in Glen Arm and met with Bobby Prigel himself. Bobby recounted the history of his farm, that it has been in the family for more than 100 years, serving for the majority of that time as a conventional dairy farm. In 1990, however, recognizing that they could no longer compete in a global market as a small operations farm, they decided to let the cows out of confinement into the pasture, working with nature instead of against it, and creating for themselves a niche market for organic milk and ice cream in the greater Baltimore area. The transition from conventional to organic had its challenges, growth has been slow but steady, and the creamery has had its share of pushback from certain unhappy neighbors, but Bobby says he wouldn’t have it any other way. And after tasting their ice cream for myself, I concur. What a ‘sweet’ ending to an inspiring visit with a passionate and genuine owner of a beautiful, small-scale, successful, local, organic dairy farm that is paving the way for a new, more sustainable future and regionally viable food system.

The field trip and the entire Enoughness series came to a close at Divinity Lutheran Church, where we gathered in fellowship for a pot luck lunch to celebrate a fun-filled, motivational seven weeks. It has been a great pleasure and honor to participate in this series and I would like to thank Angela and the Baltimore Food & Faith Project, the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies and the entire planning committee for all their hard work and inspiration.

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