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Food in the Workplace with Slow Food South Bay

written by By Britt Bensen with Kim Marinucci Acker, Slow Food South Bay

On a beautiful fall Saturday in Northern California, three dozen guests descended upon Hidden Villa, a teaching farm in Los Altos Hills, for a panel discussion called Farm to Workplace. “This project is an excellent example of what Slow Food can accomplish when we partner with other like-minded organizations to nurture advocates,” Kim noted. “I was honored to moderate the panel discussion on my favorite topic: supporting values-driven farming. We want to tell stories to inspire.”

This was the first in a new series of events called Food Champions, organized by Hidden Villa, Kitchen Table Advisors, and moderator Kim Marinucci Acker, food advocate and Vice Chair of Slow Food South Bay. The organizers — Kim along with Blair Thompson (Hidden Villa’s Animal Husbandry Manager) and Noelle A. Fogg Elibol (Kitchen Table Advisors’ Partnership Manager) — designed the event around conversation over a delicious meal “to nourish your body and soul, stimulate your brain, and inspire your inner food advocate.” Lunch was cooked by local chef Tim Edmonds (Mountain Terrace in Woodside, CA), featuring seasonal food from local farms. The food alone was worth the price of admission. The warm backdrop of Hidden Villa’s hostel space was reminiscent of a Sundance Labs event, where people gather in a comfortable setting to discuss important topics and engage by asking questions and offering solutions.

The all-women panel included Emma Torbert (farmer, The Cloverleaf Farm in Davis, CA), Tracy Harding (General Manager, Capay Valley Farm Shop), McKenzie Phelan (Global Food Strategy Manager, Airbnb) and Meghan Shellenberg (Senior Food Strategy Manager, Airbnb).

The event began with impassioned opening remarks from Blair, “If you are here today we imagine it is because you think a bit about food and how it is produced. You probably shop at a farmers market, or at least give preference to organically labeled products at the grocery store, you may garden, you may even count a farmer or two amongst your friends and want to support them. And for those of us in this position, we know our dollar matters, that who we buy from shows what kind of practices we support, and we value that. But your personal dollar can only go so far. Individual purchasing power is important but it is not enough to break through the systemic barriers that keep the dominant models in our food system from being replaced by more responsible and resilient ones. This event is for you, and we hope it is a series that is for you.” Blair concluded, “So we invite you today to celebrate what is happening to bring economies of scale into the world of farms driven by values.“

Noelle continued the conversation, “Most of the food we eat in institutions and public venues does not come from farms like Emma’s or from Capay Valley Farm Shop. To change that, we need not just food enthusiasts, [but for those] enthusiasts to become champions to help build a new food system. And, in order to foster champions, we recognize the importance of helping passionate eaters and food enthusiasts better understand the challenges of this farm to workplace supply chain.”

The panel dove into a variety of topics: the cost of business (including rising property costs for farms), wages, aging farmers, distribution, and the roles of institutions and eaters, with a focus on how consumers can influence the food system both at work and at home.

“In 1900, 40% of a person’s budget was spent on food. In 1950 it was 30%. Today it’s 10%,” Emma revealed. “As a society, we value agriculture much less than we did before. And as a farmer, you can really see the impact.”

Having a farmer on the panel is critical to hearing firsthand what it takes to produce food, to overcoming how food has been devalued in society and begin prioritizing the real cost of good food. The audience learned real farming terms and practices, including a breakdown of the three grades of produce. Emma explained, “We sort fruit into 3 grades: ugly (sold to their ugly fruit buyers’ club and used in their value-added products, jams, etc), semi-perfect (sold to CSAs and farmers markets) and perfect (goes to the grocery stores).”

While a farm like Cloverleaf can sell direct to consumers via a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or a farmers’ market, Tracy explained the valuable role of an aggregate ‘food hub’ like Capay Valley Farm Shop, which connects farms directly to a variety of customers, including larger institutional buyers. The Capay Valley Farm Shop was established in 2007 and works with more than 40 farms and ranches to supply fresh, local food to businesses around the San Francisco Bay Area. “It’s a great service to the farm[er] to not have to leave the farm to get their product to market,” Tracy remarked. “Everything is harvested to order. The buyers place their orders with us and we give the farmers their pick list. We pack it by order for the customer.” Developing relationships with a variety of buyers via a food aggregator offers more options to farmers for selling their products. Working with a food aggregator eases the logistics of an institution acquiring high quality produce.

