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Marin ‘Slow Food’ advocates say: know your farmer, know your food

Rob Rogers

Investor and environmental activist Edward “Woody” Tasch sees a lot in common between the mortgage-backed securities that helped bring about the global recession and a typical American hamburger.

“No one is quite sure where the meat in a hamburger comes from,” Tasch told his audience last week at a discussion of the “slow food” movement at Fort Baker’s Cavallo Point Lodge. “It might come from hundreds of different animals. And no one is sure where the money for each of those securities came from.”

Recent food scares like January’s discovery of salmonella in peanut products made by a Georgia plant and the 2006 identification of E. coli bacteria in spinach have fueled interest in the movement’s mantra of small-scale agriculture and locally grown food, said Elizabeth Ptak, a spokeswoman for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

“This is part of a very timely national conversation,” Ptak said. “People want to know where their food came from and who grew it. Writers like (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author) Michael Pollan and (“Fast Food Nation” author) Eric Schlosser have helped people become much more aware of these issues, and (first lady) Michelle Obama planting a garden on the White House lawn is part of that change as well.”

As an investor, Tasch—the author of “Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered”—eschews massive mutual funds in favor of small, local businesses where his contribution can make an impact on his community.

As a consumer and an eater, Tasch and others who tout “slow food” believe buying food that is grown and sold locally, using small-scale or organic methods, can have the same positive impact on their health, and the health of the environment.

“The closer food is produced to where it is consumed, the greater the likelihood that it will be fresh, in-season and better tasting, and that getting it to market will use less energy and produce less pollution,” declared the American Farmland Trust in a study of the Bay Area’s “foodshed” released last week.

Amelia Spilger puts it another way.

“Farmers need customers. Eaters need nutrient-dense foods. And those foods need local farmers,” said Spilger, a market manager at Marin Farmers Markets. “It all goes hand in hand.”

According to the University of California’s Sibella Kraus, the meaning of “slow food” has less to do with whether food is organic, locally grown or sustainably produced. Instead, it’s about the relationship between the person who grows food and the person who eats it.

“It’s not an ideology that says food grown within 75 miles is good, but within 50 miles is better,” said Kraus, director of UC Berkeley’s Agriculture in Metropolitan Regions program. “The farms need to have a personal resonance for the consumer. The places where people grow our food are places we should visit. We need a better understanding of who grows our food.”

Rancher Mark Pasternak agrees. Pasternak—whose rabbit sausage and pork chops are on the menu at Cavallo Point—has launched a summer camp at his Nicasio ranch to encourage young people to learn more about the relationship between the land and their food.

“We want them to see that meat does not come from a package, and milk does not come from a carton,” Pasternak said. “We show them how to care for animals and their environment.”

While some “slow food” advocates have called for labels that advertise the origins of food and the way in which it is produced, Pasternak believes consumer education is just as important.

“Consumers drive these changes when they ask questions,” Pasternak said. “I love to see people reading the whole menu, the whole wine list, and asking: Is the trout farmed? Where does the shrimp come from? Whose grass-fed beef is that? As more people get a relationship with their food and their farmers, they start asking much better questions.”

The American Farmland Trust’s study suggests that the San Francisco Bay Area produces more than enough food to feed itself. According to the study, the Bay Area produces 20 million tons of food annually, including more than 80 different crops and livestock products, and consumes only 5.9 million tons.

Yet the same study suggests that Bay Area residents actually eat little of the food grown within 100 miles of San Francisco. That’s partly because the area’s farms do not grow the citrus fruit, wheat, corn and potatoes many residents demand. But it’s also because the high-quality fruits, vegetables and other farm products—including those grown in Marin—are often either too expensive or inaccessible to all but the wealthiest Bay Area residents.

While San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is expected to announce this week the formation of a food policy council that would bring healthier food to the city’s schools, Marin County already has an organic food program in place at many of its schools, according to Constance Washburn, education director at the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which sponsored last week’s “slow food” forum at Fort Baker.

“One of the most innovative ways Marin is getting food to low-income people is through Marin Organic’s school lunch program,” Washburn said. “Vegetables that can’t be sold at the farmers market because of blemishes” are sold to half of the county’s schools at a discount, she added. “That gives them the opportunity to get fresh, local vegetables into the school lunch program.”

For many residents, local farmers markets remain one of the primary sources of locally grown produce. According to the American Farmland Trust study, production of food for sale directly to consumers in the Bay Area grew by 9 percent a year, from $37 million to $54 million, from 1997 to 2002.

“People are hungry to know where their food comes from and who grows their food,” said Marin Farmers Markets’ Spilger. “Thanks to the (state’s) direct marketing laws of 1976, our farmers can sell directly to the public. There’s now a huge demand—every community wants their own farmers market, and why wouldn’t they? At the same time, there’s only so many farmers, and every time they go to market, even if they’re driving 100 miles or less, they’re not at the farm.”

“Slow food” advocates hope that getting to know where their food comes from will also encourage Bay Area residents to preserve their farms.

According to the American Farmland Trust study, only about 12 percent of the area’s arable land, about 1.35 million acres, has been developed. Yet one out of seven of those developed acres has been developed since 1990, and farm advocates worry that the rate of development is increasing.

“In the San Francisco area, a significant portion is at risk of development – about 25 percent of our most productive farmland,” said Jeremy Madsen, executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area advocacy group for open space preservation. “If the pace of development continues, we could lose 800,000 acres by 2050.”

Since 1980, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust has preserved 63 family farms on 41,000 acres; the trust has a waiting list of another 5,000 acres.

“MALT was the first organization of its kind in the country, but similar trusts are now proliferating all over the country at a very rapid rate,” said Washburn, the education director. “This is a way that communities can take control of land use in their area.”


Founded by Italian activist Carlo Petrini, the “Slow Food Movement” seeks to preserve the crops and cuisine of particular regions by preserving heirloom seeds, promoting small-scale production and educating consumers about the drawbacks of the large-scale food industry. An estimated 85,000 people attended the 2008 Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco.



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