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Looking for good food? Look no further than our agriculturally blessed region. Sacramentans are reveling in and experiencing wholesome food atlocal elementary schools, where growing and eating organic is now on the curriculum; at our numerous farmers markets and on farm trails; at restaurants and the local grocery store; and even on our doorsteps, through community-supported agriculture boxes. Here’s a look at Sacramento’s Good Food scene.
Wholesome, nutritious food has become sexy. You no longer need to be a foodie or a health nut to seek out fresh, good-for-you food these days—it’s everywhere, from the organic section of your local grocery store to the teeming farmers market you spy each Sunday as you drive to get your nonfat latte. Increasingly, eating well is synonymous with eating locally.
Happily, there’s no better place in California to eat locally than the Sacramento region, whose agrarian bounty provides its residents with enough field crops and tree fruit (not to mention locally produced cheeses, breads, honeys, wines and olive oils) to keep their refrigerators and pantries stocked year-round. "We are so lucky to have all these things growing in our region," says Dave Cannata, a chef who works for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "There’s so much here, you don’t need to go anywhere else."
Alice Waters, owner of the seminal Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and patron saint of the "good food" movement, has long been a tireless champion of locally grown, seasonal produce. There is a big difference, she says, "between eating something that’s been grown locally, as opposed to food that’s been shipped and stored." Waters feels Sacramento has something pretty special to offer. "There are all these different little microclimates with their own identities in California," she says. "Sacramento has the ability to grow tomatoes, for example, that we cannot grow here [in the Bay Area]. There are so many fruits and vegetables that need the Sacramento region’s combination of heat and cooler winters. It’s a refinement that should be celebrated. It’s very exciting, from my point of view."
Eating locally "is the next frontier in the American diet," says Worldwatch Institute senior researcher Brian Halweil in his new book Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket (W.W. Norton & Co., $13.95). Halweil maintains that a shift toward buying—and eating—from local producers not only delivers superior taste, but is better for your health, the livelihoods of small farmers and the global environment. It even makes the nation’s food supply safer, he says, by reducing the risk of accidental or intentional contamination.
In the Sacramento region, there are plenty of people trying to bring the gospel of good food to the masses. Take, for instance, the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, a Davis organization that works to foster "family-scale" agriculture. "We’ve seen people moving toward a more regional food economy," says Temra Costa, a food systems coordinator with the group. The number of farmers markets grows annually, she says—and so does the number of consumers who shop at farmers markets. "People are finding it really important to be able to shake that farmer’s hand," she adds, "and know where their food is coming from."
"[Consumers] are making the connection that food that’s grown 50 miles from their house is probably fresher and more nutritious than stuff that’s coming from Argentina or China," points out Paul Cultrera, general manager of Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. The co-op, he says, is doing a brisk business these days. "Is the interest in natural food growing? Are people asking more questions? Is the profile of our shopper changing? Yes, yes and yes," says Cultrera. "Our sales continue to grow, even though you can’t find a place in the parking lot."
With everything that’s happening, Costa proposes, "it becomes really desirable to eat a local and regional plate." In California, she says, "food is one of the things that people can really impact. They can choose to purchase a product or not. And the consumer dollar does really have the potential to shift the market toward a more sustainable society." That’s why, she says, Sacramento consumers should buy fresh and local. "We need people demanding that and supporting our farmers."
Increasingly, organic, wholesome, "good" food is moving from the exclusive domain of co-ops and farmers markets to supermarket chains and even drug stores.
"The interest in natural foods and organic products is definitely something we’re seeing," says Jennifer Ortega, a spokesperson for the Raley’s supermarket chain. "People are becoming more educated about what they eat and where their food comes from." Last year, Raley’s and Bel Air markets began carrying 100 percent certified organic ground beef, she adds, "and we have organic chickens and tons of organic produce in addition to organic snacks and wines."
At local Nugget Markets, buyer Greg Stille stocks Skippy and Jif peanut butters alongside certified organic peanut butter. "I have shoppers who are on both sides of the fence," he says. "Instead of having a ‘store within a store,’ where the natural products are in their own separate area, I put all the products together, organic with nonorganic. So many people are in transition—they are coming to realize that they need to eat healthier, but they’re not sure how." Stille, a self-described organic vegan, made the diet switch, he recalls, when "I decided that I didn’t want to put any more carcinogens in my body than I already have."
Taylor’s Market, a small specialty market in Land Park, carries only meat from animals that are sustainably farmed and hormone-free, given natural feed with no pesticides. Says owner/partner Danny Johnson: "We tell customers, ‘We want the highest quality for you.’"
