It wasn't about celebrity chefs, it was about home cooking. It wasn't about sustainable caviar, it was about sun-ripened tomatoes. It wasn't about "foodie," it was about food. When the Yisraels learned this past summer that the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork week's Tower Bridge dinner would be selling tickets with triple-digit price tags, they took action to show that a celebration of good food did not require city permits or gilded pomp and ceremony. Instead, they hosted a farm to fork dinner at their own Yisrael Family Farm, pre-empting the Tower Bridge dinner by a week. For only $20 a seat, they helped to serve a five-course vegetarian dinner with their own produce to a garden-full of farmers, musicians, activists and neighbors seeking to share the bounty of a grassroots movement right where it was planted.
Driving down 44th Street to Roosevelt Avenue in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, the landscape is a familiar urban scene. Large trees tower over struggling yards with chain-link fences, liquor stores advertise lottery tickets and Marlboros, and the empty schoolyard of the newly closed Fruitridge Elementary sits eerily quiet on a weekday afternoon. It does not look like a neighborhood hiding a family farm, but behind a fence being slowly engulfed by a thriving hedge of yellow flowers, a canopy of citrus trees proves how looks can be deceiving.
It's here that you'll find the Yisraels' tidy homestead, a half-acre lot where a small house, some 30 fruit trees and 100 square feet of bio-intensive raised beds are nestled efficiently away. Behind a group of towering palms, an enormous pecan tree whose bare branches arch out like a firework is loaded with clusters of nuts that will be gathered as they fall to the ground in the coming week. Farther back, the family's chickens scratch around the now-dormant fruit trees, a neighborhood cat eyeing them hungrily from the 12-foot clapboard fence set against the property line. Near the vibrant orange trees facing the street, they've even carved out room for a future food forest, a form of promiscuous agriculture where plants such as berry vines, nut trees and edible plants are allowed to grow and intermingle as they would in nature. It's on this piece of land that Chanowk Yisrael and his wife, Judith, have sown their livelihood. It's where their three children are homeschooled, taught to raise food and cook everything from Ethiopian to Italian; where seeds are saved and replanted in the spring. Just as importantly, it's where an example is set. It's here that a community can see that health and fresh produce are not exclusionary luxuries, but the rights of every person, beginning in their own backyard.
Chanowk, born and raised in Oak Park, was working in the tech sector when the economic recession hit home in 2008. Struggling to stay afloat in a realm that seemed more disconnected from reality than ever, he realized that his survival could be buoyed by a single thing: his ability to lead a self-sustaining life. Starting out with no knowledge of farming he applied himself to community courses and agricultural books, learning to grow food and failing, he says good-humoredly. Over time though, his gardens flourished and today he alongside his wife, children and a revolving group of community volunteers are busy cultivating compost, clearing a space for vermiculture worm-bins and working towards a biodynamic certification.
With many of their garden beds fallow for the winter, the Yisraels are taking their message to City Hall, working with community groups like Sacramentans for Sustainable Community Agriculture on legislation to change city ordinances that would allow for "urban" gardens in residential or commercial zones to vend their produce, a practice that is currently prohibited. They also open the farm up for workshops like canning and soap making, as well as anything else an interested community member proposes to host or teach.
For those people marooned in a sidewalk-locked apartment or longing to put their backyard to more use than the wilding of weeds, the Yisraels' empowering example is showing Sacramento that anyone, regardless of space or experience, can take an active role in their food, be it learning how to glean local fruit, preserving tomatoes from the farmers market or growing their produce themselves. Knowledge, just like farming, begins with a single seed, and the time to learn and grow yourself is fertile.