Howard program to boost farms, food growing roots

The new kitchen is just one of the Roving Radish's big changes this year

When planning began for the second season of the Roving Radish earlier this year, the mobile food market had an established customer base, blossoming relationships with several local farms and support from new Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman — much more than might have been expected just a year ago, when it began as a pilot program.

What it didn't have was a kitchen.

The Roving Radish, a healthy food initiative launched by former County Executive Ken Ulman in May 2014, delivers kits of pre-chopped produce, meat and other ingredients — enough to feed a family of four for two dinners a week — to five locations throughout Howard County every week from the beginning of June until late November.

The program aims to promote healthy eating habits while also supporting local farms. It's open to all Howard County residents: a full-priced kit costs $28, and the county also offers a subsidized price of $12 for families who receive government assistance, including food stamps, temporary cash assistance and Social Security disability income.

Last year, inmates at the Howard County Detention Center prepared the food kits, but the program quickly outgrew the kitchen there. So Jim Caldwell, administrator of the county's Office of Community Sustainability, started looking for alternatives.

The answer, it turned out, was right under his nose.

As Caldwell, who lives in Lisbon, drove past the old Bushy Park Elementary School one day, a plan started to form. "My kids used to go to school here," he said. "I knew it was closed and I said, 'I wonder what they're doing with the kitchen?'"

He soon found out it wasn't being used for much of anything, other than as a repository for miscellany such as the snow blower and lawnmower that were sitting in the kitchen when he first came to visit.

Within a matter of weeks, the Board of Education had agreed to let the Roving Radish use the old Bushy Park kitchen for food preparation. School system staff cleared and cleaned the space in time for the program's launch.

The new kitchen is just one of the Roving Radish's big changes this year.

For starters, moving food preparation out of the detention center also meant the program needed to find a new labor force. Volunteers have stepped in to fill the gap.

One Monday in mid-August, a half dozen of them gathered in the kitchen to get to work on the week's kits. As they scrubbed and chopped, shipments of fresh produce rolled in — first green peppers and zucchini, then potatoes.

This year, the biggest change, according to Roving Radish market manager James Zoller, is the increase in local goods.

"That's what our goal was," Zoller said. "Last year, we had so many logistics to take care of that we were focusing on them." The program would use, and still uses, Philadelphia's Common Market to fill supply gaps.

But increasingly, "we go straight to the farmers," he said.

According to Zoller, the program paid $2,500 for produce from local farms last year. That number has already quadrupled this year, with about $10,000 paid to Howard County farmers.

Meanwhile, the number of kits the Roving Radish sells per week has increased from 125 last year to 165. Interest in the program continues to grow with appearances at community events such as the Howard County Fair, according to Zoller.

In Howard County, where most farms are small to medium-sized, it's hard to compete with large-scale Eastern Shore or Midwest operations. "This is a great way to support our local farms and create another market they can depend on," Zoller said.

Jason Caulder, the farm manager at Breezy Willow Farm & CSA in Sykesville, has been a regular contributor since Roving Radish got its start.

"It helps us out because we're able to move product, make sales within the local community," he said. "It's another avenue for us to get our product into the market."

Caulder has been contributing an item a week this season. On his 22 acres of farmland, "whatever the recipe calls for, I've got something that fits the bill."

Martin Proulx, assistant manager for the Roving Radish and market manager for the Howard County Global Farmers' Markets, said the Roving Radish's menus focus on the fresh produce of the week, which requires a good deal of planning ahead.

"Making 150 pounds of anything is hard for some of these farmers on the scale they operate on," Proulx said. "We started to learn to plan what we'd be doing more and more weeks in advance, to make sure we can include Howard County farmers, because that's our priority."

Still, the menu is flexible enough to absorb last-minute changes.

Recently, Jamie Brown, who runs TLV Tree Farm in Glenelg, had a bunch of lettuce on his hands that was "ready to bolt" — meaning it was about to flower and become inedible.

He called up Zoller to see if the Roving Radish might have a use for it. "It just happened we had a recipe where we needed a seasonal vegetable," Zoller said. "We were able to buy that product and give everybody beautiful salads that week. It made sense for everybody, so that was a win-win."

Brown, who, in addition to traditional produce, grows pumpkins and Christmas trees on his farm, sees an opportunity to further diversify his operation.

"It's a way to add acres onto my farm of what I'm growing," he said. "And I really do believe that there's a benefit to everybody in the county with this… it's helping get into the food desert areas, helping with healthy living. It's something I don't want to see go away."

Kathy Bastian, a Roving Radish volunteer and customer from Columbia, said she helps prepare food at the old Bushy Park kitchen every Monday because she doesn't want to see the program go, either.

"I have to say, my husband and I definitely eat healthier food when the Roving Radish is selling," she said. "I barely go to the grocery store."

Kittleman has embraced the Roving Radish as a piece in his broader plan to encourage sustainability throughout Howard County. In his State of the County speech in February, he called it a "great success" that encourages healthy eating "by offering affordable, nutritious meals that are easy to access within neighborhoods."

More recently, Kittleman said the Roving Radish is "an effective outreach tool to promote healthy eating and support local farmers."

"Our plan is to take what is a good starting point and expand it, so we use more products from local farmers and reach more Howard County families with nutritious meals that are pre-prepared and easy to cook," Kittleman added. "We are looking into a number of options to enhance the program both in terms of educational outreach and access to healthy, affordable foods."

Caldwell has a laundry list of ideas to make the Roving Radish more sustainable. He's looking into beekeeping on the kitchen roof as well as composting food scraps using vermiculture and selling the mulch.

He also sees opportunities for more Howard residents to get involved in the program , whether through volunteering or visits to the Roving Radish kitchen for local students. He even envisions creating a mini-food hub where local restaurants can link up with farms in the county to buy produce.

"What we really want is a start-to-finish sustainable operation that helps the community," he said.

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