The movement toward natural and organic products, says Karen Klonsky, extension specialist in UC Davis’ Agricultural Resource Economics department, has been on a steady upward trajectory for the past 10 years. She notes that sales of organic products are growing 20 percent a year.
The co-op’s Cultrera says the trend is unmistakable. "Natural and organic products are the only growth segment of the food industry," he says. "If you look at supermarket sales, they grow with the rate of inflation. But the natural, and especially the organic, is what’s growing, and that’s why Odwalla [fresh juice company] is owned by Coca-Cola. Large companies like Coca-Cola are coming in and buying up these little companies that used to be the little natural, organic, local producers."
Kathy Abbott of the California Nutrition Network Healthy Eating Living Partnership Project has seen tremendous growth in Sacramento consumers’ concerns about healthful, wholesome diets. The HELP Project targets culturally diverse populations and provides nutrition, exercise and cooking classes for children and adults. "They are basic nutrition classes," she says, "focusing on the concept of eating healthfully. In 1989, we were begging people to attend them. But the classes have waiting lists now."
Sacramento area restaurants also have jumped on the "nutritious and local" bandwagon.
In Davis, diners flock to Seasons restaurant, whose mission, says chef Jonathan Nieto, "is to serve the freshest local ingredients possible and do as little as possible to them." Nieto prides himself on cooking vegetables "properly." "We don’t go over and beyond by putting too much flavor into them, because often they’re the best just on their own," he explains. "We blanch [the vegetable] and then dress it with some olive oil or vinegar to enhance the natural flavor. And that’s basically what we do on the whole menu, from A to Z. It’s very basic, very simple and straight to the point. We just don’t mess with what God gives us, and the customers really appreciate that."
A stint in the kitchen at The Waterboy in midtown Sacramento gave Nieto a true appreciation for fresh, local food. Rick Mahan, the chef/owner of the highly regarded restaurant, "taught me a lot about putting food on the plate and just letting it do its thing," he says admiringly.
At the Farmer’s Kitchen Cafe in Davis, all the dishes are prepared from organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables, free-range meats and wild fish. The kitchen eschews aluminum pans, hydrogenated fats, microwaves and "unnatural additives." Owner Rose Anne DeCristoforo, a former journalist who ran a health food store before opening the restaurant, always had a "tremendous interest in nutrition," she says. At the health food store, she says, "I constantly talked to people about their diets. I saw how difficult it was for them to implement a healthy diet in their lives because they don’t cook. So I thought, ‘This is something that needs to be done.’" The cafe’s customers range from students and "people in midlife who are very concerned with food issues" to "older people who remember food that was like this."
Small, independently owned restaurants aren’t the only ones embracing the local food concept. The menu at Sacramento’s Piatti (one of a chain of restaurants spanning California, with additional locations in Washington, Colorado and Texas) has a full-page addendum espousing the benefits of piatti locali—local plates.
For Sacramento consumer Dan Flynn, eating locally "comes down to two things: The first is selfish—I like to eat food that has flavor. An apple grown by a local farmer tastes better than a mass-produced apple picked weeks ago, put into cold storage and shipped hundreds of miles. Secondly, I want to support the local economy. Rather than donate money to Farm Aid, I give money directly to the family farmer in exchange for high-quality products."
Marco Franciosa and Shawn Harrison: City Slickers Down on the Farm
Five years ago, two socially conscious, plant-loving graduates of UC Santa Cruz’s Agro Ecology Program brought their dream of urban farming to Sacramento. Marco Franciosa and Shawn Harrison, passionate about the concept of connecting consumers with locally grown food, established a one-and-a-half-acre organic farm on busy Hurley Way, just a few blocks from Loehmann’s Plaza and heavily trafficked Fair Oaks Boulevard.
Soil Born Farm’s location is far from the rural setting one normally associates with farms—and that’s exactly the point. "In an urban area, we can expose people to issues about sustainability, how the food system works and where food comes from," says Franciosa, adding that their goal was to "preserve and nurture" a plot of undeveloped city land.
In our grandparents’ era, "everybody was very connected to their food," says Harrison. "They knew the person who was growing their potatoes, or who was raising their chickens. There was a communal aspect to it. But as agricultural and food production have developed, a disconnect has been created. The farmer has moved outside of the city, so now there are very urbanized areas, and rural areas where the production occurs. And there’s no connection between the two."
