BY AMBER K. STOTT
For three years, Sacramento has been trying to define for itself what it means to be America's farm-to-fork Capital. Is there a definition? Is there a set of standards that restaurants must follow the way farmers are required to abide by rules for growing organic foods?
No matter where I go or who I speak with, the question of farm-to-fork boils down to two important elements beyond the obvious "buy local" mantra: education and intentionality. Our grandparents likely remember a time before canned soup and processed foods, before the first chain grocery stores and before fast food. They likely cooked most meals from scratch using ingredients sourced from their local corner store, which in turn sold a variety of items purchased from local farmers. This wasn't necessarily intentional. It was all they had.
Our food system has morphed considerably since then, and not all for the better. Today, we have two generations of Americans who don't know how to cook from scratch because we're heavily reliant on processed foods. Our country and our region suffer from problems of hunger and food access, childhood obesity, a host of diet-related diseases and a global food chain that may account for a third of what's heating our planet. There's a global food movement aimed at solving these complex problems, and farm-to-fork efforts are one piece of a larger puzzle.
In the 1970s a back-to-the-land movement took place in America, and leaders like Alice Waters tried to return food to its roots, embracing scratch cooking and the freshest goods farmed in a sustainable manner. Care for the environment has always been central to this movement. Restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley pioneered the efforts to educate consumers about their food through the simple act of transforming what chefs fed their patrons. This is where "farm-to-fork" gets its roots.
According to the Chez Panisse website, "Alice and Chez Panisse are convinced that the best tasting food is organically and locally grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. The quest for such ingredients has always determined the restaurant's cuisine."
The quest, as Chez Panisse calls it, is what makes eating farm-to-fork a movement as well as a lifestyle. Intentionally sourcing quality local ingredients, not just any ingredient grown locally, requires a tremendous amount of effort.
At a recent Sacramento panel hosted by Produce Express and featuring women leaders in the farm-to-fork movement, four local culinary business women weighed in on this topic.
"Being 'farm-to-fork' requires an awareness," says Karen Holmes of Karen's Bakery & Café. "If you're committing to a fresh, seasonal menu you have to engage in it 100%."
Bobbin Cherrington of Mulvaney's agrees. "The commitment to being farm-to-fork is huge. You have to know it—and also be willing to be armpit deep in the trash to show a chef when they've thrown out a part of the plant that's edible."
"When we first told our clients that they couldn't get tomatoes in winter people literally rolled their eyes at me," says Janel Inouye of Magpie. "Now they get it. I'm excited about Sacramento and our palates now."
True farm-to-fork restaurants take their role as educators seriously. In order to turn a profit, these businesses rely on their customers understanding what eating seasonally means.
"People don't get why we don't have asparagus right now," says Cherrington.
"Customers are used to getting everything at a moment's notice," says farmer Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanicals.
In addition to customer education, both Cherrington and Holmes say that education of chefs is critical to maintaining the integrity of a farm-to-fork restaurant. There is a guiding relationship between the farmer and the chef that helps restaurant staff first become more knowledgeable, and then pass that education along to the consumer.
When farm-to-fork is done properly, it benefits both the restaurant and the farmer. When more restaurants buy seasonally, local farms can expand.
Ashworth farms 200 acres in West Sacramento. She says job creation is one of the greatest benefits to the rise in farm-to-fork cuisine. "I'm giving good jobs to people that might not otherwise have work," she says.
Heated debates have occurred in Sacramento as to whether certain foods grown locally deserve to be labeled "farm-to-fork." If the less-than-delicious tomatoes that McDonald's or other local chains serve on their burgers are grown in the Central Valley, can they claim to be "farm-to-fork" restaurants?
The short answer is no. What McDonald's and other chains lack are the two core elements of a true farm-to-fork ethos: education and intentionality.
Most chain restaurants' missions are not to educate line cooks and consumers by providing the freshest ingredients in season from sustainable farms. They weren't built on a foundation of intentionally sourcing the highest-quality ingredients. They're driven by cheap bottom lines and selling massive quantities of food with flavors that are consistent, whether sold in Atlanta or Saskatchewan. They'll sell a Sacramento tomato in summer and a Florida tomato in winter if that's where the market takes them. Sure, their Sacramento branches happen to purchase their food from farms located nearby. That makes for a nice platform for them to ride the farm-to-fork message, but it doesn't actually make them a farm-to-fork business. If the winds of pricing turned and their cheapest source of tomatoes was suddenly in Nevada, you can bet their sourcing model would shift. Being a local restaurant isn't their core value.
At the end of the day, everyone will define "farm-to-fork" for themselves. This is a movement that marches across the nation, not just Sacramento. We are the lucky ones who get to live closest to it, who have the strongest ability to intentionally implement a farm-to-fork lifestyle, and hopefully, educate ourselves deeply on what a truly sustainable food system looks like not just in restaurants and on farms, but in school cafeterias, food banks and at home in our own backyards.
"It's all about education," says Cherrington—with intention.