On a hot day in late November, I'm all set to enter Vons: my role for the day — food archaeologist. Janice Baker, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and medical nutrition therapist, is my guide. My goal is to learn what food we San Diegans buy. I want to understand what should be an uncomplicated question: Where does that food -- displayed in unrepentant quantities at supermarkets, fast-food chains, soup-and-salad lines — come from? Baker is a svelte, chestnut-haired woman with the most sensible eating habits you'll ever envy. She's your food conscience.
Once a week, Baker escorts the weight watchers and the diabetics, or anyone on a doctor-prescribed diet, through Vons. She lectures them about caloric density and sodium concentrations so they'll unlearn their shelf behavior. I like it that her high diet IQ is sauced with wit: "A food has nutritional value only when you eat it." As we go through the doors, she reminds me that before we can know what people eat and where it comes from, we must evaluate how it's presented. The first thing we see — we're in the Vons on Bernardo Center Drive, which is warehouse-big and airport-busy and feels no different from the Vons in Chula Vista or Santee — is the soft light. In the past year, most of the Vons markets in San Diego have received a lighting makeover, harsh fluorescents replaced by nonglaring canned or recessed lights, along with homey touches of fruit in out-leaning bins, a fake-wood slatted floor, and an almost mulchy feel, at least in produce.
The barnlike come-on is accented with the warm smell of baked goods, produce's neighbor. "It used to be," Baker says, "if you shopped the perimeter of the store" — the perishable meats, fruits, and vegetables on the sides and rear, not the canned and packaged foods of the inner rows — "you'd be fine." (Is it Vons' idea to confuse us: health/junk, diet/binge? Are confused shoppers impetuous buyers?) Across from the donuts (big sign: "At Vons a Dozen is 14") and muffins ("not healthier than a donut," Baker says, "just a different version of cake"), we pause at a stand of mandarin oranges, carroty bright in their bags of green netting.
She swivels back to the muffins, whose tins are mostly empty: "One of these is 400 calories. That's not bad -- unless you're a diabetic or pre-diabetic." In the U.S., there's 21 million of the former, 40 million of the latter: that's one in six Americans. Baker stresses that with obesity, fatigue, and diabetes epidemics, the American life expectancy rate, rising steadily for a century and now standing at 78, may for the first time begin to fall.
People's food judgments, she says, are more fantasy than uninformed. Sure, we're all drawn to organic, but "it's a marketing tool; you can slap the designation on anything, but it's not any more nutritional." The biggest blunder for Baker is that people don't (or won't) think about the quantity of what they eat. Food labels, she laughs, "have great information. But people still have to be trained to read them. They seldom look at the portion size. They see a macaroni-and-cheese frozen dinner, 250 calories per serving, and they think the whole box is one serving. They should be multiplying 250 by 2.3." Cooking directions scare people, she says. "Since they can buy a convenience product like Chef Boyardee, they think it's too hard if it's a raw product." To make regular oatmeal is the same thing as instant. But a raw food, in their hounded minds, means that it "takes too long to cook."
Baker steers me to the aisle of packaged rice products, food she hates. We survey lots of friendly-faced boxes: Uncle Ben's; Rice-a-Roni; Pasta Roni; 10-Minute Success Rice. Elbowing the rice dishes are pasta dishes such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner with Scooby-Doo shapes. These boxes, which take up the top six of seven shelves, gleam Las Vegas gaudy. Baker says that they "wouldn't be prominently placed here," at eye level for adults and kids in carts, "if they didn't sell." Such Frankenfood is a synthetic mélange: Enriched Macaroni Product, Wheat Flour, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate (Iron), Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid, Cheese Sauce Mix, Whey, Milkfat, Milk Protein Concentrate, Sodium Tripoly Phosphate, Citric Acid, Sodium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Milk, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Enzymes, Cheese Culture (many of these ingredients are organic compounds derived from corn). Pasta packages with added sauces are "majorly packed with huge doses of sodium," Baker warns. "A tsunami of kidney disease is coming." In time, as the kidneys strain to filter out excess sodium, they break down, resulting in high blood pressure and an overworked heart. On the bottom shelf is the commodity itself: Safeway brand California long-grain brown rice. It's washed but otherwise unprocessed. A raw food in a plastic bag requires cooking, not microwaving. A food with the lowest profit margin, but with the highest nutritional value, always finds the lowest shelf.
Confirming this, a few steps farther, are the raw legumes -- pinto, navy, split -- basic food in generic array, also outlawed to the bottom shelf. A one-pound package of great northern white beans is 99 cents. "You can't get any better than that," Baker says. "Beans are one of the most perfect foods: protein, the cholesterol-lowering fiber, no fat, no sodium. One of these packages could feed several people for several days. Anytime someone says that eating healthy is expensive -- you can't pass that one off on me."
Though Baker's been decrying the health dangers of packaged foods and our penchant to make such choices, she's also suggesting what should be but is not obvious: none of the food we've examined in an hour at Vons is local. Few of us, when we think about food, think "origin." Labels like "product of USA" or "organic USA" are no help. Vons's source for its food is massive warehouses, with shrink-wrapped products stacked to the ceiling on pallets, in Pleasanton, California. (Vons, a subsidiary of Safeway, has more than 300 stores in Southern California.) And before that? The Central Valley? Mexico? At my neighborhood Vons in Clairemont, I ask the produce chief -- he's stacking, with cartoon swiftness, a bin of yellow onions, "product of Peru" -- whether any of the produce is local. He shakes his head at a tempo half as fast as his hands pyramid the fruit. If it were, would it be labeled? Another shake no.
