Cover Story - July 30, 2008

Digging in: The local food movement in our yards and on our plates

by Selena Simmons-Duffin

Sarah Machado climbs into the back of her truck at the Menlo Park Farmers' Market and emerges with four small pots of chives for a waiting customer. It's a sunny Sunday morning, and her stand has a steady flow of customers, scoping out the lemon cucumber, heirloom tomato, and mammoth basil seedlings. She's been coming to the market for over 10 years, selling seedlings she grows at her company, Upstarts Organic Seedlings in Santa Cruz.

This year, her sales are up. She says, "It's been a really good year for vegetables."

Throughout the market, that's the refrain: Vendors say their stalls are busier than ever. The local market focus on fair prices and a loyal customer base has been a huge advantage as the prices of gas, vegetable oil, and fertilizer soar, and grocery stores pass those rising prices on to the consumer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates average fruit and vegetable prices will rise up to 5.5 percentage points from last year.

Ms. Machado has seen the economy dip and rebound over the years, but "this is really different than I've ever seen."

That's because this time, it's not just the rising prices — safety is another concern. An ongoing salmonella investigation has targeted tomatoes, and now jalapeno peppers. Last year it was spinach. Buying produce locally keeps people in the loop about who grows the food, what's gone into it, and how it's processed. That can allay fears about food safety these salmonella scares have aroused.

At the same time, books such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" have caught the American public's imagination. The idea of eating local food has caught on so much that the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year for 2007 was "locavore": someone who tries to eat only food grown locally.

All of these factors have led to a surge of interest in local food nationwide. The evidence in the local community is everywhere.

The San Mateo County Farm Bureau is unveiling a new logo at the county fair to promote local produce. A few years ago the bureau spearheaded a program called "Fresh as it Gets" to recognize local restaurants that use local food. Even Safeway is promoting the local angle of the produce it carries.

Jesse Cool, a local organic food advocate and Menlo Park restaurateur, says her business has doubled from last year. She also reports her customers are beginning to ask more educated questions about the food she serves.

Beyond buying local food, customers such as those at Ms. Machado's station are deciding to grow their own. Roger Reynolds Nursery in Menlo Park and the Ladera Garden Center both report an increase in interest in gardening "edibles" — vegetables, herbs and fruit.

Common Ground, a nonprofit that promotes and teaches home gardening of edibles, says it can't keep up with the demand. Center Director Patricia Becker says that after 36 years in Palo Alto, "This is the first year that we've ever had to turn people down."

The people starting up edible gardens run the gamut of local residents: "We get the wealthiest of the wealthy (their gardeners come in here and spend oodles of money), and we get people who have a little garden plot who just started behind the Palo Alto library, and we also get people who want to do container gardening in their apartments in Menlo Park," she says. "It's really happening around here."

A nearby Grove

In at least one Atherton backyard, the local food movement has truly taken root.

When Nancy Grove and her husband Bill moved from Palo Alto to her childhood home a few years ago, the change inspired her to a new level of commitment to gardening. For her, the change was natural — she comes from farming stock, and she remembers canning peaches in the family's Atherton orchard when she was growing up.

After the move in 2004, she began to take classes at Common Ground and marveled at the elegance of its holistic organic system. "They did such a great job of saying, 'Here's the big picture. If you want to start small, here's the little piece of it you can start doing, and then you can expand it and expand it.'"

As her knowledge and enthusiasm grew, she wanted to get certification as a Master Gardener, which is a nationwide program that trains volunteers in each county to implement recommendations based on agricultural studies done at local universities — in California, the UC system. But the move across the creek made her a San Mateo County resident, and the county had no Master Gardener chapter.

So in 2005 Ms. Grove and six others trained in Santa Clara County, and then founded the San Mateo County chapter of Master Gardeners. The 52 active members do community outreach and service work in the area, and train interested volunteers. Ms. Grove says they try to train everyone who's interested: "Despite the name, you don't really have to be like a black-belt gardener."

While helping to found the chapter, Ms. Grove continued to expand her own garden — composting on site, experimenting with planting times and water timers, and continually expanding the range of what she grows. "Trying to be able to come full circle and harvest your seed and retain it so it stays really fertile and can grow again the next year is something I'm experimenting with now." Their garden takes up less than half an acre of their plot in Atherton. She grows the food, and her husband does the cooking.

She estimates that she grows an astounding 80 percent of all the fruits and vegetables that she and her husband eat.

Tight times

Of course, not everyone can be that devoted to growing his or her own food. Gardening is time-intensive, strenuous and, especially at first, not cheap.

"I don't think growing your own food is about cost yet," says Ms. Cool. "In a way yes, you're free labor so it's going to be less expensive. But if you factor in being fair to anyone who's growing your food, then probably not.

"Once you throw some bean seeds into the ground and you realize what it takes — not only the cost, but how much human energy to grow it and thin it and harvest — you are shocked at how cheap our food is," she explains.

But even if the economic benefits aren't immediately apparent, the economy has made many shoppers more concerned about long-term value and safety, and therefore more likely to stay home and dabble in backyard food gardening.

"I think that the bad economy keeps people home more often, and they do turn to their gardens," explains Danna Breen of Portola Valley, landscape designer and founder of the newly formed Portola Valley Garden Club.

Turning to the soil

For many people, growing food on the home front starts with tomatoes. Even several Safeway produce shoppers said they grow some tomatoes at home.