If you are you looking for a change in the food offered at your institution — whether it’s an office, school or hospital — Tracy recommends inquiring where the food is coming from, repeatedly. She urges participants to ask more than once, as purchase policies change and decision makers are busy with other matters. “I’ve been impressed by what persistence can provide,” Tracy exclaimed. She suggests asking if there is a local sourcing goal, such as an amount or percentage of money that will be spent on local to mid-size producers within a specific local radius to the office or institution.

Airbnb [sources produce from the Capay Valley Farm Shop for their San Francisco offices] and is a great example of one kind of institutional buyer — a business providing meals to employees at work. Meghan and McKenzie of Airbnb represent the purchasing power of an institution providing food to employees. Airbnb originally set out to provide a communal lunch when the company had just 50 employees in San Francisco, but now faces a much greater challenge in securing food from local sources for three meals a day to a global company with over 5,000 workers. Airbnb now prioritizes buying locally by sourcing a high percentage of their food from local producers and/or aggregates like Capay Valley Farm Shop. With the considerable growth Airbnb has seen over the years, they began sourcing their food from Bon Appétit, a food service company that has their own local origin Food to Fork program. Airbnb negotiated with Bon Appétit to continue with their local sources, including Capay Valley Farm Shop.

“There is a huge culture of food at Airbnb,” Meghan offered. “Unlike peer food programs inspired by variety for customer satisfaction, we are inspired by family-style settings and food [cultures] from Airbnb listings (Ethiopian, Cambodian, etc),” McKenzie added. “It’s a cool way to share [company] values in our program and it’s great to source in a way [that allows us to] reduce waste, like purchasing for a single food theme, as we’re not having to source from multiple outlets.” An intentional, corporate food program like Airbnb’s represents an effective way for Slow Food to be supported and responsibly sourced by institutions with great purchasing power.

In addition to conscientiously sourcing sustainable food from local origins as much as possible, Airbnb’s onsite food program has the added benefit of cultivating a sense of community, because it encourages and enables staff members to take the time to eat and engage in conversation with co-workers. There’s also an ‘exchange day,’ which provides the opportunity for food program staff to spend a day on a local farm, and farmers are invited to spend the day at Airbnb. “For a handful of people, it was the first day they had [ever] spent on a farm, to see and respect how food grows,” Meghan said.

The panel touched on other direct farm to customer prospects. Emma offered insight around the obstacles small farms face today, while Tracy encouraged us to think about what it takes for good food to make it to market when we are considering price, “Someone washed those carrots. Someone bunched them. Someone got them in a crate. Someone put them on a truck. Someone drove them all the way here and then put them out to look nice [on the shelf]. I didn’t even speak to putting a seed in the ground. And irrigating. And weeding. There’s so much that goes into it [that] I don’t think people are conscious of, and there’s an unfortunate pressure on farmers to [offer] the most convenient, cheapest food. [It’s a] race to the bottom. Having food be 10% of your household budget is crazy. Think about the farmers,” she urged.

When asked what the audience could take away from the event, Tracy advised to “step out of the (daily) busyness” to forge a more personal connection to your food and keep an eye on politicians and the Clean Water Act. “Resources are limited and distractions are detrimental to health,” she advised.

The conversation resonated deeply with all who attended. “I thought I knew a lot about our food system before this event. It was a treat to walk away inspired and educated,” attendee Diane Meier of Palo Alto remarked. “We left the event feeling hopeful and with the takeaway to share with your employer why source-identified food matters, to encourage your food services department to buy from local farms either directly or with the assistance of a local food [aggregate] that source-identifies the growers and makers,” commented Cynthia Fan, a Silicon Valley resident.

The lunch then formally concluded with Emma reading Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front (below), a literary hit with the audience. Kim, Blair and Noelle aim to produce future Food Champions events around topics such as farms to schools, restaurants and more. Look for event details on their websites in 2020.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry, 1973

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, 
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.