Two years ago, Steven Bailey was a part-time personal chef. A lifelong foodie, he’d had his fill of flavorless, industrially grown food and set out in search of something better. So he loaded up his Volkswagen Rabbit and started across Texas, driving down farm to market roads looking for something fresher, tastier. One weekend, he’d go searching for eggs. The next, he’d look for potatoes. Then strawberries. After a while, his search party grew to include his wife, Christine, and his friend Tommy. And, before he knew it, Bailey had himself a new career, one that very well might influence the eating habits of the entire city.
After his weekend trips, Bailey was like Cortez returning from the New World bearing cocoa. Other people wanted the treasures he’d found at unknown, independent farms across the state. If a neighbor requested, say, dandelion greens, off the three would go, spending a weekend searching for the very best the land had to offer.
The requests—for fruits, vegetables, milk, meat—grew to the point that Bailey was spending a lot of time hunting down produce for people. I’ve yet to meet him in person. We’ve spoken only on the phone a few times. Each time, he was on the way to or from a farm, a market, a convention where he makes new connections with growers, buyers, and sellers. On the phone, he’s energetic. His mind works quickly. The last time we talked, Bailey was returning from a ranch where he’d gone to see how the free-range cattle were handling a January cold spell. Earlier in the week, he’d been on his hands and knees milking goats in Waco.
Eventually, Bailey says, he was getting enough requests that he figured it only made sense to start a business. He formed a co-op program. Members pay a $50 yearly fee to join. Every other month, another $50 gets you a bin filled with 30 pounds of fresh, seasonal produce ($30 gets you 15 pounds). Last January, 70 families had joined. A year later, that number reached 500, with distribution locations in Oak Cliff, McKinney, Irving, Addison, the Park Cities, White Rock, and Uptown. Finally, Bailey opened Urban Acres Market, a 1,500-square-foot store on Davis Street in Oak Cliff.
Urban Acres has grown so rapidly because it has met a pent-up demand. Given the size of our city and its proximity to arable land, it’s surprising it took so long for something like it to pop up. More consumers now pay extra to support environmental and social sustainability, while executive chefs go local and organic for flavor. But as larger groceries also move toward providing organic options, Urban Acres’ presence in North Dallas, where grocery stores abound, suggests larger forces at work.
Every market serves as a distribution point where supply meets demand. What Urban Acres does is reduce the actual and perceived distance between farm and fork. Many local farms, already struggling to compete against heavily subsidized factory operations, have a difficult time finding the market and vice versa. The store brings a bit of country to the big city. On its roof, Urban Acres has a bee colony working to make honey. Inside, shelves made of reclaimed wood give the place a country feel. It’s at once nostalgic and emblematic of Oak Cliff’s progressive, by-the-bootstraps entrepreneurism.
Urban Acres’ recipe is one part hands-on learning experience and two parts community involvement, further distinguishing it from the impersonal feel of either the downtown Farmers Market or a typical supermarket. Every time I’ve visited the store, I have run into an old friend or made a new one. The feel of the place is flavored as much by the community as it is by Bailey himself. He is staking his business on the one thing his competition will never have: a home here in Dallas.
Operating in the grocery store desert of southern Dallas, Urban Acres is a dovetailing of memes: community gardens, locavorism, organic farming, and the do-it-yourself movement. It’s a reboot of the entire food delivery system from the ground up. But the inconvenient truth is that it’s expensive to eat healthfully in this country. Author Michael Pollan has pointed out that you can’t get a crown of broccoli for the cost of a Big Mac. Supermarkets get built in North Dallas because that’s where the money is, but folks in southern Dallas have no less need for affordable, healthful food. Bailey hopes that continued growth of the store and the movement it represents will one day allow a nonprofit arm to bring his vision—and taste—to a broader audience. Parsnips to the people!
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