by Alyson Beveridge
Taking Action: Revealing Future Action
It was a routine phone call that turned into an “ah-ha” moment for Brenda Ruiz.
She had dialed a member of the Sacramento city planning division. Ruiz, who is a founder of the Sacramento Food Policy Council, wanted to invite them to a meeting to work on an urban agricultural policy for the city.
“The person on the phone from the city’s Planning Division thought I had dialed the wrong number, clarifying that their office deals solely in land use policy” she says. “He tried to divert me to Public Health and then to the county’s Agriculture Commission.”
Ruiz assured him that she indeed had the correct department.
“I said, no I meant to call you, the Planning Department. Where do you think food comes from?”
The city official, whom she had called, had no idea that urban farming was something that could even be tackled by his office, even though as Ruiz puts it, “Land use is at the core of the issue.”
This was when it dawned on her that the people making policy, even those at senior levels, had such a narrow understanding of “food” that no one was considering the bigger picture. Ruiz realized that the critical work that needed to be done was to educate policymakers through whatever means possible.
The Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition was started in order to educate the Planning Division and various city officials, about current land uses. They went on field trips to visit potentially farmable land that had been vacant, overgrown, dumped on. Discovering that there was a huge lack of understanding was just the beginning of the processes for Ruiz.
“That phone call was not a clear victory,” she says. “But it made me realize how important my voice is in this work. The work is having these very frank conversations at every level.”
Ruiz’s grassroots efforts helped her uncover a major entrypoint into creating change in her local food scene and have made her an instrumental figure in creating change in urban agriculture in Sacramento.
Growing up Eating
Brenda Ruiz’s interest in food and cooking were evident from a young age.
“Cooking and celebrating around food was a big part of being the oldest of 5 children,” she says.
Food kept her connected to a culinary identity that existed outside of the United States. Ruiz’s curiosity for culinary exploration was ignited moving to a new country at 7 years old. This new place meant exploring new foods for the first time. It’s clear that her experience as a first-generation immigrant has shaped how she thinks about food and eating.
“My first big food memory was on the first plane ride from Guatemala to USA, when we were served a meal on the airplane,” she says. “I just remember seeing this thing in a little plastic container, a pink indescribable slab of food, it must have been chicken, a sauce of something. It tasted good, but I was like, This is food?”
A Path to Advocacy
As a woman starting her career in food and beverage in the early 90’s, Ruiz found few entry-level opportunities available to women. She applied to a dozen chain restaurants. When she heard no response, she was told that she was “perhaps looking in the wrong places”. She found success working in chef owned restaurants focused on hand-crafted cuisine. For over two decades, Ruiz worked 2 or 3 jobs to support herself and continue to grow in the industry. Despite these challenges, Ruiz’s upbringing made her determined to champion education and activist causes.
“My parents always encouraged me to pursue higher education, but they also emphasized doing good for others,” she explains. “They taught me that it was more important to be a good person in service to others than to be someone with a lot of stuff.”
When Ruiz discovered Slow Food USA in fall 2009, when her son Alex was just 3 months old, something just clicked.
“The connection to farmers was really natural, but we didn’t have a name for it in the restaurant world. It’s just what we did. Suddenly, the things I knew intuitively, what I had learned in kitchens over the years and what I hoped for my son and all children, all had a framework with Slow Food.”
Ruiz’s passion for cooking, political upbringing, and new Slow Food philosophy pushed her into becoming a leading food advocate in the city of Sacramento and within her own neighborhood.
In Her Own Front Yard
As a youth educator, teaching her son about growing food and healthy eating has always been important to Ruiz. But Ruiz’s son Alex, a “picky eater,” had initially rebuffed his mom’s efforts to include him in her Slow Food efforts.
“Kids will always buck their parents,” Ruiz says. “That’s why food education at school and in the community level are so important. Sometimes family dynamics don’t support learning about food and farming”.
When a large tree had to be removed in their front yard, they were left were left with a fresh patch of dirt. When Alex expressed interest in farming it, Ruiz was taken aback.
She explains, “I asked him, ‘Where did this come from?’ He told me, ‘All your life is about cooking. Why don't we just grow our own food? I can be the farmer and we can eat it and you can teach me.’”
Although he had resisted, Alex had been watching and learning through osmosis as Ruiz had brought him to events over the years. Not wanting to miss out on his enthusiasm, Ruiz and Alex planted a small garden in their front yard. Since then, their plot has grown to include fava beans, corn, pumpkins, cherry tomatoes, and plenty of other vegetables that they have shared with their community.
“The front yard garden is a very out-there symbol of who we are and what we do,” Ruiz says.
Ruiz’s garden serves as perfect symbol and metaphor of her advocacy work in so many ways by establishing roots in a community, sharing the bounty of the earth, and educating future generations of growers and eaters to come.
Brenda Ruiz is a chef, activist, and educator in Sacramento, California where she serves on the Executive Board of Slow Food Sacramento. She is the 2018 recipient of the SFUSA Snailblazer Award for Public Advocacy.
Photo © : Ruiz as a superhero by Erin Alderson. Obama and Ruiz by Pete Souza.