A “Trend” that has been simmering for decades
It’s just after 9 a.m. on a Monday at Café Bernardo on K Street. Kitty O’Neal starts the conversation by noting that while farm-to-fork isn’t “new” it’s certainly become more visible. To illustrate her point, she holds up a copy of a recent edition of O, The Oprah Magazine, featuring Oprah Winfrey in a vegetable patch.
Kitty O’Neal: I’d like to begin by formally acknowledging where farm-to-fork is: Oprah has a farm. So it’s clearly in vogue.
Randy Paragary: It’s a movement we have been around for 30 years, coming on the coattails of what was then the “California cuisine” popularized by Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck (and others), based on a philosophy of fresh, local, seasonal food.
In Sacramento, we’re doing the same thing. So while it’s not necessarily a brand-new concept, there seems to be a groundswell of more and more restaurants particularly—and at home too— paying attention to what they are buying.
Our connection to farm-to-fork is our philosophy of, wherever possible, using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients—whether that’s produce, meat, vegetables, fruits—to use as much “local” as we can.
Not just for “foodies”
Kali Dittrich: We have a walnut farm that we just began reestablishing in 2011, putting in 2,300 walnut trees. It will be a while before we are established but we are very much interested in distributing locally, hopefully to farmers markets. But we also want to be a part of the California economy and begin to distribute globally.
Greg Corrigan: At Raley’s, our association with produce very much connects us to what’s going on with local farmers. In fact, we started a brand-new program—a “hyper-local” program. Whereas we have sourced produce from California as much as we could, we’re now bringing it to a level so that we can source within 50 miles of an individual store, sort of drilling down to the direct store connection to the farmer. It’s fun to be part of a movement to bring healthy, local food to our customers.
Justin Wandro: One of our programs at Loaves and Fishes is very much like a restaurant in that we serve 600 to 800 meals a day to people who are primarily homeless or very low-income. Our interest in farm-to-fork is to insure we have the best, healthiest and most nutritious food to serve to our guests. We also want to support our community because our community supports us, so we want to serve local food.
On a personal level, I have four kids, so I’m committed to serving local food so I know where it came from. Good, natural food is also what we really want for our guests at Loaves and Fishes because it gives them the best chance for being healthy and improving their situations.
Joany Titherington: Our role (at the Oak Park Farmers Market) in farm-to-fork is in direct sales, introducing farmers to our customers. We started by doing surveys and when children thought hamburgers came from pigs and didn’t know what beets tasted like, and when we saw children go to school with Hot Cheetos and Coca-Cola for breakfast, we understood we needed to change the matrix. People needed to see where food came from.
We were one of the first farmers markets to allow EBT (electronic benefit transfer for public assistance benefits) payments. We started out bringing in $1,200 in EBT over a six-month period and now its up to $30,000. And we’re not just getting customers from Oak Park—they’re coming from Fair Oaks, Citrus Heights, even out of state.
Kurt Spataro: I make decisions on what to purchase for our restaurants. As a chef I’m interested in serving tasty food, which almost always means buying local and in season. And that has been true forever but it seems like there has been a groundswell of support, an interest and like-mindedness in moving this thing forward. It’s an exciting time to be a chef and restaurateur.
Sacramento on the menu
Nick Leonti: The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau is organizing Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Week and the Bridge Dinner (a farm-to-fork dinner prepared by local chefs on Sacramento’s Tower Bridge.)
California is one of the top agricultural regions anywhere and we’re in the center of that, so farm-to-fork carries weight here more than in other cities. It’s more important here because we’re the source of so much of the country’s food. Our farms feed the world.
That’s why it’s really catching on. When you eat at a five-star restaurant in New York, there’s probably something on your plate that came from Sacramento. When people around the country eat sushi, the rice came from here. When they eat caviar, it came from here. Just as when you want to hear jazz, you go to New Orleans, tourists want go to the source and (Sacramento and the farm-to-fork movement) is the food equivalent.
Garrett McCord: So much of the focus has been on San Francisco, but now people are starting to understand that farm-to-fork has always been here and they’re starting to investigate what we have. A lot of my writing focuses on using the ingredients from the area and trying to be as local as possible. I’m also trying to get other writers to explore the Sacramento area.
When I moved here in the early 2000s, I was told there wasn’t a restaurant scene. Now people are coming up from San Francisco to Sacramento to dine here. (Farm-to-fork) has encouraged what we do to spread outside the area.
