Pumpkins, squash, beets and collard greens are just a few of the more than 50 different crops that Garner’s Produce in Virginia grows and sells at farmers markets about two hours away in Washington, D.C.
At a small soup shop in the northwest section of the District of Columbia, cooks are chopping Garner’s fresh squash and sweet potatoes for Soupergirl! vegan and kosher soups.
“We are trying to save the world one bowl of soup at a time,” said Sara Polon, a Soupergirl! founder.
Polon’s farm-to-table business model means that she buys produce to use in her soups from farmers markets around D.C. or wholesale from local growers like Garner’s Produce in Warsaw, Virginia.
“We need to think more about where our food comes from,” Polon said. “Where it was grown, who grew it, how it was picked, how it was prepared.”
Much of the produce that is sold in grocery stores is grown in other parts of the world and spends days in a shipping container before reaching a table.
“I didn’t know how corrupted our food system had become,” Polon said, adding that she thinks food should come from just a few miles away. “Why do we need to get apples from New Zealand, if they grow in Virginia?”
Bernard Boyle, farm manager for Garner’s Produce, agrees.
“You don’t know exactly” how farmers elsewhere are producing their crops, Boyle said. If the food is grown by a neighbor, “you know you’re going to get what you’re supposed to get.”
Polon’s mission is to make vegan and kosher soups using local produce to promote a healthful lifestyle. This model has sustained her business for over nine years. Sarah uses only vegetables that are in season, and she says that soup is always in season.
“Soup is not a fad, it’s not a trend. It’s classic, it’s not going anywhere,” she said.
Soupergirl! sells chilled soups in the summer using ingredients like Garner’s Produce watermelons and tomatoes. In the fall, the menu features fall-harvested produce such as lentils, butternut squash, collard greens, kale and potatoes from farms in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
Polon embraced her Soupergirl! alter ego nine years ago, when she and her mother started delivering soups they had made with local produce to individuals and businesses. She and her mom, whom she calls “the chief anxiety officer,” were making about 10 gallons of soup a day at that time.
Now, Soupergirl! produces 300 to 500 gallons of soup a day for its two D.C. locations, as well as grocery stores across several states and at farmers markets. Polon has even started a soup “cleanse” — a three-day or five-day healthful-eating plan to eat four Soupergirl! soups a day.
“It’s basically everything every doctor says you should be eating delivered right to your door,” she said.
Polon met the family in charge of Garner’s Produce at a Washington farmers market about five years ago, and they have been growing together ever since.
“She’s like family,” said Bernard Boyle. His wife, Dana Boyle, is the daughter of the man who started Garner’s Produce. She now runs the family farm.
Because Polon won’t use produce that’s out of season, she relies on her relationship with the Boyles to build her menu.
“I know that I have a farmer I can count on to get me the high-quality seasonal ingredients and I can rely on to deliver on time,” Polon said.
Polon also wants to know who is picking her produce and that they’re being treated fairly.
Garner’s Produce has the ability to grow produce throughout the winter, not only to help supply Soupergirl! but also to create work for their employees. They use heated tents to grow produce into February, whereas in the past they were done harvesting by late November.
“We treat everybody like family who works with us,” Bernard Boyle said. “We want them to make it through the winter.”
Last year, Garner’s Produce was able to produce 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of butternut squash and sweet potatoes per month. In the past couple of months, Polon has received 300 to 400 pounds of collard greens per week.
Arash Arabasadi contributed to this story.