July 17th, 2010
02:24 AM ET

From the farm through the White House farmers market to the table

Washington (CNN) - A peach is a peach is a peach – that is until you’ve had a tree ripened peach, picked just moments before you bite into it.  It will change the way you look at fruit. At least it did for me.

Whole foodies, locavores, roof top gardeners, whatever food trend you’re into, bringing food from the farm to the table is undoubtedly hard work.  I got the chance to see just how hard when I followed food from a local farm to a farmers market and then to the dinner table at a D.C. restaurant.

My journey started in West Virginia where I met up with Eli Cook, a farmer who owns approximately 200 acres of land two hours outside of Washington, D.C.

Eli brings fresh, whole foods to six area farmers markets three days a week, including the White House farmer’s market, located across the park from its namesake. The job requires Eli to put in about 100 hours of work each week during farming season but for him, it’s a passion.

“Farming's the only thing that I've ever known ever since I was basically born,” said Eli.  “It was our way of life and it's what I love to do.”

He grows and harvests hundreds of thousands of pounds of food a year and brings a variety of products to market.  Eli believes the key to success is diversity, so he grows everything from strawberries, basil, and green beans to cantaloupe, squash, and bell peppers.  In order to be truly profitable though, he says you must have the triumvirate of produce: corn, tomatoes and peaches. In fact, his best seller is peaches and as I learned, nothing beats a fresh, tree ripened peach.

According to Eli, not much else can beat any of his fresh produce, especially anything from a grocery store.

“At many of our markets, the fruits and vegetables are less than 24 hours old, some markets, less than 6 hours old.  You can't get something that fresh in a grocery store and you can't get the personal relationship with the farmer,” Eli says.  “I can tell you exactly how everything was raised from the time it was a seedling to the time it hits your plate and you can't get that kind of service at a grocery store.”

His hard work pays off, especially at the relatively new White House Farmers Market. The market started last September with a little help from first lady Michelle Obama who attended the opening.

“It's the best new market that we have ever done,” Eli says.  “Normally it takes three to five years for a market to build, the White House market on day one was very good and it has been consistent ever since.”

Eli credits Mrs. Obama and her White House food initiative for promoting the local food movement and farmers markets.  And despite the state of the economy, Eli has seen an 18% growth in his sales.

Michelle Obama is “educating everyone [on] how important it is to support local farms and eat local food and how much better it is for you.”

After visiting Eli at his farm, I caught up with him the next day at the White House farmers market.  There is a long line of people waiting to buy his produce, one of those people is Ris Lacoste, owner and chef of local DC restaurant Ris and a dedicated farmer’s market buyer.

She and Eli have worked together for some time now and she tries to buy as much from local farmers as possible.

“I feed people for a living and it’s my responsibility to feed them food that is good for them.”

Beyond the social responsibility, Ris feels the markets also help inspire her menus.  She even has a section on her menu called “Sun-kissed Foods” where she features her purchases from the local markets.

On the day of the White House farmer’s market, I followed Ris as she bought her produce, brought it back to her restaurant, and prepared it for that evening’s dinner service.

“I have a orecchiette pasta that I make with a pesto sauce and so I’ll use that basil to make the pesto.  I serve it with summer squash and spinach and a little bit of arugula and pine nuts and fresh goat cheese,” Ris tells me.

But what about the peaches? “We have a delicious peach crumb cake,” she assures me.

In addition to the quality of food Ris gets from farmers markets, she has a relationship with these farmers and feels confident about the way her food is grown.

“I have a different relationship with every farmer,” Ris tells me.  “A lot of these farmers in these small markets they really care for it.  The love and the care that they put into the food that they grow and hand picking it and tending it and being at the market themselves,” is a selling point for the chef.

“I hope it translates to what the customers are experiencing at the table,” Ris says. “I want the diners to sit here, have a fabulous time, I want them to say it is delicious and using fresh, fresh produce as I do is part of that deliciousness. We are what we eat.”

And if we are what we eat, then I’m happy to be a peach.  Because her peach crumb cake was truly delicious.

Topics: Michelle Obama • The Family • White House

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