Guest PostBy Katherine Bryant
Greetings from Delaware, the watermelon capital of the world!
Recently I had the good fortune to join a small group of D.C. school food service providers, Farm to School Network Coordinator Andrea Northup, and a D.C. City Council staffer on a trip to Delaware--a fitting ‘initiation’ into my role as DC Farm to School Network intern. The goal of the trip was to get a feel for Delaware’s local food supply, and explore how that supply can connect with the demand for local foods in the D.C. school system.
Our knowledgeable and well-connected host--fourth-generation watermelon farmer and Delaware Fruit and Vegetable Association president David Marvel--led our energetic and passionate group on a wonderful journey of learning, networking, and of course, eating!
Just a two-hour drive from the District of Columbia, Delmarva (a catchy name for the Eastern Shore region of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) makes its mark as the epicenter of watermelon production, with a notable portion of the country’s corn and lima bean yield as well. Our first stop was the S.E.W. Friel sweet corn farm.
We were able to snag a few minutes with the farmers amidst the business of a season full in swing--which means around the clock harvesting, packing, distributing and marketing of products. We stood in awe of the over 13-feet tall machines capable of harvesting 60,000 lbs of corn per hour. We chatted with some of the many folks who work in concert to bring that sweet corn all the way from seed to harvester to tractor-trailer truck to storage facility to point-of-sale (e.g. supermarket) and finally to some lucky family’s home.
Would you have guessed that both schoolchildren and Delmarva watermelons use the same form of transportation? In our exploration of the watermelon’s journey from farm to table, we learned that retired school buses are rendered windowless and accompany teams of migrant workers as they walk through fields tossing watermelons on board. The roads of Delaware are jammed with melon-filled buses on their way to washing facilities, auctions or markets.
We watched in fascination at the Laurel Produce Auction as truckloads of locally-grown produce were paraded and sold to the highest bidder by what appeared to be inconspicuous nods. From mid-July until mid-September, the Auction sells an average of 2.3 millikon watermelons!
We paid a visit to the Kenny Brothers cucumber sorting and grading facility, for a glimpse into how a cucumber becomes a pickle. The facility washes, sorts and ships 15-20 truckloads per day to local pickle manufacturers - each truckload containing five-acres worth of cucumbers!
Over lunch, we met and shared ideas and best practices with the inspired folks behind the Delaware Farm to School Network, a coalition of Delaware Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and private/non-profit sector partners led by Nemours Health & Prevention Services.
We also stopped at Fifer’s Orchard and Market and tasted some of the best peaches in Delaware. And of course, no day would have been complete without a stop at the Delaware State Fair, complete with animal auctions, 4-H and FFA displays, kettle corn, and John Deere farm equipment.
The trip offered a valuable perspective on the scale of production needed to feed the children of Washington, DC; the kindness and generosity of those local food producers and their willingness to meet that demand; and the tremendous process involved in getting food from farm to cafeteria tray.
When it was over, we piled into our van, District-bound and laden with some of the best fruits and vegetables available in Delaware. We also came home with big dreams for schools and growers and how to narrow the gap between them.