Despite the fact that San Diegans live in an ideal climate for growing food -- growing more than we do now, that is, which would mean irrigation systems and reconverting the river valleys to farms and orchards -- we follow the national norm: from source to mouth, food grown in America is shipped an average of 1500 miles. For Baker, the worst part is that this shipped-far food has lost all its nutrition because, in order to travel those 1500 miles, the food often must be processed and preserved for its life on the shelf. What's replaced the nutritional elements of food are nonnutritive sweeteners and chemical additives that add bulk, taste, and preservatives. If the food were nutritious, it would be less processed, and, as a result, it would be local -- or, at least, raised and harvested regionally and seasonally. Baker and I sit down to discuss how, in cities and towns of the world, green grocers still take deliveries of fresh food daily; they sell the fish, the broccoli, the pears to people who soon consume them. Such sellers, however, barely exist in America anymore. Nor is there much authentic regional cooking. Southern, coastal, Western cuisines, boasted of on some menus, have been re-engineered or homogenized with fat-ridden substitutes. Baker says that the closest San Diego gets to a regional diet is Mexican cuisine. "You've got the beans, the corn tortillas, the chiles, the spices -- very heart protective. It's a great diet when proteins complement each other."
In the American diet, with 90 percent processed foods (such as Uncle Ben's) and 10 percent raw (long-grain brown rice), it's easy to conclude that most of us seldom eat fresh food. Our main diet is synthesized corn and soybeans, the staples of processed food. These two crops, in the form of starches and sugars, account for the majority ingredient in processed foods, from Twinkies to veggie burgers. A soda is 100 percent corn by-product; a McDonald's chicken nugget is 56 percent. The average American consumes a ton of corn per year in processed food or in meat from U.S. cows, which are almost entirely corn-fed, not grass-fed. Since corn and soybeans are grown by huge industrial farms, the food processing industry rarely deals with local or small farmers. Monoculture crops are rooted in heavily fertilized soil and laid out in tractor-friendly rows on huge farms. In Iowa, 72 percent of the farmland is given to corn and soybeans; 80 percent of the food Iowans eat is imported. Today, industrially grown and processed corn and soybeans, even in their organic incarnation -- think cows in feed lots or chickens in half-mile-long pens eating corn and soybeans raised without pesticides -- supply the $438 billion food industry its primary stuffing.
A study from the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis says that Americans get one-third of their calories from junk food. "We are a nation of people," the report notes, "who are simultaneously overfed and malnourished." (Why the overfed American is so hungry is a question that nutritionally adjusted food products are not answering; perhaps it's a cultural disorder that centers on the underfed national soul.) Janet Baker has her own twist on why processed food dominates. "We are programmed," she says, "to seek out high-sugar, high-fat foods. It's a survival mechanism. If you get the fat and the sugar, you have more energy and live longer." She says that the sensation receptors on our tongues respond immediately to sugar and fat. "We're programmed to have aversions to bitterness as a sign of poison. What brought us to today is that our ancestors knew how to seek out high-sugar, high-fat foods." In the human past, however, it mattered less to our health if the food was high in fat and sugar. For one, primitive people rarely ate meat and its fat; for another, their food, by necessity, was seasonal and varied. "And, for centuries," Baker says, "we survived with this food because people, doing physical labor, worked off the calories they consumed."
The real reason why nonnutritious food dominates is the economic efficiency of our system of food processing and food distribution. This tentacled structure is examined as part of Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. To analyze America's favorite meal, Pollan looks at the "blizzard of information" that McDonald's publishes about the "ingredients and portion sizes, calories, and nutrients" in every dish it serves. The company reveals the composition of each food (some items have more than 40 ingredients) but carefully avoids identifying origins. (There's no federal requirement to list source as part of a food's identity.) But Pollan has tracked down its route with Holmesian deduction: "It comes from refrigerated trucks and from warehouses, from slaughterhouses, from factory farms in towns like Garden City, Kansas, from ranches in Sturgis, South Dakota, from food-science laboratories in Oak Brook, Illinois, from flavor companies on the New Jersey Turnpike, from petroleum refineries, from processing plants owned by Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, from grain elevators in towns like Jefferson," Iowa, and from fields of corn and soybeans that farmers plant, mostly from genetically modified seeds.
Grocery stores and fast-food restaurants sell processed foods; percentage amounts are hard to determine but are between one-half and two-thirds of their sales. So where does the rest of the food come from? I asked Vons and Albertsons, the top two food retailers in the county, but neither returned my calls. Terry O'Neil, director of public relations for Ralphs, the third largest, did. He notes that his store, of which there are 30 in the county, buys its produce from all over the world. Meat and poultry come mostly from within the state. Supply and demand is key. "In the world of produce," O'Neil says, "the consumer wants to be fed that apple, that orange, those grapes, those strawberries, 12 months out of the year. To meet the demand, you have to follow the seasons." Fruits out of season here "in other parts of the world are not." Thirty years ago it was different. "Now, consumers demand we have the same apple, the same orange" in any season. Is Ralphs committed to buying from local farmers? "We always look local first -- 'local' meaning the state of California -- then nationally, then internationally." O'Neil says that depending on the area, there is a call for local products, such as wines in San Luis Obispo. But he knows of no similar demand in our county for a local food. He believes that customer diets "are changing. The trans-fats, low sodium, etc. You'll notice the increasing selection of organics, another result of consumer demand. That section has grown tremendously." O'Neil says Ralphs advertises "California grown." A special product, like persimmons, Ralphs will identify as San Diego County grown. "Typically this would be a unique item to our area that has cachet with the consumer."
The counterargument to consumer-driven demand is that Ralphs and other megastores have trained shoppers to expect food out of season -- by supplying it. As one local food advocate put it, "I don't think 'consumer demand' has its roots with the consumers but has its roots with the distributors and their marketing who want to make a lot of money on it. You can get a real nice price for food flown in from other parts of the world." So long as the petroleum costs stay "low."
