I recently had the unique opportunity to spend the day with celebrated author Michael Pollan during his October 25th visit to Santa Cruz. While Pollan has been described by the New York Times as a "liberal foodie intellectual”, it was actually refreshing to meet someone so influential, gracious and low key in equal measure. Ostensibly in town to join a community conversation on food, co-producer Dana Nichols and I took full advantageof the opportunity to show him some of our more innovative food-related programs on the afternoon before the event began.
Arriving just in time for lunch at UCSC Agricultural Center, we were treated to a sumptuous student-prepared spread made with organic vegetables grown a few feet from the outdoor tables where we sat. Landscape, information and palette melded seamlessly, thanks to carefully choreographed planning by the UCSC team. After lunch, we moved on to explore groundbreaking initiatives Life Lab, and Food What?! followed by an in-depth education on the latest sustainable growing practices from the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems. Our day of exploration ranged from local to global, in the end tying both back to the growing awareness of food as the movement currently slated to bridge that gap.
Next stop, the Homeless Garden Project. While most of us know HGP as the local organization committed to helping homeless people get back on their feet by teaching them organic gardening skills, that’s tends to be the extent of it. Drop a share token in the HGP box at New Leaf now and then and you’re doing your part, or at least I thought I was. But touring it with Michael Pollan last week brought a new depth of understanding to an afore-jaded view of the homeless population. Every one of the people who shared their experience, and there were many, had journeyed a different path. Pollan listened to each person intently, following up with a question or two before compassionately thanking each of them for their courage. Hearing the program participants relay their personal stories, it became abundantly clear that there is no divide between us and them. We left HGP reminded of the power of connection: to the earth, to our food, to each other.
The days’ excursions were but a precursor to the main event, EveryBody Eats, a public conversation held at Santa Cruz High, moderated by renowned author and expert John Robbins and including the most innovative champions the local food movement has to offer. As the conversation began, Prop 37, the GMO Labeling Act, was the hot topic of discussion right out of the gate. While it became clear everyone on the panel was in favor of the Food Labeling Act, there was less general agreement on some of the details. With food industry opponents spending about 1 million dollars a day to defeat this initiative, the Right to Know camp is losing its lead. In the heat of the debate, it’s hard to determine the motives of those who claim to be objective, such as the mass media trend toward endorsing a no vote. But win or lose, the ball is now rolling, which many see as a step in the right direction.
And let’s face it, a movement, especially one as new as the food movement, will be slow going any way you slice it. As Edible Monterey Bay writer Elizabeth Limbach so eloquently described the EveryBody Eats conversation, “The plural, a cephalous nature of the food movement shone as the event's five local panelists took to the stage, representing the myriad angles (such as farming, food justice, and child nutrition) that come together to form the good food era. The group collectively provided a snapshot of both how far the movement has come, and where it needs to go”.
Panelist Jamie Smith, senior manager of Food Services & Nutrition with the Santa Cruz City schools illustrated Limbach’s point real-time by sharing the story of Thelma Dalman the progressive lunch lady and food activist that began her work in the early 1970's, traveling to D.C. often to campaign for healthy meals and for the inclusion of tofu in the National School Lunch Program. Tofu was finally approved as a reimbursable meat alternative this July 01, 2012, 40 years later.
Panelists agreed that if Prop 37 fails to pass, and given the resources being thrown in that direction it might not, organic food is the safest choice. Growing your own is an affordable option, and education is probably the most important piece. But as forty years to tofu illustrates, this movement still has a long way to go. Fortunately we live in a community with both the resources and the energy it will take to make progress, and from the turnout last Thursday, there is no shortage of local commitment.
The information-packed evening concluded with an author’s book signing, followed by a short drive back his hotel, where ten hours later Michael Pollan finally got a reprieve from his voraciously adoring fans. As he got out of the car, he mused, “I still don’t know how you got me to do this…” In the end it was perhaps the same methodology the food movement will rely upon to ultimately progress: polite persistence.
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Stark Photography.