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“But Citrus isn’t Local!?” – A Word from Our Founder

Local food with a purpose – that’s our tagline.

What does that mean though? And how do you define “local”? What exactly IS that purpose?
These questions, and many others, hit me hard in mid-December when the temperatures started to drop, and the usual field produce available in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania began to dwindle along with it. With that dwindling variety, we saw some of our members cancel their 4P subscriptions because they wanted more than was available from our local growers.

Yikes. Or, more accurately, as a small business owner who has dumped his life savings into this “thing” and we’re not even a year old yet: ~Gulp~

The biggest question that woke me up at night in a cold sweat was this: How do I prevent 4P Foods from going out of business in our very first winter, while at the same time staying true to our purpose of promoting and building a sustainable, just, and equitable local food system?

After a few minor personal meltdowns, it hit me: Maybe the two goals weren’t mutually exclusive. My team and I began to search for good, ethical partners that were producing food that was in sync with our values: Food that is grown using sustainable practices, food that has a face and a person behind it, food that is harvested by people being paid fair wages, food that *protects* the environment and doesn’t hurt it.

We found that there are indeed other people out there that care about the future of our food system as much as we do. Uncle Matt’s Organic, for example, is a small cooperative of 25 families growing organic citrus in Florida. They care deeply about their role as stewards of the planet, the environment, and their food system – which, as it happens, is also our food system. Uncle Matt’s, and people like them, can survive (and thrive) if they have customers like us buying from these families in their peak season. In turn, we can survive (and thrive) by keeping our 4P members happy with a little more variety in these cold winter months when, let’s face it, there’s only so many ways you can cook a radish.

As we reflect on these past couple months, which I’m happy to report have been the best months yet for our fledgling company, it seems that our members agree: The most important thing to them is how the food is grown. Is it grown in a way that aligns with their values? That’s most important to us, too. We have committed to buying as much as we possibly can from our local food shed – both from the farmers, and the value-added producers who make your jams, dressings, sauces, sauerkrauts, pickles, and so on. At times, we may stretch as far south as Florida to grab a little citrus in the winter months, but we still strive to buy from only farmers making an effort to play their part in creating a better (much better) food system for tomorrow.

The Florida thing brings me to a slight tangent, but one worth mentioning. We’re hyper-aware of the distance our food travels to get on our plate. We really don’t like the idea of food coming to DC from California, Mexico, or even further, for a litany of reasons, particularly when it isn’t necessary. The idea of bringing citrus up from Florida isn’t ideal either. However, it’s something I’m working on aggressively to try to make as minimally carbon intensive as possible. For example, instead of an empty truck going to Florida to pick up oranges and come back, can we fill it up with locally grown Virginia apples so it’s full both ways, which represents higher carbon efficiency? Can we use trucks that run on hybrid engines? Can Elon Musk *really* create a battery that will help to power delivery vehicles? I think so. I hope so. And as our technology evolves to offer more carbon efficient options, you better believe we’ll be one of the first adopters. Tractor trailers can’t yet run themselves with a solar panel on top, but the day they can, we’ll be adding one to the 4P Foods fleet.

This move to seasonal sourcing partnerships outside of our local food shed was made for the sake of our members (who doesn’t like a little burst of sunshine in their bags in the dark of February?), the sake of our company (we might not have survived the winter if enough members had cancelled/skipped because of lack of variety), and most importantly the sake of our local farmers: Without a 4P Foods around, what good would we be doing for them in the summer months when they are the ones with a bountiful plethora of awesome food to move? If we didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be much help at all.

In other words, if you’ve been wondering why grapefruit and oranges have found their way into your bag, know that it’s because we took a broader view on the purpose of our company. We realized that the potential impact 4P Foods can have is only as big as the number of members committed to supporting us and our farmers, both when “the getting is good” and when the options are scarce.

It seems that with a little more variety coming from awesome farmers on the East Coast, we’ve been able to add even more happy 4P Foods members. And that, ultimately, will be the driving force behind making real, lasting change in helping to support small, sustainable farms in the area. While I’m sure we will fall short, and at times our best suppliers will also struggle – for example, right now Uncle Matt’s growers are dealing with a citrus blight that has killed almost their entire crop – and we’ll have to partner with some of the bigger producers, you can trust that our *goal* and our mission is to always support those farmers that represent 4P Foods’ values. Those that care about Purpose, People, Planet and Prosperity in the same way that we do.

If climate change continues to accelerate, there may come a day when bananas and lemons grow right here in Virginia, but we’re doing our damndest to make sure that doesn’t happen.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for some incredible pickles, jams, sauerkrauts, sauces, snack bars, chickpeas, and other locally produced items to keep you on your toes until those warm spring months roll around. And if you’re running out of ideas for those root veggies, try one of our local meat shares – you’ll have everything you need for a warm, hearty winter stew!

Thanks for supporting our family of farms, and for joining us on this crazy journey of local food. It has proven to be more challenging and significantly more rewarding than I ever thought it could be.

Happy Eating.

-Tom McDougall

1 Comment

  • Cristina says:

    Excellent post, Tom. I support your efforts wholeheartedly and really enjoy the citrus variety in my weekly produce bag. Thank you for making eating local and healthy possible! I feel great knowing that I can help support such a progressive, environmentally conscious organization as yours. :)

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