There's a basket of reasons why San Diegans' food doesn't come from around here. In addition to the distribution system that favors shipped food, the dearth of green grocers, the global supermarket that stocks any product anytime, the chief local reason is the county's housing development during the last 50 years. Housing has removed most places where dairy, vegetable, and citrus farms once thrived. One critic of this commandeered local farmland is Mel Lions, a founding member of San Diego Roots, Sustainable Food Project. He tells me one morning over coffee (a necessary import) that agriculture and husbandry were prominent in San Diego's past. Lions, 51, wears a ball cap tucked tight on his head. He moved to San Diego when he was 3 and recalls growing up in the South Bay. In Lions's childhood, local dairies were common, as were produce wagons that rang their bells the way ice cream trucks do now in the neighborhoods. As a child, he loved his grandfather's peaches; as an adult, he quit eating store-ripened fruit: they couldn't hold a candle to the peach in his memory. "Why would anybody buy this stuff? I remembered what it tastes like when you pick it off the tree, a concept that carries over to all your food. If something is picked unripe weeks ago, refrigerated in a box, shipped a thousand miles, gassed so it ripens up, goes to the produce aisle, and sits there waiting for me to come and get it — I'm not getting anything out of that."
In 2001, Lions became a committed foodie. For a time he had worked at Good Faith Farm, a small-scale organic spread in Jamul, across the valley from a proposed Indian casino. It was a very profitable business, located "in an idyllic little valley that had been farmed for 100 years. The best restaurants in San Diego were buying their produce." The farmers who leased the property put out a call: the owner was selling and they needed someone "to buy the farm and the 160 surrounding acres. It was being bought by a developer for McMansions and a polo field." To stop the sale, Lions and others organized, hoping to raise $6 million. But they couldn't collect the money in time, and the farm was lost. Lions and friends regrouped as San Diego Roots to bring awareness of food security to the public, to assist local farms with harvesting and selling, and to help consumers understand where their food comes from. "If we're buying our food from farther and farther away, at some point -- if we've gotten rid of all the local farms -- then we're going to be in trouble. If we can't get the food over the mountains or by boat from Chile, then we're going to go hungry."
Preserving traditional farmlands is the central political issue for foodies. "It may not be an issue in our lifetimes," says Lions, "but in the next generation, as the oil gets scarcer, we won't be able to ship it; we'll have to grow it here." There's enough water in Mission Valley, Otay Valley, and Tijuana River Valley to grow large tracts of food. But without soil, the prospects dim. "It takes thousands of years for those valleys to develop their alluvial soil -- and it can be destroyed in an instant. It takes a generation of no growth for the soil to become sustainable. By 'sustainable' I mean soil that pulls its nutrients from the air, which is done with bacteria and microbes and things that are in living soil -- not dead dirt, which is what industrial agriculture has brought us." No, he says, three million locals cannot eat all the avocados or strawberries grown here. But some of those farms can be replanted with other crops. Also, with drip irrigation, greenhouses offer the potential for year-round vegetable gardens.
Lions has grown his own food in urban gardens, front-yard tracts that neighbors marvel at -- flowers, vegetables, herbs. "I give away lots of food, and they love it. San Diego celebrates the lawn; but you know you'll spend more time on your lawn than you will on a garden." He waxes fondly about his garden's freshness, "I pick it raw and eat it or I cook it. Locality has a lot to do with flavor, nutrition, vitality within the food itself." Garden food, he says, "is not picked for shipping; it's picked for eating. At its peak flavor. Nature's got this wonderful method of making flavor and nutrition and ripeness all come together at the same moment in time. If we can optimize that with our purchases, then we're getting what nature is intending for us to be eating.
"I've come to understand," he continues, "the connection between food, passion, and life. If my body is feeding on the best stuff, then my vitality changes. As we've gotten farther away from fresh food, our passion levels have dropped -- as a country. We have less time to do the passionate things, and we eat worse, and it takes our energy level down, and we have to work harder -- it's a cycle of suppression that's infused our society. I think our health and survival are hinging on this -- bringing back control of our lives, the quality of our food, our relationships with each other."
The San Diego County Farm Bureau, a farmer-advocacy group that tracks the monetary value of everything planted and harvested locally, says there's lots of food grown close to home. With 6000 local farms, agriculture is the fifth-largest industry in the county, using about ten percent of the county's land. Agriculture contributes $1.4 billion to the local economy, which includes nursery and flower crops. (The data about crop numbers and dollar values is compiled by the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.) Two-thirds of local farms have nine or fewer acres. Most farms are family-owned and -operated, though most farmers do not sustain themselves by raising crops. Family farming doesn't pay a lot, so many supplement their income. Along with a handful of egg ranches in Ramona and a robust countywide poultry industry, San Diego has only a few mom-and-pop dairy farms where cows are concentrated. Calves raised in the backcountry are shipped to CAFOs, or combined animal feeding operations (which militant vegetarians label animal death camps) in Arizona, central California, and Imperial County, where the feedlots are thriving with some 325,000 beef cattle. Range land for grazing cattle locally is possible, but not without more rain.
The executive director of the farm bureau, Eric Larson, who works out of an Escondido office, has a background in farming. Though he still owns his own place, "It's leased out, so I can't say there's any dirt under my fingernails." I ask Larson — whose exacting words are crisply uttered — what becomes of San Diego's food, half of which is citrus, once it's harvested. "Those crops," he says, "are produced in volumes that are much too great to depend on the local market. So we have traditional packing houses in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties where all this fruit goes" — it's all mixed together — "for grading, boxing, and shipping across the western United States and, in some cases, clear across the country — to satisfy those markets. The same can be said of strawberries and tomatoes. We produce so much that it's shipped out. Often, you'll see that a tomato picked in Oceanside is shipped to L.A., then turns right around and comes back to San Diego. Happens every day. That's how the distribution system works." Larson says that with the consolidation of retail groceries, this warehousing system is growing larger.
