Food and politics both on the menu

The organic farmer was introducing the Sacramento Area Council of Governments’ incoming chairman when the crowd at the brick-walled restaurant parted for the governor and his wife and their entourage.

Handshakes. Back pats. White-aproned staff poking their heads out of the kitchen. Patrick Mulvaney, the restaurateur, and Gov. Jerry Brown giving each other the sort of hearty hello you’d expect from a celebrity chef and a celebrity politician.

Of course, the rice-cake-loving Brown was just ducking out of a fundraiser next door at Mulvaney’s BL banquet annex, but he fit right in at the opening night of a special conference for chefs in Sacramento.

Put it this way: There were two menus last week at the kickoff of the “boot camp” sponsored by the James Beard Foundation and the Chef Action Network.

One involved food – platters of roast chicken from Chowdown Farm near Cache Creek, bowls of salad with local lettuces, Full Belly Farm beets and organic walnuts grown by friends of Mulvaney, hand-pulled fettuccine with chanterelle mushrooms from somewhere near the Yosemite Valley.

The other involved politics.

The food movement has long been a force unto itself in California. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Berkeley’s Alice Waters is why Michelle Obama installed an organic garden at the White House.

In recent years, though, the progressive push toward more local and sustainable eating has morphed from a cultural novelty to an organized public health interest.

A statewide Food Policy Council representing advocacy groups from Mendocino to San Diego now tracks votes and reports annually on bills related to food and farming. Urban Ag Alliances and Food Access Committees now pester county officials to write farmers markets into their general plans and let restaurants buy in bulk from local community gardens. The California Department of Food and Agriculture now has an official Office of Farm to Fork.

The event at Mulvaney’s was one of a nationwide series of consciousness-raising conferences designed to teach chefs how to spread the food policy gospel. Chefs being chefs, it was a little like herding gourmet cats.

“What you learn in this town is that you have to listen to your farmers,” Oliver Ridgeway, the executive chef at Grange, was saying when he suddenly was interrupted by a passionate debate between another chef and a member of the Sacramento Food System Collaborative.

“Oh, my goodness! That’s romanesco!”

“No, it’s just green cauliflower.”

“Are you sure?”


“But isn’t that – ?”

“Look. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I’ve probably slung more romanesco than you have. And if you look at the geometric pattern …”

“But look at this tip. Isn’t this kind of pointy? Couldn’t it be a baby romanesco?”

“Listen, I love romanesco, and I don’t want to call you out. But no. It’s not.”

Such differences aside – and they became more impassioned as the cabernet sauvignon flowed – the more activist members of the group were fairly clear about their agenda, which to the uninitiated is a real smorgasbord.

Ranging from sustainable farming to food safety to farm labor law to food stamps and junk food, the goal, generally, is to change the framework of food policy and production in this country in a way that makes healthier and more environmentally responsible food more available in ways that are less exploitative to animals and workers.

Or, as people kept saying all evening: “Just read the piece by Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman.”

The reference was to a manifesto published in the Washington Post’s op-ed pages by the two food writers along with the head of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a specialist in food policy from the United Nations.

“How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity,” the article started. “Yet we have no food policy – no plan or agreed-upon principles – for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole. That must change.”

If Pollan and Bittman, who were the stars of a New York conference on the future of food sponsored earlier this month by the New York Times at a former Rockefeller dairy, are the head national spokesmen for the still-developing movement, the event at Mulvaney’s was part of an effort to unleash battalions of local deputies.

To that end, the warm, lamplit restaurant was overflowing. There was Shawn Harrison of Soil Born Farms talking about the urban ag ordinance he’s pushing in Sacramento. There was chef Brenda Ruiz passing out copies of the California Food Policy Council’s 2014 legislative report card.

There was Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor down in the weeds about food processing regulations. There was Amber Stott of the Sacramento Food Literacy Center, with her brightly colored spectacles and infectious giggle, talking about the importance of communication.

“To do food policy right, you have to be educated,” she said, passing a platter of steaming roast chicken and roast vegetables that were either green cauliflower or romanesco, depending.

“What’s the media side? What’s the door-knocking side? Then you have to know the policy and how to make it happen.”

Beside her, a long table of chefs bantered and lectured, profanely, about great meals they once had and whether you could taste “the soil – the actual (expletive) soil” in a perfectly cooked carrot.

“I’ve always been passionate about our food system,” said Stott, who was leading a seminar the next day in political action.

“There’s no issue it doesn’t touch. The environment. Social justice. School kids. I mean, people who have never had a homegrown tomato? That’s a travesty. It’s mean. It’s super-mean.”

Follow Shawn Hubler on Twitter @ShawnHubler.