The energetic pair are building a bridge between the farm and urban consumers by leading school tours, hosting volunteer work parties and offering an apprentice training program for aspiring farmers. Their produce is available in community-supported agriculture boxes and at local restaurants, specialty stores and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
The pair also is in the process of implementing an "edible schoolyard" program at Jonas Salk Middle School, which borders the farm’s back property. Modeled after Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, the project will focus on improving the diet and eating habits of the school’s students through innovative garden-based programming and curriculum.
Their eyes light up as they describe another pet project: assisting in the development of a community-run farmers market in Del Paso Heights. The mission of the farmers market, explains Franciosa, is to provide residents with a source of fresh and healthful food grown by community farmers and neighborhood backyard gardeners.
"It’s an empowering experience when people start to learn how their food is grown," says Harrison. "If they come to the farm and they learn how a carrot grows, or they help us [in the field], a whole new world is opened up to them. All of a sudden, they experience the process of growing food, rather than just picking it up off the store shelf. And making that connection is a powerful experience."
Where to shop
• Whole Foods Market
Many Sacramentans interested in procuring Good Food make the regular trek to this enormous, friendly store, part of a growing nationwide chain. Our favorite reason to shop there is its nitrate-free meats—not only can you get nitrate-free bacon and sliced lunch meats, but even nitrate-free hams for special occasions, which we find pretty darned exciting. The store offers a wide selection of organic, natural products. In fact, its website says that it strives "to offer the highest quality, least processed, most flavorful and naturally preserved foods . . . unadulterated by artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings and preservatives." Don’t miss the amazing seafood and cheese sections.
4315 Arden Way, Sacramento; (916) 488-2800
• Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op
The co-op is Sacramento’s shrine to Good Food. Where else can you find bulk organic everything; a dizzying selection of healthful takeout items; local, seasonal, all-organic produce; sustainably raised (and often organic) meat and seafood products; vegetarian and vegan items; trans fat-free products; and anything else wholesome your heart could desire? We like the store’s big bulk herb section, its large array of chocolate and dairy products, and the cozy wine nook in the back of the store. Look for a new sister co-op to open in Elk Grove next month.
1900 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 455-2667
Elk Grove Marketplace (scheduled to open in June), 8517 Bond Road, Elk Grove
• Raley’s and Bel Air
• Nugget Markets
Even the big guys are starting to offer an admirable selection of organic, natural grocery products. In addition to organic produce, you can find trans fat-free baked items, organic dairy foods and beverages, and natural cereals, crackers and body care items.
• David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods
Make sure to visit David Berkley in the height of summer, when this small specialty food shop showcases exquisite fruit sourced from local (usually organic) farmers. We love to visit in July and August to admire the perfectly ripe peaches, plums and nectarines, arranged like beautiful jewels at the very front of the store. The meat and seafood section, although small, is stocked with top-quality products—many, like the marinated steaks and salmon roulade, are oven-ready. Ninety percent of the shop’s meat is USDA Prime—the highest grade available to consumers—and the pork, lamb, chicken and New York steaks are all hormone- and antibiotic-free.
Pavilions shopping center, 515 Pavilions Lane, Sacramento; (916) 929-4422
• Trader Joe’s
Sacramento moms love Trader Joe’s, a great source for wholesome kid treats. The store’s inventory is interesting, varied and comprises lots of vegetarian, kosher, organic and natural products, from free-range chicken broth and organic cereal bars to whole-grain pizza shells. Everything in the store, claims the Trader Joe’s website, has "minimally processed ingredients."
• Selland’s Market-Cafe
Neighborhoody Selland’s offers a plethora of warm and cold takeout items for lunch, dinner or whenever you’re feeling like a nibble. The food is mostly homey (think meatloaf, enchiladas, beet salad and pesto-stuffed chicken breasts) and made with first-rate, often organic ingredients. There’s also a great selection of hors d’oeuvres and housemade cookies and cakes.
5340 H St., Sacramento; (916) 736-3333
Coming to your neighborhood: Veggies in a box
Perhaps you’re longing to eat some wholesome, farm-fresh produce but just can’t get to the farmers market. Consider a CSA box, which brings the farm and its seasonal produce to your neighborhood.
CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is a partnership between a farm and a community of supporters that provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food. Supporters, or subscribers, cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest. The subscribers’ fees—which range from $13 to $30 per week—pay for things like seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance and labor—"an incredibly helpful steady income year-round," says Terra Firma Farm’s CSA website, "including those difficult winter months when many farms have to close." In return, the farm provides a supply (usually once a week) of seasonal fresh produce to subscribers.