Local farming is expensive because of the high cost ($600 an acre-foot) for water. This means that local growers must raise products with a high dollar value per acre. In the nation, San Diego County is number 1 in producing avocados, number 7 for poultry, number 8 for strawberries, number 9 for grapefruit, and number 16 for fruits, nuts, and berries. Though fruit and nut crops have more than twice the value of vegetable crops locally, vegetables are twice as efficient in their per-acre value. You can grow a lot more vegetables than you can avocados on an acre. Among other foods produced here are tomatoes, lemons, mushrooms, tangerines, cucumbers, and squash. Water-demanding, flatland crops like cotton, wheat, corn, alfalfa, don't do well in hilly San Diego County where the soil is rocky and sandy. San Diego's crops, Larson says, "are water-intense, land-intense, input-intense, and labor-intense. They don't lend themselves to large-scale farming where you put a guy on a tractor and go plow 600 acres."
As for organic growers, the county has more than 300, more than any other county in the country. Local organic produce includes oranges, grapes, and avocados, plus cherimoyas, loquats, and persimmons. The majority of local organic produce is, according to the farm bureau, "sold to wholesalers who in turn sell it to markets all the way from San Francisco to New York City." A few stores like OB People's Market sell local organic produce, as do the many farmers' markets. In addition, Larson defines local as "the new organic," in opposition to industrial, monoculture food. "You can't screw around with local: either it is or it isn't."
In the farm bureau's eyes, is local worth evangelizing for? Larson says local farmers struggle with that: water costs and immigrant labor and exotic pests are much knottier issues than bringing food directly to local buyers. But he believes "we'd be foolish to ignore" the San Diego and Los Angeles markets. "If it's sold locally, the farmer has integrated the marketplace closer to the customer; he's getting more money for it because there's fewer people in the distribution chain." His estimate is that farmers get up to 40 percent more by selling directly to the customer. "It's important to sustain agriculture in San Diego County. It's an important part of the economy. Even if we set the economic value aside, look at the open space farmers are maintaining. The successful farmer is the best hedge we have against urban expansion. As long as he's making money, he'll stay in the business -- and he'll encourage his children as well. He didn't get in the business as a land speculator; he got in business as a farmer. One way to keep farmers here is to take advantage of this massive marketplace in Southern California through the local chains, getting consumers to look for local products. We have 30 farmers' markets; why not 60, why not 90, why not 100?"
One local chain that buys locally is Henry's Marketplace. Leigh Needham is the company's regional marketing manager; her bailiwick includes 15 stores in San Diego County and a dozen in Orange County. Henry's (it was originally Henry Boney's store, which began in 1943 with Boney selling peaches from his truck bed) was bought by Wild Oats in 1999. (In late February, Whole Foods bought Wild Oats; media spokeswomen for Whole Foods and Henry's say that it's too early to tell whether Henry's stores will be rebranded or whether some stores will be consolidated or closed.) As an entry-level health-food store, Henry's sells "natural" foods -- no artificial ingredients or preservatives, though they do sell products with that eye-blurring list of additives. Wild Oats, whose stores are throughout the west but are not in San Diego, carries only natural and organic products.
Needham tells me that during strawberry season in March, 85 percent of the strawberries they buy are county-grown. Eighty percent of their total sales is food products, bulk, frozen, dairy, produce; and 30 percent of their total is produce. The majority of produce is local. "Depending on the time of year," Needham says, "whenever we can get a local product," that is, from California, "that's the option we take." The company buys more than 1200 locally produced items from more than 540 farmers in California. Upwards of 80 percent of their produce is from Southern California. Last summer, Henry's began its "Choose Local" campaign, small blue labels placed around the store that identify food grown here. Posters -- with "CA Grown" -- resemble the old blue-and-yellow California license plate. "Grower profiles" feature farmers: one example is Chula Vista Sun-grown Organic Distributors, "a family-owned farm that grows sprouts, wheat grass, micro-greens, and edible flowers."
At the farm bureau, Larson also wants local labels. "The consumer has a right to know whether the product has been produced offshore or not. We've been stymied by the marketplace on that. The thinking is that the consumer will choose the local avocado, the back-to-the-local-is-better argument." Larson is trying to get the bureau's logo — San Diego Grown 365 — out of the planning stage. He predicts that when consumers buy products with that logo, they'll be supporting more than sustainable agriculture; they'll be supporting open space, better air, and the local economy.
The one food that monopolizes locally grown is the avocado. San Diego's avocado crop and market continue to expand. According to the farm bureau, the fruit's value has more than doubled from 1995 to 2005. The county has 35,000 acres, mostly the Hass variety, with an annual value of $251 million. This is, says Eric Larson, 40 percent of the U.S. avocado market. "But no one grows them in San Diego County with the idea, 'Gee, I'm going to sell them right here.' You'd go out of business; there'd be too many." Three million San Diegans can't consume our avocados? I ask. Larson retorts, "We need 300 million people" -- the U.S. population -- "to consume the avocados grown here."
