Food Hub

Alice Waters is bringing her namesake institute to Sacramento. And that’s just one reason why our region is the nation’s center for all things related to food.
alice waters food hub

If there’s any doubt that the term “farm to fork” has become less a marketing mantra and more a rallying cry to promote healthy food systems, take a look around. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a lot going on right here in our backyard (as well as virtually). From high-level partnerships to permanent digs for nonprofits, a number of projects are turning this region into a food education, research and advocacy hub. Here are some of the organizations that are securing places at the table.

Alice Waters Comes to Town

Earlier this year, UC Davis announced it had partnered with Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and The Edible Schoolyard Project and a leader in the Slow Food movement, to create the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education. The institute will be located in the university’s new “innovation district” and campus in Sacramento called Aggie Square.

alice waters food
Alice Waters

Aggie Square is a “no-boundaries conversation right now,” planning director Bob Segar says. The university has developed a big-picture outline, but the details are fluid. Phase one is focused on creating facilities for life sciences, technology and engineering studies, lifelong learning, housing, office space and a plaza with restaurants and a farmers market.

Aggie Square will be located on Stockton Boulevard, on the former site of the state fair, and a quick walk south from UC Davis Medical Center. Currently, the property holds parking lots and a couple of structures, including an old brick exhibit-hall building that is used for stem-cell research, the Institute for Regenerative Cures.

Once settled into Aggie Square’s market plaza, the Alice Waters Institute will target food service directors, cooks and staff working in the public school system by teaching them how to source and use local, sustainably grown food to feed children.

Although the project is still very much in the early stages (groundbreaking is projected for the first quarter of 2021), Waters has put together a wish list of architectural features for her namesake institute. She’d like a central water fountain, an outdoor movie screen, a dining room that would hold 300 people (when it’s safe to do so) and an arched brick ceiling over a cellar that could be used to store squash, pears and apples. She’s collaborating with the son of the architect who designed the cafe at Chez Panisse.

Along with planning the institute’s physical space, Waters is hoping to bring global representatives from Slow Food to the United States in September 2021. Golden 1 Center—complete with an indoor garden in the middle—is a potential site and could accommodate the projected 17,000 attendees from more than 150 countries, once the threat from COVID-19 has passed.

alice waters speaking
Alice Waters speaking. Photo by Karin Higgins

The institute plans to target students in grades K–12 and at the university level. “We have to find a way to empower the staff of schools, [so they can] meet the farmers, walk the land, engage at that very sensual level where they’re tasting and touching . . . feeling the blossoms, picking the apples, harvesting the olives, making the olive oil,” says Waters. “I hope that a lot of that can come into the institute . . . it’s the kind of experience we’ve been doing at the Edible Schoolyard for 25 years.”

Although she’s always appreciated the University of California system (she graduated from UC Berkeley and developed a course there called Edible Education 101), she had concerns UC Davis was overly influenced by agribusiness companies like Monsanto. She was surprised when UC Davis chancellor Gary S. May wanted to talk with her last year and invited her to lunch. Santana Diaz, the executive chef at UC Davis Health, served a meal made with local ingredients, including ones from Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm—both are suppliers to Chez Panisse, which closed to in-person dining in March.

The collaboration between UC Davis, a heavy hitter in agriculture and environmental science, and Waters, a well-known advocate for healthy, local food and sustainable farming practices, looks like a winning partnership. Segar says UC Davis will provide evidence-based research to support the institute’s educational programs, while Waters hopes to influence policy in the state’s Capitol. “Alice will create a larger impact than we could do alone,” he says.

LeShelle May, Gary May, Alice Waters and Santana Diaz
LeShelle May, Gary May, Alice Waters and Santana Diaz. Photo by Karin Higgins

“We have the potential to do something that will capture the attention of the country and the world, and I can help to make that happen with this institute,” Waters says. “We can help Gavin [Gov. Newsom] speak out to the world around [the issues of] climate and agriculture and food. It’s going to be amazing.”

According to Waters, she is “not quite ready to make the move” to Sacramento and leave her home in the Bay Area, but she is “absolutely going to be very deeply involved in this project for the foreseeable future,” she says. “I want to find people, and I know a lot of them who I want to be a part of it who live near Sacramento.” Among the local notables are Craig McNamara from Sierra Orchards, Judith Redmond from Full Belly Farm and Darrell Corti from Corti Brothers. “It’s really going to take an army of people who share values and a love of teaching and care of children,” Waters says.

Part of an Agrihood

The nonprofit Food Literacy Center, the brainchild of Amber Stott, is contained in a cute but cramped house not far from Gunther’s Ice Cream in Curtis Park. There’s a tiny garden out front. When we stopped by, ripe pea pods, perfect for snacking, hung from their vines.

Next year, the center plans to pack up and relocate to its new cooking school and headquarters at Floyd Farms on the grounds of Leataata Floyd Elementary. The development is part of a planned “agrihood” bordering The Mill at Broadway, with a park, housing and community gardens. Stott and her staff, enthusiastic cheerleaders for all things vegetable, will continue to offer free cooking and nutrition programs to schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District and maintain the student gardens in exchange for the space.

amber stott
Amber Stott

“COVID has given this project new meaning as far as building resilience in this community. With cold storage and the ability to prepare food in the commercial kitchen space, we will be better able to meet the needs of our students in times of crisis,” Stott writes via text. “Also, COVID has shown the lack of open space. The parks that are open are often crowded. Being able to open our gardens as public parks is more important than ever as our community continues to prioritize their health.”

