March 3, 2013

Stuart Leavenworth: Is Sacramento ready to face challenges of 'farm to fork'?

Mayor Kevin Johnson laid out three priorities in his State of the City speech Thursday – greening the city, improving K-12 education and securing an ownership and arena deal for the Sacramento Kings.

Mayor Kevin Johnson laid out three priorities in his State of the City speech Thursday – greening the city, improving K-12 education and securing an ownership and arena deal for the Sacramento Kings.

Can you guess which of these three will consume the bulk of his attention?

Geez. That was cynical.

OK, OK. Let's try that again.

In his State of the City speech Thursday, Mayor Kevin Johnson emphasized greening the city, improving K-12 education and revitalizing downtown with a new arena and ownership deal for the Sacramento Kings. If he can put equal energy into all three priorities – while protecting taxpayers in any arena deal – the city will be in a better place in 2014.

That's better.

But shouldn't we be a wee bit skeptical? When the mayor Thursday started talking about the Kings, he seemed genuinely energized. The jacket came off. He started gesticulating. By contrast, he seemed to be speaking from the script when talking about other initiatives, while failing to acknowledge the big challenges they face.

Like what?

Let's take the food initiative – one-half of the mayor's green agenda for 2013. Last year, the mayor declared Sacramento to be the nation's "farm-to-fork capital." This year the mayor declared 2013 to be Sacramento's "Year of Food."

"There's no better theme to capture who we are and what we should be known for," the mayor said. To "own it" and sell this theme aggressively, the mayor and farm-to-fork advocates are planning to roll out several events, including restaurant week, food education week in schools, spotlights on chefs and a September food festival highlighted by a dinner for 500 on the Tower Bridge. The focus appears to be on "branding" the city as a food mecca to attract tourists and national attention.

That's all fine in itself. But a lot of us are hoping for something more – a sustained, broad-based effort to improve the diet and health of the area's residents, while helping farmers and food industries become a stronger and better-supported base of the regional economy.

Isn't that happening?

It is, to a degree. Groups like Soil Born Farms and the Sacramento Food Bank are trying to connect the dots between locally grown food and neighborhoods that lack access to fresh produce. At the mayor's urging, Alice Waters has expanded her Edible Schoolyard project to Sac High. Dr. Oz's HealthCorps has opened a Sacramento office and is working on programs to educate young people about diet and exercise. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments and Valley Vision are working to compile data on local agriculture, markets and consumer access to food.


According to SACOG, only 2 percent of the food grown locally is consumed locally. Farmers generally grow for national and international markets. Most consumers purchase the cheapest food available, regardless of season.

"Farm to fork" has a nice apolitical ring to it, but to make it real, Sacramento will have to confront decades of industrial food practices and consumer habits.

Such as?

Such as processed foods and the industries that market them. Required reading should include Michael Moss' article in the New York Times magazine of last Sunday, a preview of his upcoming book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us." The article goes deep into how companies such as Frito-Lay, Oscar Mayer and Coke design and redesign products to have the perfect combination of fats, salts and mouth feel to induce craving, often at an early age. It also documents how some of the major food companies in the 1990s had a chance to move away from these high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt products, but refused to, for coldly calculated reasons.

So it's the food companies that are at fault?

Not entirely. We are living in an oddball moment in history when a large portion of the U.S. population can suffer from hunger and obesity at the same time. Unsure of where their next paycheck is coming from, people skimp on real meals and spend on cheap snacks and junk food. A documentary opening this month, "A Place at the Table," examines the 50 million Americans who fall into the category of being "food insecure" (including 220,000 residents in Sacramento County, according to a recent report by Valley Vision and other groups.) Clearly, poverty and lack of education – combined with aggressive marketing of unhealthy products – are part of the problem.

So what do we do?

We can start by acknowledging that "farm to fork" is inherently political. If we want to "own it," we can't hide from that fact. Promoting our celebrity chefs is great, but what's really needed is a food revolution – or more precisely, a counterrevolution – against all the bad habits that we've developed and have been foisted on us over the years.

Maybe the city's planned weeklong food festival in September could include some speakers with an edge? Maybe someone like Michael Moss?

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