The CSA relationship benefits both the farmers and the subscribers: The farmers are guaranteed a reliable, consistent market for their crops, and subscribers are assured very fresh, high-quality produce, often at below-retail prices.
What To Expect
Once a week, the farm assembles a sturdy box filled with produce for each subscriber. In some cases, depending on the season and the farm’s crop availability, the farmer may purchase produce from other nearby growers to complement the CSA box selection. The farm delivers the boxes to a central neighborhood pickup point such as a doctor’s office or health club.
The contents of the box are a mystery to subscribers until they open it—a big part of the fun. (Some farms post the contents on their websites for consumers who can’t wait to find out what will be in that week’s box.) The program encourages subscribers to try fruits and vegetables, at their most seasonal and flavorful, that they may never have tasted. The amount of produce in a box generally is enough for a family of four for a week, although in some cases subscribers can specify more or less produce. The box often contains recipes and information about the farm’s activities, and most CSA growers invite subscribers to special events several times a year. "It’s a fun opportunity for people who’ve never been to a farm," says Annie Main, owner with her husband, Jeff, of Good Humus Farm in Capay.
Here are some farms in the Sacramento region that offer CSA programs:
• Soil Born Farm, Sacramento; (916) 486-9686
Soil Born delivers boxes of produce to its subscribers the very same day the produce is harvested—an advantage of its urban location. Subscribers’ fees also assist in the farm’s ambitious goals of establishing a community-run farmers market in Del Paso Heights and the implementation of an "edible schoolyard" program at Jonas Salk Middle School.
• Del Rio Botanical/Peabody Ranch, West Sacramento; (916) 919-1843 / email@example.com
Owner Suzanne Ashworth calls her CSA boxes "gourmet" because subscribers find a number of lesser-known "specialty" items mixed in with more predictable fruits and vegetables. For instance, in a recent box, Ashworth tucked colorful calendula flower petals, pineapple sage, lemon grass and fava bean leaves in with the more recognizable fennel bulbs, spring salad mix and kumquats.
• Full Belly Farm, Guinda, Yolo County; (530) 796-2214 / fullbellyfarm.com
"We grow over 100 things at Full Belly," says farm partner Dru Rivers, "so subscribers will probably get 100 different items in their box over the growing season." Rivers emphasizes that 95 percent of the box’s contents come from her farm. "If we do supplement, we don’t buy anything outside of the Capay Valley," she says. "This is a really regional CSA box."
• Good Humus Produce, Capay, Yolo County; (530) 787-3187; goodhumus.com
In addition to Good Humus’ regular weekly seasonal CSA box, the farm offers a separate "fruit only" box from May through February. The fruit box is composed of produce from not only Good Humus but a handful of neighboring farms. The farm also invites subscribers to a yearly working day and a peach celebration day. Owners Annie and Jeff Main currently are working to put their land in a land preservation trust—"to keep it as a farm, always," she explains.
• Terra Firma Farm, Winters, Yolo County; (530) 756-2800 / terrafirmafarm.com
Terra Firma’s popular CSA program offers subscribers the opportunity to purchase extra fruit when its fruit crops are in season. "Our customers play a crucial role in helping our business succeed and in inspiring us," says the farm’s website. "Many of our subscribers have been with us since the beginning of the CSA . . . their kids have grown up with the memories of running through our fields and playing in our orchards, and they’ve grown up healthy while eating our vegetables."
• Foothill Organic Growers, Newcastle, Placer County; (916) 663-2146
Owner Jack Hertel gives subscribers a choice: Accept what he chooses for them, or decide for themselves what they want to receive. Hertel supplies a telephone "veggie line" so subscribers can call to find out what’s available and to select what they want in their box. Interesting factoid: He delivers $400 to $500 worth of fresh, organic produce to the Folsom City Zoo each week. "Those animals," he chortles, "eat better than 98 percent of [consumers]!"
One of the most direct ways a consumer can purchase healthful, nutritious produce—and support local family growers—is by shopping at a nearby farmers market. Not only do consumers get fresh-from-the-farm produce, but they can save money. When you buy directly from a grower, there’s no middleman involved, which means the produce often costs less.
"Farmers markets," says Desmond Jolly, director of the UC Davis Small Farm Center, "allow consumers to have a different kind of food shopping experience—a kind of vicarious participation in farming."