The center is unique because it serves an entire school district, she says, and she’d like to see more formal agreements between nonprofit food-literacy organizations and school districts in California. “This model says to the rest of the state, this is something that’s possible.”

The farm-to-fork movement was in its baby stages when Stott started writing about food and figuring out how to encourage kids to adopt healthy eating habits. She looked at local nonprofit organizations that were providing free food and realized people didn’t know what to do with the ingredients they received, and home economics classes were no longer available to teach children how to cook.

The funding for a lot of local nonprofit organizations, like the center, came from Building Healthy Communities, California Endowment’s 10-year funding initiative that started in 2010, she says, and those organizations were “part of Sacramento’s unique success” as a food hub. Visit Sacramento, the city’s primary tourism organization, adopted its familiar farm-to-fork initiative around the same time.

“We all talk to each other,” Stott says, meaning she stays in contact with the Edible Schoolyard staff and other food-based organizations. Waters and British chef Jamie Oliver have visited the center’s after-school programs, and they encouraged Stott to introduce food-literacy education into the regular curriculum.

She thinks the Alice Waters Institute will provide a differentiating piece to the local food movement, and help determine best practices and program efficacy (i.e., hard data) through its partnership with UC Davis. One of the strengths of the food movement, she says, is abundance. “Everyone has a seat at the table.”

The Perfect Space To Train New Farmers

mary kimball in farm
Mary Kimball

In Woodland, the lane leading to the Center for Land-Based Learning’s new headquarters is lined with olive trees that were planted in the 1860s, executive director Mary Kimball says. She’s worked in this region for 25 years.

The property and surrounding land once supported beet crops and a Spreckels sugar mill, and it was a working ranch. Now, CLBL’s neighbors include a precast concrete plant and The Maples, a wedding and event venue. Before CLBL moved to its new home this spring, Kimball and her staff were jammed into a 1924 Craftsman house in Winters.

Five years ago, they started looking for new headquarters. The land was donated and a capital campaign raised the funds to construct the 5,400-square-foot building, which blends into its historic surroundings. Woodland—with more than 200 agriculture-related companies, Kimball says—was a natural pick.

mary kimball food
Mary Kimball

Lots of thought went into sustainability, aesthetics and practicality: an impressive-looking Daikin HVAC system with individual climate controls, a classroom that could hold 25 people and offer distance-learning technology to would-be farmers, and an outdoor kitchen with a wood-fired oven, to name a few. There’s also a wash-and-pack building with a cooler, and 30 acres for students to practice growing crops. “It is the perfect space to train new farmers,” Kimball says, but because of the pandemic most of CLBL’s programs have been shifted to virtual platforms.

She says it can be difficult to convince folks that the decline in the number of farms over the past eight decades, aging farmers (the average age for established farmers is 60) and labor shortages are critical and complex issues. CLBL offers a host of statewide farm-based training programs, including helping new farmers gain access to land and capital, and working with high school students through the Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship (SLEWS) project.

Student farmers working in the field
Student farmers working in the field

Beginning Farmer Training, a seven-month-long intensive program for aspiring farmers, teaches all aspects of farming, including the practical, business part of it. Earlier this year, the program switched to virtual classes via Zoom, but students headed back into the fields in June, working in small groups to plant their plots, Kimball says. The age range for the farmers-to-be is mid-20s to mid-50s, she says, and includes people with banking and technology backgrounds and military veterans. “Food is a really good way to feel you’re making an impact,” she says.

“I want this to be an educational hub for the whole state for food and agriculture,” Kimball says of CLBL’s future plans. She’s hoping to work with community colleges and the USDA to create a food incubator program. “It’s on the ground and it’s practical.”

Connecting the World

Andrea Thompson
Andrea Thompson

UC Davis’ World Food Center is a relatively young program with a revamped strategic plan. Its mission includes linking the 60 different entities (including the influential Food Science and Technology department) at the university that are doing research and work in food systems and, in turn, connecting them to similar outside organizations, locally, nationally and internationally, director Ermias Kebreab says. Upcoming World Food Center conferences will likely focus on addressing challenges to food systems caused by climate change and ways to reduce food waste in colleges. Kebreab hopes to engage the UC Davis community and the entire region in the discussion.

Associate program director Andrea Thompson writes via email, “[World Food Center] topics are encompassing issues around COVID-19 as well, including a recent webinar panel on its effects on the global food supply chain. We are also working on a national conference on food security with the Office of the President of the UC system, which we will host at UC Davis next spring (if we can do so safely). These days, virtual options are all part of contingency planning.”

Thompson joined the World Food Center staff in March. She has a full resume of food-related accomplishments, including attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York and working for cookbook author Sara Moulton. She was also the test kitchen manager for Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters. She moved to Sacramento in 2008 and, like Amber Stott, has written extensively about the local food movement.

When asked whether this area has become a hub for food education, research and advocacy, Thompson points out, “We have the best growing region possibly in the world for produce. . . . This is where it needs to be happening.”