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Don’t Hate the Walmart Peach and More Highlights From ‘Food For Thought’ Conference

Fresh produce centerpieces. Photo credit: Linda Merksamer

“I want people to think about all the choices that are involved to get your food on your plate,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University Sacramento (CSUS). Last Friday, the center hosted the 24th annual Envisioning California Conference in Sacramento.

This year’s theme was “Food for Thought: Current Food Trends and Policies in the Golden State,” which focused on the Central Valley’s role in feeding Californians as well as broader issues of access, sustainability, and locavorism.

Panel discussions and lectures filled the day, led by farmers, restaurateurs, educators, nonprofit leaders, students and policymakers, including Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Karen Ross. Speakers espoused generally optimistic views about California's food future, provided different factions of the food community can work together.

Here are the highlights:

Don’t Hate the Walmart Peach

In his keynote speech, farmer and author (Epitaph for a Peach, The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm), Davis Mas Masumoto explained that the “Farm to Table” movement must accept rather than villainize conventional big agriculture. As an organic grower of heirloom Suncrest peaches, Masumoto admitted to "pornographizing" his produce.

“The juices squirt and splash,” he said when describing the act of eating a Suncrest. “And you involuntarily lean over the sink to make sure you don’t dribble on yourself. The flavor explodes, and the nectar dances across your taste buds. You slowly swallow, and the aftertaste lingers and stays.”

But in order to preserve those perfect peaches, which don’t generate a lot of income, Masumoto must also grow beauty contest varietals with a good shelf life for grocery chains like Whole Foods. And Masumoto is okay with that. “I have one foot in production agriculture and one foot in the artisanal community,” he said. He believes the peaceful cohabitation of the two is essential to sustain the "Farm to Table" movement.

Keynote speaker, author, and peach farmer Davis Mas Masumoto

Immigration Reform STAT

According to Guadalupe Sandoval, Executive Director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, 95% of farm workers are foreign-born. Sandoval refers to them as “economic refugees” who choose the dangerous path of immigrating illegally because here they can make between $9 to $12 per hour versus earning that same amount in a day in Mexico. The $5,000 it costs to illegally cross the border keeps these seasonal farm workers from going back to Mexico...unless they’re deported.

An increase in deportation over the last several years has hurt farmers like Barbara Cecchini who grows corn and asparagus. She has struggled to find non-immigrant workers willingly to do farm labor. When Cecchini posted wanted ads, she received multiple calls of interest, but only two people showed up, and one of those two quit after half a day in the fields. Jason Resnick, Vice President and General Counsel for Western Growers, emphasized the need for reform to allow existing farm workers to continue working. Many of these individuals, Resnick noted, have lived in California for decades and have raised families here.  

Watering the Food Desert

Food security continues to be a problem for those living in food deserts, areas without access to whole foods like fruits and vegetables, and low-income schools where many students have never seen a fresh orange. Be Healthy Tulare is one nonprofit organization trying to alleviate these problems in poor towns like Pixley, California. Founded by Jessica Ramirez, who holds a doctorate from Stanford and whose parents were farm workers, the group gleans farmers’ unharvested crops that would otherwise be trashed and offers them to the community along with healthy cooking classes.

A Tale of Two Grocery Stores

In cities, like San Francisco, independent grocery stores struggle to compete with chains that can sell larger quantities and lower prices. A strategy for success, explained Keri Askew Bailey, Sr. Vice President of Government Relations for the California Grocers Association, is for these independent stores to become “ethnic markets” to give them a niche that appeals to a smaller but devoted segment of shoppers. Meanwhile, larger stores are engaging in broadening techniques that move out of the realm of comestibles and into health. Supermarkets, such as Whole Foods, hire in-store nutritionists while others are bringing mobile medical units into their parking lots to administer basic services.  

Let’s Get Together

Speakers encouraged the various elements of the food movement (locavorism, justice, sustainability, health) to recognize their common interests. They urged urban dwellers, who tend to overlook the hardships of the farmer, to be more emphatic and all consumers to become more aware of their food system. Michael Dimock, president of Roots for Change, a program trying to establish a sustainable food system by 2030, expressed hope. “People are becoming more familiar with the realities of food production,” he said." He, like the other speakers, urged the public to convert this increased awareness into a willingness to collaborate.