San Francisco Food Story

Photo by Chris Willis

As a San Francisco resident, I’ll get over my scruples today and say it like I see it: the San Francisco Bay Area is one rather good place to look at when wanting to visualize what a sustainable food chain can look like. Not to brag or anything, but rather to cast a light on what’s possible when people rally around a cause they believe in and make the best of their circumstances.

To be clear, fast-food joints are not absent from the region, neither are behemoth supermarkets and wholesale retail chains. But alternatives are plentiful. The infrastructure of a local food shed built on sustainable farming practices has been in development for years and is bearing fruit.

First and foremost, food access is key to any viable local food chain. The San Francisco Bay Area is blessed with being smack in the middle of the most fertile State in the country. Agriculture has traditionally been a main engine of California’s economy. It still supplies half of the nation’s fresh fruit and vegetables, 22 percent of its milk and 80 percent of the world’s almonds.

Alice Waters

This being said, access to delicious, organic fresh food was not always a given in the region. Just ask Alice Waters, the famous chef who founded the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. Inspired by her experience in France as a student, her quest for pristine products would routinely take her to ethnic markets in San Francisco as no other options were available. It took her years to develop relationships with farmers who could supply her kitchen with seasonal, organic produce and sustainably-raised meat. In fact, she is credited with launching the vertuous cycle of close relationships between chefs and farmers that constitute a keystone of today’s local organic food shed.

“Chefs seek out farmers and farmers seek out chefs. Those direct relationships breed trust and all contribute to the food renaissance in San Francisco”, said Mark Sullivan, the celebrity-chef of Michelin-starred Spruce, at a Public Library-sponsored event a few days ago. It has become challenging nowadays to be considered a trendy, respectable, must-visit restaurant in this city if the menu doesn’t offer a seasonal fare and, in many cases, does not list the names of its organic suppliers.

Following Alice Waters’s steps, more and more chefs have ventured outside of their kitchen to grow their own herbs and even their own vegetables. “Every chef’s dream is to create a vegetable program for their restaurant”, declared Mark Sullivan. Nine years ago, he launched a partnership with a farm. “It’s been financially challenging but great for morale in the restaurant’s kitchen: for cooks to put their hands in the dirt changes their relationship to the ingredients; they have a lot more appreciation for them and waste a lot less”, Mark Sullivan explained. It also fuels their creativity, as illustrated by the current trend for restaurants to make more and more of their food processing in house, including curing meats and canning or pickling vegetables.

Chefs and farmers are not the only ones seeking each other out. Consumers play the game also. “The media have brought to light many food safety issues, and so people are scared and fed up and they realize that they need to understand the food chain better and ask more and more questions”, said Sam Mogannam, a professional chef and the owner of Bi-Rite, a family grocery store that is a San Francisco institution (Sam pioneered local organic produce offering and restaurant-quality take-out when he took over the store in 1997 from his father and uncle).”They realize that conventional food is artificially cheap and they’re becoming appreciative of the craft it takes to create quality food”, he added during the round-table conversation moderated by Dava Guthmiller, president of the board of Slow Food San Francisco. The environmentally- and socially-conscious crowd that make up a significant part of the Bay Area demographics is especially coming to terms with the realization that the land is impacted by how the food is grown, and that farm workers’ appalling conditions subsidize the cheap prices of the food funneled through the “conventional” food chain.

Finally, more and more people choose to cook at home, a trend supported by the recent explosion of cooking classes offered by a growing number of organizations, small and large. “The recession has fostered interest in home cooking and increased self-reliance when it comes to feeding ourselves”, the food writer and historian Jeanette Ferrary pointed out.

Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, San Francisco (operated by CUESA)

The number of farmers’ markets in the city of San Francisco doubled in the past couple of years to 23 in 2010 and they are well attended. “Six years ago, people would ask: ‘is this organic?’ Now they want to know ‘where does it come from? is it local?’ And so even small markets make great effort with signage to tell stories about the food and where it comes from”, indicated David Stockdale, the executive director of CUESA, the non-profit that boasts the most sought-after farmers’ market in San Francisco. “Our cooking classes are systematically sold out and we see consumers buy in larger and larger quantities from farmers with a view of preserving and canning”, he added.

Not only do farmers travel to meet with their customers directly, but they have also been multiplying opportunities to engage them through Harvest Festivals, farm tours, field trips and CSA programs.

In fact, consumers are engaged to the point that many vocations are awakened, giving rise to a job-market trend that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago in this haven of technology innovation. “More and more people want to get their hands dirty, either on the farm or in the artisan-food workshop. The abundance of candidates today is crazy when I think back to 1998, when I was having such a hard time finding people who wanted to work!”, said Sam Mogannam of Bi-Rite.

Children are not left out. The movement created by Alice Waters, a trained Montessori teacher, to bring vegetable gardens and cooking classes to schools has flourished thanks to the efforts of many individuals and organizations. The Berkeley Unified School District now boasts the healthiest school lunch program in the nation, thanks to the leadership of Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady”, who’s demonstrated that you can feed kids a healthy diet without breaking the bank. She’s been hired since by the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado to replicate her magic for the benefit of 55 schools and 28,000 students.

“You guys are ten years ahead of Chicago [an urban ag pioneering city]! I can’t believe what I’ve been seeing and experiencing since I moved here two months ago”, exclaimed a chef and food educator during the panel’s Q&A session. “What does it take?”

“It’s all about not accepting the status quo. We need to keep teaching and inspiring others to join in”, replied Sam Mogannam.

While a change in regulation and legislation will be necessary to take this revolution to the next level, as David Stockdale rightly pointed out, individuals certainly have a huge role to play. They have demonstrated it in San Francisco and many other places by building a system that, unfinished and imperfect as it may be, was a pipe-dream only a few years ago.

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