After the local avocado is picked and processed, it's sold without local identification, unless it's bought at a farmers' market. County growers face stiff competition from Mexico. As of February 2007, Mexican or Chilean avocados can sit, unmarked, in a bin with avocados from Fallbrook or any California grower. It's part of a NAFTA-based policy to let food move between our state and other countries. Today, Larson says, "San Diego owns the California market." He has no idea what mixing their and our Hass avocados portends. "We have 35,000 acres of Hass avocados; there are 350,000 acres of Hass avocados in Michoacán, Mexico. They could squash us pretty quick. It's an unknown. There's nothing we produce in San Diego County that can't be produced somewhere else in the world. And food products flow pretty freely across international borders."
One of the county's big growers and distributors is Del Rey Avocado in Fallbrook. "Del Rey Bob" Lucy, one of three partners, is a harried, fact-churning fruit-seller. Every ten minutes, it seems, his phone rings with a query or order. At the south end of Fallbrook's Main Street stands Del Rey's fatigue-green warehouse, where they've packed and shipped the fruit for more than 40 years. Three times a week trucks unload avocados at one end, which emerge at the other end in white or brown boxes to be stacked on pallets and shipped to Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons, and Henry's, each having its own refrigerated warehouse and distribution chain. A conveyor line, like the surface of a spring creek, routes and weighs and stickers ("Product of California") each fruit; young women then place them onto purple cardboard racks, two layers deep in boxes. The trucks bringing the fruit in are from local growers, from state growers (avocados prefer the moderate coastal temperatures from San Diego to the southern Salinas valley), and, during winter, from Mexican and Chilean ships. The last wait offshore in Long Beach until Bob and a few other strategic buyers give the order.
Del Rey farms 600 acres of its own avocado groves. Lucy says they pick "beginning in December, all the way to Labor Day. Nine months a year." In 2006, Del Rey grew 600 million pounds of fruit, 7 percent of the California market. (Californians eat 40 percent of California avocados; Texans, 20 percent.) The main competitors are from Chile, Mexico, and a West Indian avocado grown in south Florida, which shares little of the high oil content of a California Reed or Hass. The tree, which can live for more than 40 years, produces fruit continuously. Lucy says it's possible "to top the tree and make them teenagers again -- instead of old farts." An avocado tree blooms from February to April and grows its fruit through the hot, dry California summer. In late fall, the growers begin their "size pick." The Hass avocado is picked in seven sizes. Those avocados that have, in December, reached 8 ounces are picked; two or three months later, those at 8 or 10 or 12 ounces are picked; and so on. The time to pick for the highest oil content is in the summer.
In what is a strange bit of self-competition, Lucy imports Mexican and Chilean avocados so that his "customers can buy them 12 months a year." I'm curious how Del Rey is protecting its investment as a grower by mixing regional and international trade. Selling avocados year-round is to his advantage: when California trees are dormant in winter, Lucy makes money packaging and distributing Latin fruit. He's not cannibalizing his business, he says; he's keeping people eating. He does worry that foreign pests, from some fruit he imports, "will destroy our groves." But, overall, he approves of the quality -- and the wholesale price -- of Mexican and Chilean avocados. What about labeling? "I go back and forth on that," he says. "It's a good thing as a consumer. But we don't want to play the 'race card,' in which it may be seen that we're making a slant against the Mexicans or the Chileans."
Lucy agrees that local fruit is fresher and that buying local supports the county's economy. "We're selling fruit all over the United States," mostly through Sysco, a nationwide food distributor to restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals, and more, "so we get better returns for the local grower." He acknowledges, though, that his ability to move avocados determines everything. To get the best return, he artificially fast-forwards the fruit's ripening. The avocado is placed in a 68-degree "banana room," which is full of ethylene gas, a natural growth regulator, that the fruit produces on the tree. The avocado no longer ripens in your fruit basket after you buy it. It's "pre-conditioned" at Del Rey before it's bought. It's eaten sooner and replaced by another avocado sooner.
Lucy says it's worth remembering that "if you're a mom-and-pop operation and you have 20 acres of a healthy avocado farm, you need the Vons and the Albertsons and the Stater Brothers to buy your product." I ask Lucy where he buys his avocados. Other than helping himself to a box from the banana room, Lucy shops at Major Market, a couple of blocks away, because he knows the proprietor and wants to support the fruit in the community. He looks for his generic PLU sticker. Yes, the avocado he buys was probably grown locally, processed at his packing house, shipped to Irvine, then brought back to Major Market. "You can't go from farm to store," he says. "It just doesn't happen that way." A Hispanic worker in the warehouse tells me that he buys his avocados at El Tigre, a Mexican market, which is right next door and which buys its fruit from Los Angeles, which got its avocados from -- you guessed it.
The main venue for buying local food is the farmers' market. Of the 27 markets certified in the county, the largest takes place in Hillcrest every Sunday. There, lining Normal Street beside the Department of Motor Vehicles, is what looks like, from a distance, a gypsy caravan, white tents with pointy roofs. Along its midway, one finds vendors selling crafts, clothing, cooked foods, wheat grass, bedding plants, herbs, and flowers. Though it's called a farmers' market, only seven farmers sell each week. Still, their stalls are the primary destination for many shoppers. On the blazingly warm Sunday following Thanksgiving, David Larson, the market originator and organizer, tells me that the majority of the market's sales are fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Using an "honor system," growers present a tab for what they sell to Larson and pay a small percentage as a fee. Most participants have been here the ten years the market's been open. Most sell out. They're hardly roughing up local supermarket sales, Larson says. "Hillcrest is a mature community, retail-wise. Our being here four hours -- the benefits the market offers the community overall outweigh any competition with retailers." Shoppers come from a three-mile radius: "They feel a sense of partnership in the market, they know the farmers, they feel a sense of family; a lot of our success is based on that."