Looking for a certified farmers market in your area? Here’s a list:
State Parking Lot, Eighth and W streets, Sacramento: 8 a.m.–noon year-round
Florin Light Rail Station, Florin Road, Sacramento: 8 a.m.–noon July–September
Denio’s Roseville Farmers Market, 1551 Vineyard Road, Roseville: 7 a.m.–5 p.m. year-round
Sutter and Wool streets, Folsom: 8 a.m.–noon July–December
Roosevelt Park, Ninth and P streets, Sacramento: 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Cal Expo, Exposition Boulevard (Lot D), Sacramento: 9 a.m.–noon
County Fair Mall, East Gibson Road and East Street, Woodland: 5–7 p.m.
Roseville Square Shopping Center, Harding and Douglas boulevards, Roseville: 9 a.m.–1 p.m. June–September
Cesar Chavez Plaza, 10th and J streets, Sacramento: 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Central Park, Fourth and C streets, Davis: 4:30–8:30 p.m. April–October, 2–6 p.m. November–March
Downtown Plaza, Fourth and K streets, Sacramento (between Macy’s and Holiday Inn): 10 a.m.–2 p.m. May–October
Florin Mall, Florin Road (in front of Sears), Sacramento: 8 a.m.–noon year-round
Elk Grove Regional Park, Elk Grove-Florin Road, Elk Grove: 5–8 p.m. June–August
Granite Bay Village Shopping Center, Auburn-Folsom Road and Douglas Boulevard, Granite Bay: 9 a.m.–1 p.m. June–January
Denio’s Roseville Farmers Market, 1551 Vineyard Road, Roseville: 8 a.m.–2 p.m. year-round
Roseville Sun City, 7050 Del Webb Blvd., Roseville: 7:30–10:30 a.m. July–August
Sunrise Mall, Sunrise Boulevard, Citrus Heights (behind Sears Auto): 8 a.m.–noon year-round
Country Club Plaza, Watt and El Camino avenues (next to Macy’s), Sacramento: 8 a.m.– noon year-round
Central Park, Fourth and C streets, Davis: 8 a.m.–1 p.m. year-round
County Fair Mall, East Gibson Road and East Street, Woodland: 9 a.m.–noon May–October
Denio’s Roseville Farmers Market, 1551 Vineyard Road, Roseville: 7 a.m.–5 p.m. year-round
Stanford Ranch Road and Park Drive, Rocklin: 8 a.m.–noon June–September
For more information about farmers markets, visit cafarmersmarkets.com, california-grown.com or foothillfarmersmarket.com
How To Shop at a Farmers Market
Reprinted with permission from Janet Fletcher’s Fresh From the Farmers’ Market: Year Round Recipes for the Pick of the Crop (Chronicle Books, $19.95)
Don’t take a shopping list. You may have ideas about dishes you want to prepare in the next few days, but try to be flexible. It’s wiser to plan menus once you get to the market and see what’s best. Make the rounds before you buy anything. See who has what and at what price and quality. Taste and compare different vendors’ peaches or melons. Then make your selections, secure in the knowledge that you won’t find tastier and cheaper items at another stand.
Buy something you haven’t tried before. A farmers market is a great place to get educated about food. Never cooked kohlrabi? At the farmers market, a grower can advise you on how to select and prepare it.
Take your own canvas or net bags or baskets. Farmers markets rarely provide shopping carts. Wide woven baskets are ideal because tender fruits and vegetables don’t get piled on one another. As you add to your purchases, make sure to shift the heavy items to the bottom. To avoid squashed berries and flattened tomatoes, consider shopping with several bags or baskets.
Go straight home after your shopping expedition so you can put your purchases away. Don’t leave ripe berries, sweet corn, tender spinach—or anything else—sweltering in your car. The heat will suck all the life out of them. If you can’t go home right away, bring a cooler for the most delicate items.
Don’t overbuy. One of the main reasons to shop at a farmers market is to get fresh food and cook it while it is fresh.
Take your children with you. Too many kids have no idea where food comes from or how it looks in its unprocessed state. Seeing zucchini with blossoms attached, carrots with tops or cauliflower with its green leaves gives them an idea of how vegetables grow. Sampling a half-dozen tomatoes or selecting a peach will awaken their senses.
For best selection and quality, shop early. Growers often bring just a few pounds of something and, naturally, the choice produce goes first. In addition, on warm days the quality of unrefrigerated fruits and vegetables can decline from morning to afternoon. On the other hand, if it’s a good price you’re after, shop late in the day when growers are more inclined to deal.
Chat with farmers. Building relationships is part of the fun of shopping at farmers markets. You will become a wiser shopper, probably improve your cooking skills and perhaps take home an occasional "special customer" treat.