Service Projects Sept. 17-18

August 22nd, 2011 by Heather Westenhofer

If you haven’t heard, Slow Food USA is planning a national service day for Sept. 17, 2011.  The theme this year is “Meals Under $5″ — the idea is that a healthy, sustainably-produced meal can be just as inexpensive as, if not cheaper than, a fast food meal.  Here at SFOC, we will be working in the Jerome CommUnity Garden in Santa Ana with our friends from the Grain Project, and whipping up yet another delightful garden-provided meal.  If you would like to participate, email for details and to RSVP.

If you’d like to make it a full weekend of service, or you can’t make it on Sept. 17, on Sept. 18 Slow Food volunteers are also requested at the “Can You Dig It” garden at Tustin Memorial Academy.  This back-to-school work party will include preparing garden beds and garden repairs and maintenance in anticipation of another year of garden education for the lucky students.  For more information and to RSVP, contact Joyce at .

We hope you can join us!

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Orange County Produce Dialogue

August 15th, 2011 by Heather Westenhofer

SFOC Secretary Ted Wright wrote the following terrific piece:

On Tuesday, as Slow Food Orange County representative, I was one of about 20

attendees at a presentation and discussion hosted by Orange County Produce (OCP).

Others at this two hour session represented local restaurants, hospitals, school districts,

Orange County Food Bank, and other growers. The session included an informative

presentation about OCP by A.G. and Matt Kawamura, a group discussion about the

challenges of producing and using locally sourced food, and a sampling of food prepared

by Chef Cathy Pavlos of Lucca from produce just picked from the OCP fields. I am

distributing a summary of this event because I learned a lot from the session that I

believe may be of interest to others in Slow Food.

A little background will help make clear why this event was both interesting and

important for those of us who care about high quality, locally sourced food. Matt and AG

Kawamura are third generation farmers. After their grandparents returned from a World

War II relocation camp, they created the Western Marketing Company to grow and ship

fresh produce: lettuce, cabbage, celery and cantaloupes. By the end of the fifties they

had operations in three regions: Glendale, AZ, San Diego, CA and Compton, CA. It was

their father who decided to consolidate the operations and bring the family to Orange

 County in 1958. At that time, Orange County was still very rural and its farmers grew a

large variety of crops: oranges, walnuts, tomatoes, lima beans, asparagus, other

vegetables, strawberries, and horticulture crops. By the end of the 1970’s, as Orange

County became increasingly urbanized, many of the growers had sold their land and

moved on. High costs of production and skyrocketing real estate prices made it

financially prohibitive to grow many of the traditional crops for what was becoming a

very competitive national and international market. Those growers that remained were

leasing most of their land from large landowners (The Irvine Company, Baker and O’Neal Ranches) and from the

various military bases around the county. The main fresh produce crops that have

survived are strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, and green beans.

In 1994, Matt and AG changed their company name to Orange County Produce. At that

point they still produced 5-7 crops that could be grown competitively here to sell across

the country and around the world. They were then and continue to be one of the largest

producers of fresh beans in the western United States. However, they chose this new

name because they saw the possibility for a more local market, a “food shed,” where

fruits and vegetables, grown locally, are economically competitive. They are now able to

sell a larger variety of produce in Southern California for two reasons. First, there is a

growing awareness that fresher food is better food, and OCP’s locally grown produce can

be delivered the day it is picked. Second, food sold near where it is produced costs less to

ship and can be sold with fewer intermediaries adding markups – if a higher percentage

of the retail value of an item is returned to the producer it becomes economical to grow a

crop even though it might be a few cents a pound cheaper to grow it in, for example,

Chile or China.

Of course, this marketing plan – fresh produce grown and sold locally – is hardly new.

Before the second half of the 1800’s, limitations on transportation and refrigeration

meant that most fresh food had to be grown locally. And it was not until the 1950s that

fresh produce became a commodity that was routinely shipped nationally with the result

that relatively small differences in production costs became the largest determinant of

where an item was grown. However, even if this is not a new idea, in many ways creating

a market for locally grown produce is an uphill battle against the status quo.