The gypsy quality of the seven local growers rests in their homemade signs that feature photos of healthy crops in California sunshine, their straw hats, their overalls, their aging vans. In front of one stand, a customer palms a softball-sized Reed avocado. The grower, from Budwood Farms, organic produce from Fallbrook, loads boxes for people picking up their weekly orders. Dennis Stowell from Tom King Farms of Ramona has set out organic winter squash, pomegranates, black tomatoes (containing high levels of cancer-fighting lycopene), and orange watermelons, all of which he calls his "high-end, designer, boutique stuff. I bring my 'A' game here." Much of what he sells from his 12-acre farm are "heirloom" plants. Heirloom means the plant is open-pollinated one year, so its seed will make the same variety the following year. Heirloom fruit cannot be shipped long distance or boxed (it bruises easily); because of its purity, it has better flavor, according to Stowell. "I'm within an hour of any farmers' market in San Diego, so I can pick it within 24 hours and get it on the table."
Barry Koral, who has a "subtropical fruit farm" in Vista, is putting out a box of sweet limes. "These are a healing food. If you have a sore throat, five of these will heal you faster than any doctor's prescription." I ask Koral, who, I discover, is iconoclastic and tetchy, whether he's an organic grower. He begins a lengthy lecture: "We can't call our farm 'organic' because 'organic farm' is a phrase used by the government. To be organic you have to register with the government; we choose not to do that because there's a lot of bureaucracy." To be certified, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on the Organic Food Act of 2002, requires farmers to list what they're growing ahead of time. Inspectors come through the Hillcrest market twice a year, checking that what the farmer has said he'll raise is what's for sale. "They have to inspect us, and we have to keep records, all kinds of red tape. We" -- Koral and his Swedish fiancée -- "just take the food directly to the people. They know the quality of the food by looking at it -- it's amazing." The lime he hands me is plump to bursting. "They're not going to find it at Trader Schmo's."
Foodists believe in consuming raw foods; they believe that people are healthier by eating less processed food. Koral calls himself "a pioneer, a visionary in getting us back to the farm." Vons won't buy his food; Henry's, he says, "doesn't pay very much and basically buys number-two quality. They buy in large quantities in L.A. I've been playing this game for a long time." Koral loves the "European atmosphere" of the farmers' market, finding it "a great opportunity for people to come out of their homes and shop in spirit with others. It's a very free atmosphere. It's outside. It's unencumbered by the box of the big store. And you have a personal relationship with the person selling you the food."
Spending a morning at the farmers' market with a tape recorder means discussing food politics with activists from revolutionary-named food groups like San Diego Food Not Lawns or Slow Food USA San Diego. One foodie I meet is Michael Wangler, a geography teacher from El Cajon. During his summers, Wangler manages one or two small-scale farms in the county. Small-scale farming, he says, has survived "because they have a niche. There's no way to compete with large-scale farms that are industrialized, heavily mechanized, and have subsidized energy, water, and labor, not to mention price supports given to big farmers for basic crops like corn and milk. There's no way to compete with that kind of efficiency." Wangler says that a large-scale farm can be defined as "anything that uses intensive inputs -- a lot of fertilizer and fuel to make the product. Plus, the product is not sold locally, but wherever the highest price is: New Zealand, Japan, New York." The worst part of monoculture farming, Wangler notes, besides lost flavor and nutrition, is how it harms the environment. Large-scale "thinking may get you short-term profit, but there's long-term consequences." Wangler says the problem goes beyond global warming. By tapping into the "fossil fuels and the fossil water" -- the great aquifers that are nearly spent -- "we are going to have to import water," even to the wet places like the Midwest.
Does Wangler know where his food comes from? "Yes, I would say 90 percent. The fruits and vegetables. The grains, I generally know where they're grown in the United States. But San Diego County is not a place to grow grains. I don't mind having grains and beans, things that are not perishable, imported from other parts of the country. They have long shelf lives; they don't require intensive levels of energy to get them here, to be flown in as you would fresh strawberries from Chile. The focus needs to be on fruits and vegetables. I make it a point to grow what I can in my garden." Instead of bagging a head of lettuce at Vons, "I'm much happier going into my garden and picking the salad for the night's meal. You talk to these farmers," Wangler continues, "and they'll say they picked their produce yesterday, maybe this morning. Quite frankly, for my family, we've gotten so used to eating this high-quality, high-taste, high-nutritional food that if we had to buy lettuce in a regular store, we couldn't eat it."
And then there's Barry Logan, from La Milpa Organica, a five-acre organic farm five miles north of Escondido, who's sold at the Hillcrest market for years. Veteran grazers scarf up his salad mix by 10:00 a.m. Logan's intense brown eyes have that clear dedication of the inspired activist. He sets up shop at four weekly farmers' markets, delivers to ten restaurants, and boxes food for 15 individuals who pick it up at his farm. That's it. He can't produce any more food. Even a plethora of small-scale county farms supplies only two percent of the food San Diegans eat. I find out how true this is on a Saturday morning visit to La Milpa. Logan bought his spread five years ago; in that time, he's terraced and layered the farm with organic compost.
The efficiency of La Milpa is phenomenal. Logan says that for an Iowa corn farmer, it costs about $1950 per acre to plant, and the farmer grosses $2000 per acre, a $50 profit. "To have a decent lifestyle," he says, "you've got to have 1000 acres." Logan's planting and maintenance costs are very low (his big expense is water), so "I'm making about $30,000 profit per acre." Why the difference? The tractor. The Iowa corn farmer must plant wide rows to accommodate the tractor; Logan plants things very close together and harvests by hand. If anything, he's as much a grower of soil as he is a grower of crops. On any farm, plants suck up soil nutrients. On conventional farms, the plants imbibe chemical fertilizers, which are added to the soil to compensate for the same crop being planted year after year. At La Milpa, even though the plants have feasted on the untreated soil, Logan still re-mineralizes the soil with powdered rock dust from the Four Corners area. One raw foodist, whose gustatory pores have no equal in Logan's experience, believes the rock dust is La Milpa's secret.
