Chew on this
Locals are finding ways to move away from food created by corporations
A quiet revolution is stirring in local kitchens. All over San Luis Obispo County, people are claiming their right to decide what goes in their mouths and their power to choose where it comes from.
Residents with various income levels are filling their forks with fresh food from local farms and fields as the local food movement gains ground. The Central Coast is among the easiest places for people to pack their plates with food from the community, rather than corporate commodities.
Eating fresh local food is moving beyond farmers, markets, and fancy restaurants. Today’s options include home delivery of just-picked fruit and vegetables from dozens of local farms; improved access to fresh, local produce for people with limited incomes; backyard gardens and chicken coops; a push to grow old-fashioned crops to meet local demand; even a new SLO City-owned farm.
“There’s definitely a shift away from corporate food,” said Caroline Ginsberg, on a break from picking ripe red apples from an orchard at SLO Creek Farms on a sunny afternoon earlier this month. She’s the volunteer coordinator for GleanSLO, a local nonprofit whose volunteers harvest thousands of pounds of excess local crops for distribution to hungry families by the SLO County Foodbank.
Foodbank staff and volunteers are working to increase the amount of local produce provided to hungry people, rather than relying on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “heavily processed” commodity foods, Ginsberg said.
In addition to GleanSLO and the Foodbank, other groups and agencies are pushing to give people better access to fresh foods in SLO County, according to Clint Slaughter, board chairman for the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County (ECOSLO). A new countywide effort known as the Food System Coalition aims to see people with limited incomes use their food voucher cards to buy fresh, local, nutritious products for their dining tables. Under a $100,000 Hunger-Free Communities planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other actions to enhance the county’s food system are also under study.
“Even on a budget, if you cook it, you can make a delicious healthy meal—but it is more challenging until we relearn how to do it,” Slaughter said, pointing out that earlier generations grew a large percentage of their food in backyard victory gardens.
“You can actually grow a decent amount of food on your balcony, or in a community garden plot. Plus the Central Coast has so much opportunity for healthy, locally grown food. You see the benefits across the board, on health and the local economy,” he said.
As an emergency room physician, Slaughter is concerned about the costly obesity epidemic in the United States: “Obesity is preventable; it depends on what we’re eating. By eating locally grown fresh vegetables and fruit without sugar or additives, we have the opportunity to avoid obesity.”
Locally raised, grass-fed beef is also healthier than the meat from cattle kept in concentrated feed lots, he added, where the amount of antibiotics used on the animals is “quite appalling,” leading to problems with the development of resistant bacteria. He and his family bought a share of a grass-fed cow raised in the Cayucos hills, part of a growing local movement to provide healthier meat and poultry.
Along with more than 500 other local residents, the Slaughters also subscribe to a weekly home-delivery service for freshly harvested local produce: SLO Veg. Owner Dan Melton collects crops from more than 60 Central Coast farmers, assembling the yield in various sized boxes for delivery to his customers at their homes or workplaces.
“There’s a huge amount of awesome farmland around here, some with fourth- or fifth-generation farmers, some new to it. The farmers have definitely embraced SLO Veg,” Melton said.
So have his customers, as the business continues to expand.
“It’s a growing social psychology to want to know where your food comes from,” he explained. “It’s a great change in people’s attitude. Even people with less income, people who are struggling, are willing to spend more, to look me in the eye and have confidence in their food.”
His customers compare their weekly veggie box to opening a Christmas present: “I hear them say with excitement, ‘The box is here! What’s in the box?’” he said.
For Laura Slaughter, who does most of the cooking in the family home, receiving the weekly box is fun. She and her 2-year-old son unload it together, remarking on each vegetable or fruit.
“We’ve made lots of new things—bok choy, pomegranates—and I do enjoy it. Sometimes there’s a little hesitation—what do I do with a daikon radish?—but that’s part of being local. The food is so healthy, and we know a carrot is a carrot, not something shipped across the country with no taste and no nutrition,” she said.
She’s grateful to have the opportunity to make healthy, pesticide-free baby food from the contents of their weekly box, pureeing the produce and freezing it in ice cube trays for their son’s meals.
As her husband said with a smile, “You just feel better. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling.”
Fork you, Wall Street
The recent Occupy movement has helped inspire people to think about where their food comes from, said farmer John deRosier.
“There’s a general vibration that we need to go more local with food, to get it out of the hands of corporations,” deRosier said.
“In San Luis Obispo County, you can get everything [locally raised] but grains and dairy. If we get our act together, we could do those, too,” he said.
He’s passionate about supplying locally grown grain crops, leasing fields with different microclimates all over the county where he grows a variety of old-fashioned grains, including hull-less oats, several kinds of wheat, barley, sorghum, triticale, rye, millet, and more unusual crops including quinoa, amaranth, and teff.
A bright green field of vibrant young oat plants shimmered, catching the late-autumn sunshine in the Los Osos Valley recently as deRosier threw out his hands with enthusiasm.
“This is a connection story I feel with humanity and grain,” he said. “We’ve grown grain for at least 10,000 years. This is how we survived. There’s a lot of reverence for grain in pretty much every culture. These plants are so amazing.”
He knelt down in the dark, rich soil, cradling the young shoots, his eyes glowing as he said, “All the stages are so intriguing. They blow in the wind and make a chattering sound. There’s a spirit that’s so vital, that calls up a sense of real life and sustenance and community.”
