California Forum

From farm to school to table, sharing knowledge of the food chain

Patrick Mulvaney
Patrick Mulvaney

Running a restaurant in California is a dream for any chef. We have an abundance of year-round fresh produce that is unmatched anywhere else in the country, and customers who appreciate locally sourced menu items.

Given the appeal of farm-fresh food, chefs often get to know the farmers directly. Many chefs function as true partners with growers, planning menus based on the information they provide, and visiting the farms to learn firsthand what’s happening.

This amazing access to seasonal produce, nuts, dairy and meats isn’t limited to chefs. The popularity of farmers’ markets, and the availability of locally sourced produce in grocery stores, has never been higher. Which raises the question – with an abundance of fresh, wonderful food available, how many Californians know how to put together a healthy, delicious meal?

Furthermore, does the public really understand what it takes to get fresh food from the field to their table? And if long-term drought conditions are the new normal, how will that impact the ability of farms to provide this year-round bounty?

Chefs and farmers think about these things all the time. And many of us are doing something about them.

Here’s an example. I recently partnered with the American River College culinary program to train its students on how to teach high school students to make delicious meals using local produce. The requirements are pretty basic: the three-course meal must be fresh, healthy, tasty and affordable. ARC’s culinary students share information about how to shop for food, how to plan and prepare meals, and how food is grown in California. In turn, the high school students they teach share valuable skills at home as well.

American River College is in the second semester of the “Train the Trainer” class, and all of us involved are very proud of the program. The ARC culinary students are changing how high school students think about and use food, which in turn is changing how their families use food.

They are also providing an important link to jobs in the restaurant industry, while increasing understanding about farming and what makes food available. I’d like to see this kind of practical education become more of a norm in schools around the state than the exception. Healthy food prep is a valuable life skill.

This is an important step in the food education process, and the state’s farmers and ranchers offer others.

The drought has certainly put California’s farmers and ranchers in the spotlight. Slick infographics have popped up, showing how much water it takes to grow this crop or that crop. The fact is it takes water to grow the food and farm products we need and love. Since California is the nation’s top agricultural state, growers certainly don’t take the drought lightly and neither do chefs.

I’ve been impressed by how many of the farmers and ranchers that I depend on have maintained a good level of production by using innovative and sustainable water-efficient practices. I’ve learned that most farmers and ranchers use water carefully, deploying precise water-saving technologies and new ways of managing limited resources that were unheard of just a decade ago.

My experience is not unusual. All of us, chefs and farmers, know the importance of being engaged in the food chain from the field to your plate.

Here’s to the next generation of chefs and home cooks – and to the farmers who will provide the food they will love to prepare and that we’ll love to eat.

Patrick Mulvaney is the co-owner and chef of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento.