Sustainable Food Education, Local and Delicious

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Farmers market 1
Heart of the City Farmer’s Market offers a plethora of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and flowers. A woman peruses a variety of citrus fruits with her two daughters. (Melissa Stihl|Foghorn)

The scent of citrus is in the air as ripe pomelos, oranges and clementines are cut into pieces for customers to try. “It’s like a grapefruit,” said the Asian vendor, nodding her head as she hands a slice of pomelo to a curious elderly woman to taste. “Mmm, it’s so sweet,” the customer, Merdig Rooney, said in satisfaction. A doctor dressed in a white lab coat and stethoscope paid for a small bunch of red beets and walked back into the hospital smiling. While waiting for a Kaiser Permanente shuttle bus to take him back to the BART station, a young man wiped sweet, sticky crumbs from his beard and mustache after taking a bite of a freshly-baked cinnamon bun. “Putting a farmers market in front of a hospital was a very smart thing to do,” said Merdig Rooney as she places a bulky pomelo in her basket.

The mastermind behind the operation is Dr. Preston Maring, obstetrician-gynecologist and administrator at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. What started as one local market has bloomed into thirty farmers markets at various Kaiser Permanente facilities. He founded the first Kaiser market in an attempt to make healthier food choices available for the Oakland community, his staff and patients. “It was clear to me that after over 30 years of practice as a physician, that what people ate probably had more to do with their health than almost anything else,” said Maring. “So I started thinking, ‘If you brought a market to a work site, where thousands of people gather, could it be successful and what would the people’s reactions be?’”

In reaction to concerns about health, climate change and the global economy, food activists of all ages and backgrounds are trying to change the way people eat. Some, like Maring, are putting farmers markets in unlikely places. Others, like the students of the University of San Francisco’s Garden Project, are growing their own food. And some, like Bon Appétit Management Company, are providing local, fresh and organic foods to the University of San Francisco community. All of these people are using the pleasures of food in order to educate people about the connections between farm, table, economy and health.

Small farms are an important food resource that is getting smaller every year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 8,900 farms were lost between 2005 and 2006. Although the number of farms is steadily decreasing, there has been an increase in demand for small-farmed foods. With over 500 markets in California, the USDA reports that there are now 4,653 farmers markets in the country, a 6.8 percent increase from 1994.

“Small farms and their sustainable practices, not just organic agriculture, are the pulse of food sustainability,” says Maring. With the increase in local food demand, more attempts are being made to bring back small farm produce and practice to our tables. “I try to encourage people to eat food that’s good for them, food that’s good for the people that grow it, and food that’s good for the planet,” said Maring.

The bustle of the market is a place where education happens. Customers ask the local farmers how to cook sunchokes. Pamphlets on everything from nutrition facts to vegetarian Christmas recipes are offered. A program called Cookin’ da Market holds live cooking demonstrations. “I’m looking at every way possible to try and connect people with the local food system,” Maring said. “One Friday we brought over high school students from Oakland High. Thirty-three kids came, and we spent about 45 minutes out at the market. Another doctor and I and couple of other colleagues cooked these kids a grilled chicken Caesar lunch with farmers market lettuce.”

Maring is constantly on the prowl for different strategies to help encourage people to realize that cooking at home is a good thing. He’s a physician who doesn’t beat people up about the how-tos of a daily diet. Merely providing fresh food to people is his way of enticing them to give it a try—one person at a time. “If you put a fresh peach in front of somebody in the middle of July and it just so happens that they walk by, might they eat that fresh peach instead of a bag of Doritos?” said Maring

Slow Food Savvy

Sometimes the problem with eating locally is the cost of the fresh produce. “Doing the right thing isn’t cheap,” said Executive Chef Jon Hall of Bon Appétit at USF. In terms of the individual consumer, Maring suggests that such costliness can be balanced out. “Some people look at vegetables and they think it’s expensive compared to hamburgers. At some point that could be true but if you in general, just eat a little less meat one or two days a week and eat more vegetables, the money you save in the long run is enough to offset the cost of buying good, healthy fruits and vegetables,” Maring said.

Carlo Petrini, founder of the worldwide Slow Food movement, which encourages people to slow down and enjoy slow cooked meals from local sources, spoke at the Kaiser Permanente 2007 Saward Lecture in Portland, Ore., about his book ‘Slow Food Nation.’ Rebecca and Fred Gerendasy attended the event and posted the lecture on their local food network Cookin Up a Story—a website that offers a variety of shows and news about sustainable food and living and those working to change our world for the better through agriculture, ecology, and the environment. Petrini touched on what he sees as the misperceptions of the consumption of food in today’s society. “And so publicity has convinced us to eat worse food so we can have more money to consume other things. Now we are at this absurd figure where underwear costs more than food. Say I wear an Armani pair of underwear. If I eat prosciutto, cheese, or good bread, after a few seconds it becomes a part of Carlo Petrini. The Armani underwear is always outside of Carlo Petrini. Let’s give ourselves more value than our clothes.”

Maring has realized a greater role for the medical institution, which has expanded to providing better quality food for the inpatients define inpatient?. Within the 19 Northern California Kaiser hospitals 6,000-7,000 meals are provided to inpatients every day. In the past two years, Kaiser has been providing those meals with produce from local farmers. What began as about a dozen farmers getting their produce into Kaiser hospitals has grown to 97 small farmers providing their goods to institutional buyers. “The institutional support of purchasing small farmer food helps as a foundation for spreading the word to more and more institutions. There is a big role, I think, for institutional buyers in helping support local and regional food systems,” said Maring.

Bon Appétit Management Company, the food service provider at USF, receives most all of its produce from a company that buys from small farms, primarily in the Central Valley. Bon Appétit has over 400 locations nationwide and provides good service in three market segments: corporate, higher education and specialty venues. Bon Appétit’s standards are causing buyers to purchase certain sustainable foods. “The company is aware of our standards, so in turn they purchase what they will sell, which is local and sustainable foods. It also works well because otherwise we would cause a lot of traffic from every farmer trying to deliver their personal truckloads to us,” said Hall.
Students Take Action Through Garden Project

There is also an aspect that USF Professor Melinda Stone is challenging her Garden Project students to explore on campus. Stone said, “I am constantly telling my students that Bon Appétit is where you can make a difference. You can really shift the policies of Bon Appétit. And guess what, they continue to buy bananas because you guys eat them. There’s such a great potential to create a shift here.” These words come from a banana lover who hasn’t eaten a banana in two years. “As soon as I really reconciled this fact that it’s a huge deal, I stopped. Not to say that my one person not eating a banana for two years has made a difference at all in the consumption of oil, but if everyone did that, think of the impact it could have,” she said.

Stone is an assistant professor of media studies and an advisor for the Garden Project. The Garden Project was established with the simple intention of growing food and growing community. Among the vegetation, Garden Project members have painted wooden signs labeling the various fruits and vegetables, a small, decorated tool shed, and a large backdrop of a bicycle among table and chairs. Currently, the pungent scent of fertilizer permeates the garden from recently planted lettuces. A large broccoli bush stands next to a spiraling medley of herbs. And a barren apple tree awaits the fall season to bear its fruits.

Two years ago, under the guidance of Stone and architecture professor Seth Wachtel, a group of freshman students resurrected a lot on campus full of unwanted theater props into a growing garden. “We were 11 female freshmen…farmers. We did it all. When we were out here we had to work together to get it done.” said Leigh Cuen, one of the original students in the Garden Project.

Stone has challenged her students to only eat food that is produced within 150 miles of San Francisco. “We have it pretty easy here since we are close enough to the Central Valley. But it is as hard as you could imagine doing that. That was the assignment, for one week, to eat within 150 miles, and they complained like you wouldn’t believe.” This was also a challenge posed to the United States by Slow Food USA in October of 2008 called the Local Food Challenge.

“If people just tried that for a week, they could really track down where their food comes from,” said Stone. “They would realize to themselves, ‘Wow, that thing that I eat everyday, that banana, that’s coming from Ecuador. What does that mean to eat a banana everyday?’ It’s healthy and you feel good about it, but ultimately there are food miles involved, and that’s petroleum. Also, how are the people growing those bananas treated by Chiquita Banana?” On the other hand, Holly Winslow, District Manager of Bon Appétit at USF, has had a hard time with this issue in her dining halls. “ Once I stopped providing bananas in the cafeteria and put out pomelos, which was a local and seasonal fruit at the time. But students started complaining that they wanted their bananas. That didn’t work. We still have to cater to the students,” said Winslow. However, Stone explains how the realization has to come first. “All those kinds of things are hard to realize because they are conceptual. You’re eating the banana, which is reality, but the story of that banana is outside of your personal interaction. Trying to make that real is difficult but something that is important for us to realize,” said Stone.
Bon Appetit: USF’s Local Food Source

This year Bon Appétit has tripled the number of small farmers’ food served on campus. “Last week a local farmer came into the cafe with tons of his oranges and squeezed fresh orange juice for about eight hours,” said Winslow. Bon Appétit’s educational signage is everywhere in the dining halls and cafés on the University of San Francisco campus: color coded food labels, recipes and food bar descriptions. The Bon Appétit website includes all the information one needs—from the meanings of the food labels in the dining halls to the problems with the current food system. “This year I’ve given more presentations on our practices to the student body than ever before,” said Winslow.

Yet in the dining halls, people usually just come for the obvious: to eat. Although there are still attempts to educate, Bon Appétit is creating community in a socially responsible manner through food. “The last thing they want me to do is preach to them about yesterday’s healthy lunch that was less than 500 calories or how our Low Carbon Diet days are benefiting the environment,” Winslow said. “It’s like, ‘listen you guys! We did a great action station yesterday.’ And they’ll say, ‘You know it really smells good to us so we’re going to stand here in line and talk about the election and not care about the nutritional content.’ It’s almost an expectation these days, and that’s okay.”

However, there are some students that are going beyond these expectations. The students of the Garden Project are not only being educated about food, they are growing it. There are 20 students in the Garden Project this year that are growing food and plants. Stone said, “Almost all of them, I think with the exception of maybe one or two, had no gardening experience at all, they just had a keen interest to learn more, and they’ve all grown food. This is not something that you have to go to for 10 years of school; it’s not a rarified profession either. It’s something that everyone can do.”

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