House Cafeteria Offers Farmers Market

Posted July 15, 2009 at 6:43pm

Lois Allensworth stood behind a table stacked with her tomatoes, cantaloupe and garlic on Wednesday, enthusiastically inviting staffers and visitors to try a cherry tomato or a slice of melon.

“This lady is serious. This is a serious sungold lady,— Allensworth said as one woman picked out four packages of bright orange cherry tomatoes. Soon after, she turned her attention to a man who was squeezing the cantaloupes.

“They should not be soft,— she promptly informed him, with a smile.

Allensworth, 58, is one of a few local farmers who occasionally bring their produce into the Longworth House Office Building’s cafeteria. Restaurant Associates, the company that runs the House’s cafeterias, started the program in May and hopes to continue it indefinitely.

The schedule is still a bit unpredictable; farmers come in when they can, and RA officials are in the process of persuading more to make the trip.

“We’re still in the infancy of it,— said Tom Green, the RA executive chef for the House. “But it’s been well-received so far.—

Indeed, Allensworth got a steady stream of customers in the crowded cafeteria Wednesday afternoon — many of them were staffers stopping by on their lunch break.

“Ah, a repeat customer!— Allensworth exclaimed as Carol Ertel, the officer manager for Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), approached the table.

Ertel bought her favorite: sungold cherry tomatoes. Her work schedule, she said, usually doesn’t leave much time for trips to farmers markets.

“This offers us an opportunity to get local fresh produce,— she said. “I really like it.—

That convenience is one of the reasons that RA and House officials decided to start the program, said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard.

The markets, he said, are “in line with not only the Green the Capitol Initiative in that if foods are purchased locally, there’s less shipping involved, but also it’s a very important employee benefit.—

Since Beard became the CAO in 2007, he has overhauled the House’s cafeterias, working with RA to offer biodegradable utensils, local food and more selection.

His moves haven’t been without criticism: Both Republicans and Democrats have bemoaned the increase in food prices in the past couple of years (prompting the cafeterias to recently begin offering $5 “value meals—).

But Ventura said the use of local food doesn’t affect prices — or at least minimally. Sometimes, he said, local food costs less because it doesn’t need to be shipped or frozen.

Green said his staff tweaks the menu depending on what local produce is in season.

Right now, that means blueberry smoothies and fresh watermelon, cantaloupe and squash. Big tomatoes will come in soon, Green said, lasting for a couple of months.

Allensworth, who owns a 110-acre farm with her husband, Gary, is one of several midsize farms that provide the House with local produce.

“Local— is defined by RA as within 150 miles of Washington, D.C. Allensworth’s farm — called Lois’ Produce — is located near Leedstown, Va., and the lifelong farmer said she enjoys selling her produce at various markets.

She has now visited the Longworth cafeteria two or three times, making the two-hour drive to meet customers and spread the word about her farm.

“I like the one-on-one with the, uh, end user. That’s a good way to put it,— she said with a laugh. “I really do like this part of it.—

Green said it’s sometimes harder to persuade other farmers to make the trek to the House. The trip can be inconvenient, he said, and the idea of setting up in the House of Representatives is daunting to some.

But Green said he is optimistic that more farmers will begin to come. The cafeteria immediately buys any produce the farmers don’t sell to visitors, he said, so none of it goes to waste.

Next Wednesday, staffers will get the opportunity to buy cheese with their vegetables, when a coalition of farms called Earth and Eats visits. And Allensworth is scheduled to come back the week after that.

“I really try to make it as easy as possible for them,— Green said. “If we really want this thing to take off, we have to make it viable to the farmer.—