Lying a quarter mile east of I-15, the farm is, Logan says, "blessed with a nice little microclimate." He's between the ocean and the warmer inland valleys, so "it's a little warmer in the winter and a little cooler in the summer," though the site can freeze. The way to control the voracious bugs (after an infestation, the arugula looks as if it's been sprayed by a shotgun) is to move things around every planting season, to plant borders that attract beneficial insects, and to spread ladybugs everywhere. "The best way to deal with the bad bugs," he notes, "is to maintain healthy soil and biodiversity."
This is not what industrial agricultural does, Logan says. Logan's centenarian grandmother, who recently died, was a farmer. "When she was born, all agriculture was organic. Pesticides and natural-gas fertilizers hadn't been invented yet. This nonorganic agriculture is really only 60 years old. And it'll soon be coming to an end. Because petroleum input costs are getting so expensive that they will make pesticide and petrochemical inputs really expensive. It's kind of a flash-in-the-pan agriculture. One of the things we're trying to do here is to relearn a farming way that's sustainable and feeds lots of people. I don't know how to do that yet." Logan talks as one who's convinced mega-farming's demise is near and will bring radical changes. "How do we reorganize our society in a post-peak-oil world? One of the ways you could do that is to have lots of little farms, people feeding each other. More urban farms where food is grown on very small patches of ground -- everybody's a food producer. San Diego is a tough place to have big farms. Because of the water issue. We behave as if it's a rainforest."
Half of La Milpa's sales come from a salad mix that is astoundingly robust: there are 30 different kinds of greens in his mix. "We grow our salad as tender, soft-leaved lettuces, different varieties, colors, shapes, in greens, greens with speckles, oak-shaped leaves, romaines, spicy leaves. We grow four different kinds of beets, different kales and different chards, mustards, wild greens, basil, sorrel, turnips, radishes, eggplants, arugula, dandelion." This biodiversity is key for Logan. If a farmer grows only one crop, he says, the failure of that crop wipes the farmer out. Because La Milpa supports some 150 plant varieties, "I can have spectacular failures, which I do" -- last year's garlic was decimated by rust -- "mixed in with spectacular successes" -- a bed of tomatoes that is "so productive that I can meet my expenses for the week."
Logan mentions Michael Pollan's critique of Whole Foods in The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book rapidly becoming the bible of the slow food movement. Pollan charges the successful retailer with diluting "organic," a term once suffused with environmental value, by buying designer foods from the global marketplace and guzzling fossil fuels in the process. Because of the fallout from the book, Whole Foods has said it will alter its global purchasing and hunt down local produce more rigorously. San Diego's Whole Foods produce manager called Logan to order food, but in the quantity they wanted, Logan says, "I couldn't give it to them."
During her free period, Morse High School art teacher Bridget McConnell, a sandy-haired ball of energy, is surveying the school's organic garden. She's recalling, hand to heart, her satisfaction with the kids' effort. About 40 kids and McConnell began the garden in February 2005 with donated soil; today, only bent stalks and weed piles remain of what had been row upon row of carrots, onions, zucchini, sweet peas, broccoli, tomatoes, Swiss chard. The kids tended and harvested vegetables, herbs, flowers, and citrus trees; they also shredded and composted waste. Now, in midwinter, not much is alive except fava beans and basil. Their fenced-in plot (to keep out the squirrels and gophers) lies within a fenced-in campus.
With us is Sara Smith, who teaches culinary arts, a job-training program where kids learn food prep and cooking. "Their idea of lunch is chili cheese fries," Smith says, whose denim apron goes from neck to knee. Incredibly, such food is still being served in the cafeteria, though its days are numbered. The junk they eat -- and the junk that's for sale in the surrounding stores of this largely Filipino neighborhood of Skyline -- has made many kids fat, some slapped with diabetes. Health concerns are critical at Morse. The enrollment of 2800 is half Filipino, a group that accounts for, according to Smith, "nearly half the incidence of juvenile diabetes" among the kids at Morse, in part because of the preference in those families for fried and fatty food. There's no farmers' market in Skyline; the kids don't get many fruits and vegetables at home, despite the nutritious "ethnic" dishes some families do eat. Smith believes exposure to healthy food will change their habits. "I march my kids down to the garden, pick the basil, and make pesto or homemade pasta," she says. As we talk, three students, two wearing down-stitched, sports logo'ed jackets, lug in a can of kitchen scraps: potato peels, eggshells, lettuce, coffee grounds, pineapple, and melon tops. Gardens, of course, take time and effort -- watering, weeding, bug-tending, composting. The kids can get dirty, McConnell says, and not everyone wants to. "They come to school dressed up all cute."
McConnell, whose lapel button reads "Morse Garden Club: We're Dirty," is one of the drivers behind the wheel of a new curriculum: teach kids where food comes from. She leads Terra Nova, a 300-student academy, a high school within a high school, which specializes in environmental science, culinary arts, and nutrition. One spur for this program is new California legislation: because of the epidemic of type-2 diabetes, the law requires the sale of junk food and soda on campus to be phased out. The Hungry Tiger, a campus restaurant, and the cafeteria will have to provide lunches restricted to fewer than 400 calories per serving. Smith tells me that the kids will design "healthy snacks as an academy project." Smith and her student chefs "make a couple kinds of homemade soup every day." One student, she says, removed the trans-fat from the campus's top snack, the Tiger muffin. Smith mentions what other schools are doing. One program in West Oakland, California, has high school students helping to grow and harvest food at six community-based gardens and selling the produce from a van that tours the neighborhood in the afternoons.
