Before we go one word further, I have a request:  Prepare to think differently about Washington, DC.  Too often our capital city is disparaged for bulky national programs.  But this is a story about something that works beautifully:  Common Good City Farm located at 3rd and V Streets in the LeDroit Park neighborhood.

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The Community Comes Out for Common Good

Founded four years ago by Liz Falk and other engaged citizens, Common Good recently celebrated the start of the 2010 season.  It’s located on the grounds of a former junior high that ended in a sweep of school closings by Mayor Fenty in 2008.  Of the twenty-six schools that closed, Common Good is the only active space among the vacancies formed two years ago.  The city has plans to create a public park in the area surrounding the farm, so there will be gateway green for people to relax and then discover it.

For many, finding the farm could be the first step in a new life of learning about food.  In addition to growing fruits and vegetables, it’s an educational site, including cooking classes, for the local community.  Soon they will have an outdoor kitchen/classroom on the grounds.  It will be a simple roof structure with cabinets underneath, serving as the anchor in their educational work.

As part of their non-profit, Common Good also runs a program called Green Tomorrows.  Participants work the farm and produce good food, and in return, they earn shares of the harvest.  “It’s like a CSA, but not for purchase,” explained Falk.  Workers can also build hours by attending the culinary and gardening classes.

Falk’s broad vision of the Green Tomorrows program is that the people who receive training will go on to recover other vacant lots in Washington and create their own urban farms.  Looking at the strength of the programs and community at Common Good, it’s inspiring to imagine what such an expansion could like.  This year alone, the harvest at Common Good will include fruit from thirty trees — pear, cherry, paw paw, and fig trees are included in the mix.  According to Falk, “We’re going to grow almost everything you can grow in this region.”

Common Good City Farm Located at 300 V Street in Washington, DC

Classic DC Rowhouse Architecture is a Backdrop for Common Good

Hey, I Know That Shirt! (Kind of)

Playing Catch on a Former Baseball Field

The hardest part of change is the moment when we know only what we are losing and nothing of what we’ll gain. We’re accustomed to our old ways, even if they are ruinous.  In the case of food, the large companies of the old system are big revenue generators in our economy.  We need this livelihood, but their products harm our health and the environment.  What then does the strong and successful food company of the future look like?

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Basis Foods Retail Store Coming to Downtown Manhattan-Spring 2010

Enter Bion Bartning and his expanding business, Basis Foods.  Started in 2008, Basis has three primary revenue streams:  1) Farm-to-Chef, a service that distributes farm produce to New York City restaurants 2) an upcoming retail store and 3) Good Food to You, a home/office delivery service that’s the sweet spot between Fresh Direct and your local CSA.  Basis is rooted in the tenet that their food is local and 100% traceable.  It’s also imperative to Bartning that it’s affordable.

“We started this company with a single hypothesis:  It is a false choice to say that you can have cheap food or good food.  We have affordable food that you want to eat.  If you can’t make good food affordable, than you can’t address the big issues.  Let’s make this accessible to everyone.”

When asked to frame the big issues in his words, Bartning brings up food security, among many other things.  “I’m not talking in the bioterrorism sense,” he explains, “We have a threat to our food security due to the concentration of large companies producing our food.  We are experiencing a rapid loss of genetic diversity.  What would happen if something went wrong with one of these companies?  To use the financial language–when Monsanto, for example, becomes too big to fail, this makes our system vulnerable.  We should have a system in which thousands of farmers are self-reliant.”

Basis’ products come from a network of about 70 farms that are sure to grow to meet the burgeoning Basis demand.  In the weeks leading up to the launch of Good Food for You, the company received over 500 inquiries from people wanting deliveries.  In building this arm of the business, they retained one important characteristic of a CSA; like a CSA community drop-off site, they will deliver to a building once five or more customers have signed up at that location.  Unlike Fresh Direct, the deliveries will come in bags, not boxes, and reusable bags will soon be a part of this service.

The thinking and the energy behind Basis is powerful.  When I recently visited their new offices in the Meatpacking District, Bartning was proud to show off a piece of small business resourcefulness.

“See these desks?  We made each one – and it only cost us about $30 a desk,” he said.

The spirit in the room was of people who enjoy each other’s company and who believe in the company they are building.  Imagine where they will be in a few short years–after New York, it’s easy to picture Basis in other U.S. cities and likely in the world at large.  Why?  Here’s a simple vignette to explain:

While Bartning and I were in line for coffee, he picked up a bag of granola for sale near the register.  He mentioned that he’s looking for a local granola source for a regular breakfast client and he asked a café employee if the granola was made in-house.  When she replied that it was not, he set it back down.  He resolved to keep looking.  “I wouldn’t sell anything that wasn’t 100% traceable,” he said.

In these services–and in this conviction–we have one of the new, great food companies of the future.