The Locavore’s Destination

St. Louis locavores flock to Local Harvest, a chain of grocery stores co-founded by Maddie Earnest, MSW ’93, that buys at least half of its inventory within 150 miles of the city. (Joe Angeles)

Maddie Earnest, MSW ’93, graduated from Washington University with a master’s degree in social work and the desire to make a better world. Remaining in St. Louis, she worked in family therapy, grant writing and nonprofit volunteer coordination.

“I had wide-ranging interests, but I still hadn’t found a clear direction,” Earnest says. “Then, in 2006, I read an article in The New York Timesabout a food store in Portland, Ore., that bought its produce from local farmers. It captured my attention.”

Earnest had been interested in food production since taking a course in environmental ethics at Hendrix College in the late 1980s, a time when food professionals were realizing that locally grown foods provide better nutrition, preserve traditional cuisines, and promote regional economies.

Earnest emailed the Times article to a friend, Patrick Horine, with a message saying, “We should do this!” About five minutes later he sent a reply message that said, “Yes!”

Horine brought valuable resources to the partnership. Earlier that year, Horine and his wife had started a farmer’s market in St. Louis’ historic Tower Grove Park, so he already had connections with many local food producers. Plus, his parents and grandparents were grocery-store owners in downstate Missouri, and his father advised them on their business plan.

The next year, just nine weeks after the birth of her son, Earnest and Horine opened Local Harvest Grocery in a 660-square-foot space next to Tower Grove Park. The store garnered a lot of media attention for its mission to buy at least 50 percent of its inventory from food sources within 150 miles of the city.

Earnest’s desire to help better her community came to fruition — just not in the way she expected. More than 80 cents out of every dollar spent at Local Harvest feeds back into the local economy.

Less than a year after opening the grocery, the partners rented adjacent space to house a café for their growing catering and prepared-food business. The café gave customers a place to sit and enjoy menu items featuring Illinois- and Missouri-grown pork, trout, grass-fed beef, cheeses, mushrooms, fruits and vegetables.

As of November 2011, Local Harvest Grocery, Café and Catering had paid $1 million to local ­farmers, ranchers and artisans, and it had donated more than $26,000 to area schools, community centers and other nonprofit organizations.

Now a leading figure in the cause, Earnest was approached by St. Louis publisher Reedy Press to write a book about the local food movement. Earnest and her co-author, Liz Fathman, traveled around Missouri talking to more than 200 ­farmers and community-supported agriculture (CSA) cooperatives.

The resulting book, Missouri Harvest: A Guide to Growers and Producers in the Show-Me State (Reedy Press/Webster University Press), was published in April 2012. It highlights small, family-owned farms in Missouri, second only to Texas in its number of individual farms. The book also features farmers’ recipes and a listing of markets and restaurants that sell local foods.

In 2012, Local Harvest expanded with two additional locations. They moved their catering ­business into a space in the Old Post Office–St. Louis building in June. The space includes a café that seats up to 100 diners and is large enough to host wedding receptions and business events.

In October, they opened another grocery and café. “There was a small grocery-store space available in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, and we were approached by a group of residents who wanted us to move in,” Earnest says. “They offered to provide one-third of the store’s financing, so we decided to go for it.”

Earnest’s desire to help better her community came to fruition — just not in the way she expected. More than 80 cents out of every dollar spent at Local Harvest feeds back into the local economy.

“Today, my role is being the cheerleader to our 100-plus employees,” she says, “and my focus going forward is to continue educating others about the benefits of buying and eating local foods.”

Lisa Cary is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

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