One of Terra Nova's curricular projects is to use an issue like food and health and link it to the academy's classes that month. Last fall, when Terra Nova catered a staff luncheon for 200 centered on a "harvest theme," they used only organic food, "including Paul Newman potatoes." English teachers had kids write essays on Thanksgiving motifs in the style of Puritan writers; American history tied American agricultural policy to the 2006 November election; and art classes did observational drawings of the garden and displayed them.
Is there resistance in Skyline toward such a green-thumb focus, which some parents might construe as politically motivated by teachers and staff? McConnell says the sad part is not so much opposition as a lack of parental involvement. About Terra Nova, one group of parents groused that they wanted " 'more for our kids than learning how to plant flowers and flip burgers.' You have to take that as an important consideration," McConnell says. "The parents may have had menial jobs, and that's not what they want for their kids. And rightly so." To counter their concerns, she elevates the idea of what the academy is doing: "This is not about leaving school to work at McDonald's. Many don't know that chefs can make $100,000."
A farm table, of course, is the freshest place to eat. In San Diego, a few restaurants, such as Nine-Ten in La Jolla and Spread in North Park, emphasize menus with farm-table freshness. Another is Café Cerise, a downtown lunch-and-dinner bistro on Sixth Avenue. It's an elegant setting: a very old building (for 50 years it was a health-food store; before that, according to legend, a nefarious dance hall). Its wood floors have been refurbished: a wide stairway leads to an upstairs bar that wraps around like a horseshoe. The proprietor is Jason Seibert, a 40-year-old, stocky, affable native who opened his café 3 years ago; his last stint was executive chef at Wolfgang Puck's Spago Maui in the Four Seasons Resort. A slow food advocate, he returned to San Diego to handcraft the entrées, the breads, the tarts, the salads, the soups, the pâtes, nearly all based on local and seasonal foods.
Seibert seats my partner Suzanna and me. He hands us the lunch menu; lunch and dinner menus are different, he says. "We build it every day, depending on what's available." To assemble what he calls a basic "French-style country cuisine, some California cuisine, but really simple country food," Seibert receives deliveries daily and shops four farmers' markets weekly: Coronado on Tuesdays, Chula Vista on Thursdays, La Mesa on Fridays, and Hillcrest on Sundays. He rolls a large flat cart and buys copiously from local growers. He also buys from a Henry's or a Whole Foods, when necessary. But, he says, "I can tell the difference when the food is from the farmers' market: the broccoli is sweeter, the cabbage is more real. Food has identity; it's not just a product to put in a box and use later." He says he could make a menu and plasticize it, train his cooks and sous chef to follow it with robotic regularity. But the "fun of working" with local produce clearly excites him.
Down the lunch menu of 14 items we go. The first is "grilled A&W Farms emu with pomegranate vinaigrette, baked polenta, rainbow chard, and fennel." "The emu," Seibert says, "came from Santee, the pomegranates came from Steve White's farm, the chard from Barry Logan's La Milpa." He keeps going. "The potato purée is from Sage Mountain, the green beans from Valdivia farms in Oceanside, the Caesar salad and romaine lettuce is grown locally, the eggs are from Ramona, the persimmons are grown locally, as are the beet greens and the beets, the arugula, the Reed avocados, the squash blossom, the basil, the strawberries -- the dayboat swordfish is harpooned locally, the eggplant came from Oceanside, the rosemary oil came from the rosemary in my back yard, the tomatoes are from Valdivia, the fava beans and the chanterelle mushrooms are from Oregon but there are people cultivating these mushrooms here. There's something in everything that came from right down the street." It's astounding: all this food is local and fresh and available in December. Seibert says 70 percent of what he serves is San Diego grown; even more so in the summer when the abundance balloons.
Seibert thinks no one in the city is as locally focused as he is. "When you standardize the menu, you have to follow that menu -- whether it's in season or not, whether it's available or not, you have to get it somewhere." Most restaurants work with frozen foods or what's on Vons' shelves. Too few have farmers who deliver. He believes his food is "far superior" to that of most eateries because of its raw ingredients; many of his customers, he says, dine at Café Cerise for that reason. Though he serves organic, healthy, nutritious local food, he has avoided such appellations in ads or on the menu. "I felt that if people liked the food, they'd come back. I didn't need to promote it as anything; I felt that was obnoxious. I'll promote it by discussing it with you. Otherwise, it turns into a slogan."
Time to order. Suzanna gets the emu. I, a vegetarian, want a cup of eggplant soup with focaccia croutons and rosemary oil and the oven-roasted tomato and picholine olive tart with shaved chanterelle mushrooms and herb salad. It takes time for our meal to arrive. Cooked from scratch, the way it should be. And it is superb -- presentation and taste. My eggplant soup, the vegetable from Oceanside, tastes creamy but has no cream; it's made from puréed eggplant and onions, spiced with a sharp rosemary oil. The tart's filling is not egg-hard but a gooey solid, while the salad has that just-picked woody tang, gathering sweet grass, arugula, and spinach for its kick. Suzanna's emu, broiled medium-rare to a violet red, is, she says, "tender like roast beef and tastes nothing like fowl."
Before leaving, we notice a line drawing on the wall: it's the portly Seibert, in Hitchcockian profile, with chef's coat and tube hat, his left hand grasping the neck of a turkey, his right clutching a cleaver. A friend drew it, he says, to emphasize Seibert's nearness to the food he prepares and eats. I ask whether he knows where the food he eats comes from. "On Thanksgiving, I went to La Milpa, hung a turkey, killed it, and plucked it. Then, I took it home and cooked it. Yeah, I know."