Growing up in California, as a child I never fully realized how fortunate I was to have a diverse and plentiful array of fresh foods available to me at all times. I had little understanding of where my food came from and how that bounty eventually ends up on my table. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say most Americans share this lack of understanding. It wasn’t until I took up an interest in agricultural policy while studying at UC Davis that I began to understand the complexities of the agricultural system in the United States, specifically, California’s influential role in global food productions. As producers of nearly half of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and a considerable share of dairy and livestock products, California particular confluence of environmental resources function as an unparalleled agricultural hub at the forefront of innovation and sustainability in food production.
Many experts in the agricultural sector have emerged as pioneers in the field of agricultural innovation and sustainability. Danielle Nierenberg’s Food Tank, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is focused on fostering a global discussion about agricultural innovation and sustainability, is leading the charge. All with the goal to build a community for safe and nourished eaters. Food Tank supports and empowers the next generation of agricultural leaders--farmers, scientists, policymakers, and advocates to cultivate a safe and nutritious global food system into the future.
This past September, I was given the opportunity to attend the “Hubs & Innovation” track on the second day of Food Tank’s first-ever Sacramento FarmTank summit. The Sacramento FarmTank event was developed in partnership with Visit Sacramento, Farm-to-Fork Program, and UC Davis to bring together some of the region's most influential food system leaders to engage a community-wide discussion about agricultural innovation. The day-long program included a networking sessions with a selection of local farmers, a lunch catered by Dos Coyotes using locally-sourced ingredients as well as guided tours at both the General Produce Company and the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services distributions centers.
Dan and Tom Chan of General Produce opened the program with remarks about both their family and company history. Acting as an agricultural hub for the Sacramento region, General Produce has distributed local, organic, sustainable, regional and globally-sourced produce since the 1930’s. As third-generation owners of General Produce, the duo emphasized the importance of their long-standing relationships--with their community of customers and suppliers. For the Chan’s, it’s evident that their well-established relationships have been the cornerstone of their successful business.
General Produce’s local suppliers were also on hand to represent what agricultural environment looks like in Northern California today. Participants included: Capay Organics, Full Belly Farms, Premier Mushrooms, Salad Cosmo, O’Connell Ranch, David J. Elliott & Son, Van Groningen & Sons, Inc, Andy Boy and Jacob’s Farm. It was a great opportunity to gain insight into some of the technologies and operational initiatives being put to use in the greater Sacramento agricultural region.
I met Bob Murphy of Premier Mushrooms, where we discussed methods of sustainable energy and waste reduction in mushroom farming. They operate 64 grow-rooms equipped with advanced climate-controlled technologies that regulate temperature, humidity and C02 levels. In true Food Tank spirit and innovation, Premier Mushrooms has partnered with the Community Power Corporation (CPC) to pioneer the use of agricultural waste like walnut and almond shells to generate energy for farm operations. Together, they operate a computerized biomass-to-energy system that is both waste and pollution free. According to Murphy, Premier Mushrooms hopes to source one hundred percent of its power from a renewable source by 2020.
When I met Paul Mueller, co-owner of Full Belly Farms our conversation centered on the preservation of agricultural diversity. “Unless we work towards maintaining diversity, it disappears,” he explained. Adding that at Full Belly, eighty different crops are organically grown year round. To help preserve diversity of food products, Full Belly Farms uses farming techniques like using cover crops that fix nitrogen and supply organic matter for the soil, as well as planting specific habitats for beneficial insects. Long before it was the practice du jour, Full Belly has operated one hundred percent organically for the last thirty years, mainly selling their produce within a 120-mile radius of their Capay Valley farm.
At Jacobs Farms, organic herbs and flowers are grown at thirteen small farms throughout the Del Cabo area. Jacobs Farm takes the support of their community very seriously and the needs of agricultural workers is a main priority. Sales Rep, Thomas Dugal recounted the beginnings of this as far back as 1985 when Jacobs Farm pioneered the use of small-scale growers’ associations to help subsistence farmers generate income for their families. Since then, these associations have offered a platform for migrant workers to educate themselves in effective organic farming techniques and connect with potential markets.