Randy Paragary: If I can make a distinction between now and 1983, (the topic of) “California cuisine” never made it beyond the food section of the newspaper. Now with farm-to-fork you are seeing it on the front page. It’s getting more interest and becoming more mainstream and that’s good. When we talk about education, (farm-to-fork) needs that kind of publicity, not to just be stuck in the back of the food section.
Fresh and local: A source of togetherness
Kitty O’Neal: What is bringing it to the mainstream? Is it (Sacramento mayor) Kevin Johnson and other public figures? Is it events like this?
Kali Dittrich: Farm-to-fork is not an elite concept. (Instead) it gives people that sense of community. Growing up we had family dinners. This movement gives us that same community—we talk to others about the food, you don’t have to have an extensive
Garrett McCord: I think it’s become more accessible. The last few years there’s been a “foodie” movement—you had to know the name of the heirloom tomato you were eating. Now there are all these events like Art in the Park and everyone is being welcomed in.
Nick Leonti: There’s definitely that sense of community. (For example) I went to the Beer and Bacon on the Boulevard event. It was a hot day but it brought people together. I was proud of Sacramento coming together as one big, happy, sweaty family. And a lot of events like that are going on. During Farm-to-Fork Week locals can really get out there and have some good food and be together.
I work with visitors, and if they see us enjoying Sacramento more, visitors are going to enjoy it more. If we’re telling people about how much we love this town, they are going to be more interested. It’s great to have that community pride.
With agri-tourism and culinary tourism we’re bringing more visitors to town specifically because of this movement, which obviously benefits people who run restaurants, or trying to put people in hotels—anyone who is trying to bring money into town is going to benefit from the farm-to-fork movement.
Joany Titherington: It has been a culmination of community building a synergy around food. You see people growing gardens as infill projects, trying to build a movement. And policymakers like Darrell Steinberg and Roger Dickinson are getting more involved in moving farm-to-fork forward.
Folks who don’t have a lot of money to spend, who might not be well-educated, still want to be involved. They see the value. I think that we’ve had an impact when customers write about it on Facebook and their friends in Chico hear about it, when their friends in Stockton hear about it, and they want to be a part of it.
There are also some best practices. What was really interesting was that people from North Dakota came to see what we do. The impact is being felt outside Sacramento and that’s really encouraging.
The bitter and the sweet
Kitty O’Neal: What are some of the challenges of farm-to-fork? Is it seen as elitist, too trendy? How do you get people to see the benefits?
Joany Titherington: In my experience it’s always been about breaking bread. It’s always been cooking that brings people together to learn and experience, especially with children, to get people to come to the table. For us in Oak Park it’s a challenge because people get their food stamps once a month and they are used to going to the store and purchasing things that are easy to prepare like microwavable burritos. It’s fine to purchase those things but they shouldn’t be the sum of their diet, nor of their children’s diets.
Whenever we’ve had a food demonstration or any event that’s food-centric, in that people get a chance to taste things, we’re breaking down barriers.
Randy Paragary: Speaking of food stamps, I’ve been seeing advertising about a program called California Fresh. Is that food stamps?
Joany Titherington: Yes, that‘s the new name. It’s SNAPs on the federal level, and California Fresh for the state.
Randy Paragary: But it doesn’t require that items that are “California fresh” be purchased? You can still buy burritos? By using those words, it sounds like there’s some kind of effort…
Joany Titherington: They are starting a marketing strategy to get people to purchase fresh (food) with their Cal Fresh cards. But people can still purchase those other things.
Garrett McCord: I’m going to play devil’s advocate and say (farm-to-fork) can be elitist. I did my master’s thesis on the exclusionary rhetoric of the slow food movement—which made me so many friends… Take the Bridge Dinner—there was the kerfuffle over people not being able to go, that it’s too expensive, etc. Of course, it’s not inexpensive to put on something like that. And limiting participation was smart to make it a cool event.
Nick Leonti: You can pay $175 for dinner pretty much any night in Sacramento but the Bridge Dinner sold out in a matter of hours so it’s hard to argue against it. And there are lots of events that week and throughout the year that are free to the public.
I talk to tour operators and they are always bringing people in for food events. It’s not just Farm-to-Fork Week, there are events all the time. We have a restaurant week, there are agriculture festivals, wine festivals, beer weeks. Farmers are also available to put together tours and locals can take walking tours of restaurants.