But industrial farms are geared toward producing great quantities of grains, rather than focusing on quality, he said.
“Grain is the poster child for corporate farming. A few companies own the entire world supply of grain because it’s easy to move and store. To me, being non-corporate is a big part of the story. We’re never going to have a strong community food system without grain. Our food supply is dependent on these plants,” he said.
Turning these plants into useable food is “challenging,” requiring quite a bit of labor and specialized equipment, but for deRosier, the satisfaction is worth it.
“You’re eating food from someone who touched it, who co-collaborated to bring it to you. If you buy quality food, if you buy fresh and local, you’re supporting individual farming operations that have integrity. We have to support what we want to see with our dollars,” he said. “Farmers and ranchers are the ones interacting with our environment. It takes the consumer to make the big wheel of environmental stewardship turn. It’s the most empowering thing we can do.”
Fresh, local food is also being produced in more and more SLO County backyards. In Garden Farms south of Atascadero, Rob and Karyn Kimmell raise their own “really, really fresh eggs,” honey, herbs, heirloom vegetables, fruit, and nuts behind their home. Known as Tread Lightly Farm, their less-than-an-acre plot is based on permaculture principles that work with nature.
Chickens scratched in the fallen leaves beneath fruit trees just before dusk earlier this month. The birds had been temporarily released from the portable cage Rob Kimmell called a “chicken tractor.” The hens—and a rooster—eat the bugs, till the soil, mow the lawn, and fertilize the ground, he explained.
His passion lately, though, is honeybees and their gift of pollinating the various food plants in the garden, plus “the unity and the soul” they show as they work together for the good of the whole—and, of course, the “precious” honey they produce.
His eyes shining with unabashed love for his six-legged friends, Kimmell showed a visitor the inside of one of the bees’ homes, an elevated, peaked-roof box known as a top bar hive. Along with several others around the yard, it was constructed by hand from plans he found online. The couple’s bees are managed naturally, with an emphasis on helping the pollinators proliferate rather than a focus on honey production.
Although backyard beekeeping is not allowed in many parts of SLO County, the large plots and supportive attitude in Garden Farms have made the bees a welcome addition to the neighborhood, Kimmell said.
And, he added, the backyard honey is much more healthy and alive than chain-store honey from China.
“We enjoy the excitement of growing our own food. This is an easily reproducible model. You don’t have to have much land to increase the proportion of your diet that comes from your own yard,” he said.
Trading some of the backyard harvest with other nearby gardeners can turn a neighborhood into a grocery store, according to Elizabeth Johnson, who helped form the SLO County Seed Exchange, which she described as a nonpolitical, non-hierarchical group that gets together annually to share seeds from their gardens.
“The Seed Exchange is a celebration of all the good things, such as the aesthetics of what seeds look like. Although the organizers don’t want it to be political, for me personally, that’s such a major thing, especially this year, the way corporations are trying to take over seeds,” Johnson said.
“Where corporations have become so strong, it’s really important to regain control over your own life and what you eat. Food from large corporate farms has become toxic, with 15 forms of corn in one product. It behooves us to stay away from that,” she added.
Back at the GleanSLO apple harvest gathering just south of San Luis Obispo, SLO Creek Farms’ owner Robyn Gable expressed his appreciation for the many volunteers who have helped him see this year’s bumper crop picked and distributed to those in need.
Surrounded by trailers piled with the just-picked red-and-gold orbs of Braeburn apples reflecting the afternoon sun, Gable smiled as he said, “People on the East Coast are shoveling snow, and we’re shoveling sunshine!”
GleanSLO volunteers sipped golden apple juice bursting with fresh flavor, crushed from apples that were hanging on heavily laden trees less than an hour before.
“We’re hoping to figure out how to preserve more of the produce from local farms. Even after we glean, there’s still more there,” said Stephanie Peaford, a board member for the organization. A fruit-canning gathering at the SLO Senior Center was a “community-building” experience, bringing older residents with knowledge of food preserving together with younger folks eager to learn, she said.
Another local-food activist at the apple orchard, Greg Ellis, explained his vision for “garden matchmaking,” a system to connect gardeners with unused garden space. He’s also working on a project to create more backyard gardens this coming springtime, with a “flash mob” of workers converging to build and install raised beds for growing food.
Even the City of SLO is hopping on the local-food bandwagon, with the newly created, city-owned SLO City Farm on 25 acres off Los Osos Valley Road and Calle Joaquin at the south end of town. Shopping-center developers were required to preserve 50 percent of their land in agriculture, under the city’s General Plan.
The Central Coast Agricultural Network recently received a $255,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture to develop the SLO City Farm, with the idea of providing organically grown food crops and public education.
Awareness of the pitfalls of the nation’s corporate-dominated food supply is spreading, with locally grown food widely seen as a solution. For example, a prestigious foodie group, the James Beard Foundation, chose this theme for its national conference in October: “Sustainability on the Table: How Money and Media Influence the Way America Eats.”
The way SLO County eats is moving away from the influence of money and media, with local menu choices relying increasingly on what’s growing on local farms and ranches, what’s living in nearby coastal waters, and what’s thriving in backyards and garden spaces.
As Melton of SLO Veg observed, “Food is such an intimate part of a person’s life. Everyone wants to be healthy.”
Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.