Already through half the morning, Director of Marketing Linda Luka invited us to take a tour of the distribution center. Led by Bryan Nelson, head of Quality Assurance & Inventory Control, and David John, the General Produce’s Business Development & Market Analyst, our group was led into a large, cold storage warehouse that stores a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. When distributing a “dying product,” Nelson explained, timeliness is key to excellent customer service. “I’m only as good as my last delivery,” is a mindset that drives his success in distribution operations.
A particularly interesting discussion point was General Produces’ use of the Product Traceability Initiative (PTI). Every box of produce is labeled with standardized identification barcodes that electronically archive packing information such as where the product was grown, packaged and delivered to the warehouse. This kind of enhanced traceability ensures food quality and safety by helping General Produce account for all of its produce at any given time.
By now it was time for lunch, deliciously catered by Dos Coyotes, a restaurant out of Davis specializing in healthy southwest cuisine. The experimental menu was made using locally-sourced ingredients, featuring organic chicken tacos with mango salsa and arugula, watermelon, kale and quinoa salad, stuffed pepper “tacos”, roasted non-gmo corn topped with queso fresco, and adobada and arugula sourdough sliders. A distinct departure from their standard restaurant fare, the Mexican-style menu served was executed skillfully with locally-sourced ingredients like watermelon from Van Groningen & Sons and arugula from Capay Organics.
After lunch we headed to the second part of the program, a tour and discussion panel at the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, where we were greeted by Blake Young, President and CEO of the Food Bank. Sacramento Food Bank provides free emergency goods and services to an astonishing one hundred and fifty thousand men, women and children each year in the Sacramento area. Instead of serving hot meals, the Food Bank distributes fresh produce, dairy and grains to help move families towards self-sufficiency.
Young discussed the many issues facing the Food Bank in its attempt to feed nearly one hundred and fifty thousand food insecure residents in Sacramento. Despite having over eight thousand volunteers, distribution and capacity issues hinder the effectiveness of the Food Bank’s operations. Many of their two hundred and twenty distribution agencies do not have the cold storage capacity to properly store fresh food, causing distributive inefficiencies.
Lack of nutritional literacy among the food insecure population in Sacramento also poses a considerable problem. The Food Bank can distribute fresh produce, but if the recipients do not know how to cook or serve that produce, it will be wasted. One of the ways the Food Bank has tackled this issue is through holding teaching workshops at their Demonstration Garden and disseminating informational brochures with recipes. But there must be more done to help needy families make the most out of the items they receive from the Food Bank.
Before the discussion panel, Young invited us to get a sense of what the many volunteers do to serve the Food Bank by packaging some fresh produce for the Food Bank ourselves. Part of the onion team, eight other participants and I were instructed to package six onions per bag. With a competitive spirit, by the end of the packaging session my teammates and I were able to package nearly a hundred individual onion packs for the families being served.
The closing discussion panel consisted of five panelists keenly familiar with the issues facing the food bank. The majority of the discussion centered around the topic of land use. An urban planner for a neighboring city, inquired about the lack of community gardens in Sacramento. This led to a panelist discussion of the possibility of growing land on portions of the available open space, such as at churches, many of which already act as distribution agencies.This solution is two-fold, as these gardens would provide food for families, and also serve as an educational opportunity for the food insecure in Sacramento.
By the end of the day, my brain was buzzing with all of the newly acquired insight into some of Northern California’s prominent farms and agricultural hubs. As a student of politics and policy, I immediately began iterating on policy solutions to some of the challenges present throughout the region. I was inspired by the Sacramento community’s dedication to sustainability and social good. I was introduced to the challenges facing both those who produce our food, and those who try and distribute some of that food to those in need. It will be interesting to see how these challenges will addressed through community collaboration and burgeoning agricultural innovation.
About the Author:
Alyssa Chapman is an aspiring writer currently pursuing her Political Science and Professional Writing degree at the University of California, Davis.