Justin Wandro: There are events for everybody. At Loaves and Fishes our guests aren’t going to spend $175 on dinner but we are working with the MoFo (Sacramento mobile food truck) guys about an interactive event.
There is something for everyone in farm-to-fork. There are lots of opportunities like the Sacramento Food Bank connecting with local growers. I think as much as 60 percent of their food is locally grown produce. We’re inspired by the Food Bank to do the same thing. The community in Sacramento is generous. People have great hearts and want to give back. We don’t expect all the food to be donated—people need to make a living. But we expect to try to buy food from local sources.
Sac State in the mix
Kitty O’Neal: As alumni, was there anything in your Sac State experience that put you on the farm-to-fork movement?
Garrett McCord: I was already working as a food writer when I went back to school and I made sure all my papers came back to food in some way or another. I actually stumbled on my thesis topic when researching the slow food movement. I couldn’t afford to attend a slow food event and when I told them I was a poor student and asked could I still attend, they said no. But I ended up sneaking in through the servers’ entrance, sitting in the back to take notes anyway. Its part of the reason I’m glad farm-to-fork has become more inclusive through outreach that makes it more accessible.
Nick Leonti: Most of my Sac State food experience was Top Ramen or bean burritos from Taco Bell Express (laughter) but I learned a lot about Sacramento, which has certainly come in handy, and met some great people in town who are part of the farm-to-fork movement. There were all kinds of opportunities at Sac State. If you were willing to put in the effort, you could do anything you wanted.
Kali Dittrich: It was during my time at Sac State that I had the opportunity to develop our family land into this orchard, which is starting to bear fruit. I have kept up my relationship with my professor, Dr. (Dudley) Burton, from the environmental studies department. He has been so wonderful in encouraging this project. He doesn’t have first-hand experience in growing walnuts, but he brought a group of students out, just as they were starting to expand their ag education at Sac State. It was really fun to see these students wonder how to get involved in getting food from the ground and into the community, seeing that you can educate yourself to be a farmer. It’s tough when you put a lot of money into something you won’t see pay off for several years, but you can do it if you have a passion for it. Food brings out a lot of passion in people.
Justin Wandro: Professor (Steven) Jenkins from one of my communications classes had us read some really interesting books, like Fast Food Nation and Diet for a New America, which ended up changing my thinking on accepting status quo. They got me started thinking about “where is my food coming from?” I started to question the system and thought about getting more local produce in my life. It’s been very influential at Loaves and Fishes and with my own children. I want them to grow up thinking about what they’re eating.
What I also like about farm-to-fork is that it’s escalating farming. It’s creating farmers as role models, the people who actually produce what we eat.
Education forms the base
Kitty O’Neal: Events put farm-to-fork on the map but there is also an educational component. What are some everyday choices people can make on what they buy and where they buy it?
Greg Corrigan: Being in the grocery business we’re more mainstream but when it comes to trends, the reality is that connecting farmer to consumer is huge. We have millions of consumers come through each week and we’re always trying to get our fingers on the pulse of what do they want: Is it organics? Is it sustainability? What is it? And the local trend is trumping everything. You can see all the regional players are getting on the bandwagon trying to do local.
We have the ability to upload farmers’ stories on what we call our Pantry. We put up their pictures and tell their stories, in 30 characters or less, to highlight their products and where they came from. And the consumers want that. Consumers are really driving that trend. It’s coming and it’s real. They want to know where the food came from and that’s here to stay.
Kurt Spataro: I think it is about education, mostly about kids— teaching kids what these foods are and how to prepare them and that they can be delicious in unexpected ways. Parents ultimately need to be involved. They need to teach kids that it’s fun and it’s a way to make their lives better.
I think of the California Food Literacy project, which teaches children how to Identify, prepare and enjoy local fruits and vegetables at an expanding number of schools. That and the Center for Land-Based Learning which has apprenticeship programs, and Soil Born Farms which offers an educational component—those things are transforming the next generation, or at least have the potential to.
Kali Dittrich: I really believe in the education of farming and believe that young people can start farming, and continue to farm agriculture in every aspect. Being in California there is so much desire to use local ingredients—great climate, great soil—right here in our backyard. And that’s it in a nutshell. (Laughter)
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