OCP is currently producing over 25 crops locally. Some of these crops are certified

organic and some are not. As they are still mainstays of their business, the list of their

crops includes strawberries and beans along with other popular items: artichokes, beets,

peppers, carrots, corn, eggplant, and tomatoes. They are also beginning and or planning

to produce asparagus, figs, radicchio, and a variety of berries. It was also clear that they

would be willing to consider almost anything – most produce can be grown at some point

during the year in our Mediterranean climate – if it looked like there is a viable market.

So the challenge is not whether OCP can produce the variety of locally grown, quality

produce that we all want, but how they can grow the local market to make growing more

things economically feasible. One step that OCP took four years ago was to begin selling

directly to consumers at farmers markets. You can now find their logo on stands at 9

farmers markets in Orange County (see

locations). Although we tend to think of farmers markets as being inherently local, many

vendors are now bringing produce from several hundred miles away and often travelling

that far themselves. For those of us committed to trying to eat locally, it is worth looking

for the OCP stands. Another advantage I have found is that, while there are many vendors

at the University Center Farmers Market, most of them are bringing the same items. For

example, you will see Blue Lake beans at many stands; however, the OCP stand has a

selection of wonderful Romano, Cranberry, and Yellow Wax beans; for a short while this

summer, they were selling fresh Garbanzo beans.

A motivation for this specific event is that OCP would also like to increase their sales to

restaurants, school districts, and other volume consumers of produce such as local

hospitals. As the discussion at this event underscored, this market is clearly different

from retail sales at farmers markets, but one of the challenges is the same. The success of

farmers markets required individuals to change their food purchasing habits, forgoing the

convenience of large supermarkets that can stock the same item year round by sourcing

from across the country and around the world. In much the same way, for OCP to be

successful selling to local restaurants and institutions will require changes in buying

habits. Just as individuals had grown to rely on supermarkets, restaurants and institutions

have come to rely on food purveyors. Like supermarkets, purveyors provide a single,

year-round source for a wide variety of produce that is of consistent, although not top,

quality in the quantities needed by both restaurants (one or two boxes a week) and large

institutions (a pallet or even a truckload a week). In addition, the purveyors deliver, and

for customers such as school districts with limited staff, they can provide items that have

been cleaned and cut to order under controlled conditions.

Interestingly, because of their size, OCP can also deal with all of these requirements.

They have the capacity – with over 400 employees, they farm over 1200 acres directly

and indirectly about that much again – to fill large orders. They have trucks so they can

and do deliver. They work with local processors so they can arrange to have produce

cleaned and cut before it is delivered. Because they are growing locally, their prices are

generally as good as or better than that provided by purveyors. They can also

accommodate special requests. For example, they can deliver produce in reusable

containers rather than disposable boxes, reducing both cost and waste. They can also

provide notifications about what will be ripe in the next week or two so that restaurants

can plan specials around this availability. What they cannot do is provide a year round

supply of all items. For example, lettuce cannot be grown well in Orange County in the

summer, and they do not yet grow potatoes. Still, for those of us directly involved with

restaurants, school districts, and other institutions, OCP and other local farms are a great

resource. A representative of the Irvine School district mentioned at this meeting that

they had just begun buying pallets of OCP strawberries to serve fresh as snacks and, by

this one step alone, had doubled the fresh produce they were serving to students.

Four representatives from the Kaiser Hospital system were at the meeting. Starting two

years ago they began serving only organic produce. They are now looking for more local

sources. Slow Food is beginning a collaboration with Positive Plate. OCP seems like

exactly the kind of resource that they could be recommending to their clients.

A final part of this story is the long standing commitment that OCP has had to working

with local food banks. Mike Lowry, a representative of the Orange County Food Bank,

described an interesting way that they are trying to leverage this relationship. OC Food

Bank hopes to obtain donations for the right to use vacant land plots from local

governments and corporate entities. They then make this land available to growers like

OCP for free. In return the farmer gives them outright a percentage of what they grow on

that previously vacant land. This seems like a model for which Slow Food could advocate

in other situations.

I hope that this does not sound like a PR piece for OCP. Clearly, however, I was both

impressed by what I learned and excited about the possibilities. The openness to new

ideas that AG and Matt Kawamura both expressed was infectious.

.

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