Ms. Grove is no exception: "I started out growing tomatoes like everybody else does because tomatoes are wonderful and bountiful," she says. "You start out (with) the thing that tastes so much better when you grow it yourself; when you buy it in the store it's just like cardboard."

From there, the possibilities abound. The Santa Clara Valley is famous for its fertile soil, earning it the title "Valley of the Heart's Delight" before it was re-dubbed Silicon Valley in the wake of the tech boom. The rich soil and Mediterranean climate make for a long and diverse growing season.

One danger for beginners is biting off more than they can chew, and after one or two summers, plowing it all over in frustration, according to Ms. Grove. Even with rich soil and great weather, gophers, squirrels and deer can make gardening in this area a big challenge.

But for many, the rewards of gardening keep them at it.

"Unlike so many other things you can do that are virtuous — it's fun!" Ms. Grove says. "It's good exercise, it's rewarding, it teaches you patience, it teaches you humility, it's wonderful meditation, it's a great problem-solving exercise, it's a stress-reducer — what's not to like? And, she adds, "Your friends love it if you bring them anything except zucchini."

Flavor is another big reward noted by edible garden enthusiasts, who say that when you pick food when it's ripe, fresh from your garden, the taste has no comparison to store-bought. "It's really important to eat foods when they're at the peak of their ripeness because that's when they taste the best and that's when they're the most nutritious," Ms. Grove explains.

Gardening can also have educational and nutritional benefits for young people. Some local schools are tapping into this idea — Encinal and Oak Knoll elementary schools both have flourishing school gardens.

Kristin Kuntz-Duriseti, a Menlo Park resident and member of the city's Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee, agrees. Her dad grew up on a farm, and she says that when she had kids and began gardening, "It was really profound to think about passing on a legacy and getting closer to the earth."

She fondly describes how her 3-year-old son goes into the garden and pulls plants out, or comes inside smeared with juice from homegrown tomatoes. "He loves it," she says, explaining that kids eat much more healthfully when the produce is right in front of them. She adds, "When kids actually participate in growing, it's much more exciting to eat the result."

All about the people

Growing your own food is as local as it gets, Ms. Cool says, but even with a big garden and seven chickens, she can't produce everything herself. She emphasizes that part of choosing to eat local food is becoming aware of the people who grow, and gardening at home can help foster that understanding.

"My farmer friends think it's great we have our own garden," she says. "I think getting close to people who grow our food is one of the most nurturing and genuine ways to connect to your own community and the soulfulness of it."

The model for buying produce she uses at her restaurants and catering company is a concentric circle — start as close to home as possible and move out from there. Keeping things close to home improves our awareness of what goes into our food, helps reduce the carbon footprint by minimizing transportation, and supports the local economy.

Ms. Cool also notes that if local people were strict about buying close to home, they wouldn't have chocolate or coffee. For globally produced food products like these, she says, "The important thing is to know where it comes from and how it's grown."

In some areas, neighborhoods are becoming aware that growing food can build relationships, not only over the counter at the farmers' market, but also over the fence. "One of the big benefits of community produced food is that it does break down barriers and it does allow people to get to know their neighbors," says Ms. Grove.

Ms. Kuntz-Duriseti recalls that once she left homegrown basil in a basket outside her Menlo Park home, and people came back to meet and thank her for the gesture. Ms. Breen has plans to start sending e-mails to the town e-mail list to inform the community who has ripe produce so neighbors can come and pick it.

These exchanges are temporarily hindered by the recent expansion of the light brown apple moth quarantine, which prohibits the exchange of homegrown plants and produce until the state eradication program begins next spring.

Even without the quarantine snag, connecting in neighborhoods with no sidewalks, big lots, and front gates surrounded by hedges can be difficult. "Our neighbors around here are wonderful; we just don't have much excuse to get together," says Ms. Grove.

One reason is that none of the communities the Almanac covers has a community garden, unlike neighboring Palo Alto, which has had community gardens and local food nonprofits for some 30 years.

That could change soon: Some residents in Portola Valley are hoping that some of the Spring Down land next to the new Town Center will be used for a community garden, Ms. Breen reports. No other cities reported plans for community gardens.

Community gardens are key to promoting the idea of edible gardening, according to Ms. Grove. "To get people interested in growing their own food, I think it really helps to see somebody else doing it."

Beginning to bloom

For the former "Valley of the Heart's Delight," the local food movement is really a return to the region's roots. Even so, advocates such as Ms. Cool and the staff of Common Ground who have been working in the region for decades are thrilled that the idea is re-entering the mainstream.

Ms. Cool summed it up: "Wow! It's so cool, it's so exciting."

The forces of the economy, safety concerns, and popular reading will not last indefinitely, and home gardening as a significant source of food is no short-term project. When the hype wears off, the traction of the local food movement will be put to the test.

Yet it seems likely that, although this recent surge of interest is related to economic pressure, it is really fed by a gradual rise in interest in sustainability and security.

"People's attitudes have really shifted," says Ms. Cool. "Now it's local first."


Posted by Joan, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 29, 2008 at 9:39 pm

Can anyone think of a parcel in Menlo Park that would be a good site for a community garden? This article gives strong arguments for creation of such a garden or gardens, and since the city seems to be committed to environmentally sound policies and action, it seems that creating one, or several, would be a huge step in the right direction.

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