In the Belly of the Feast
Even locavore ALBA staffers can get lazy with lunch.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
On a recent foggy morning, I drove with two food activist companions down a long, dusty road in Salinas towards a hotbed of contradictions. We were on our way to visit one of the beacons of creativity and success for the sustainable farming movement: ALBA, the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association, which trains farm workers and aspiring farmers – who cultivate 300-plus acres on two working farms – to grow and market organic crops.
We met with ALBA to assess work to be done for the upcoming farm bill and to secure supply for an organic vegetable delivery service. I was also there to report on what food is available and consumed in a food-forward farming environment.
First, the macro challenge. Farm workers are a population battling not only heartbreaking poverty, civil injustice and the colossal stupidity of American immigration policy, but also heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Even in the nation’s salad bowl, access to healthy, sustainable food is a challenge. Although so much good food is grown in Salinas, lunch options resemble West Oakland. What there isn’t: Restaurants serving locally grown foods. Certainly no Whole Foods. What there is: A Wal-Mart with a McDonald’s inside, a Grocery Outlet, Mexican restaurants and taco trucks. Farm worker families purchase much of their food from tienditas, which don’t sell locally grown produce alongside powdered donuts, chips and soda.
ALBA is working furiously to change this in their community, but still has far to go.
THE PEOPLE WHO GROW AND PICK OUR FOOD DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF THEIR OWN.
Swinging through ALBA’s main office, we noticed a huge bowl of fresh ripe peaches on the reception desk. Out the window, kids played energetically at the fields’ edge where their parents worked, horsing around between bites of peach. The ALBA folk were busy submitting a grant application and building the fall training programs, so we ate lunch during our meeting.
Farm worker diets mirror the tragedy of the SAD (Standard American Diet); studies show many of them face food insecurity. Translation: The people who grow and pick our food don’t have enough of their own. Poor farmers may not be a surprise to many, but here’s a shocker: 86 percent of farm workers surveyed by California Institute for Rural Studies report a high-fat diet, with 30 percent or more of their caloric intake from fat. And 42 percent report eating less than three servings of fruit and vegetables daily.
Looking out the window at the physically fit children, I witnessed proof of a different lifestyle for those under ALBA’s wing. One of ALBA’s programs focuses on giving workers access to fresh, healthy, local, organic food, and building economic strength by selling to their own communities at farmers markets.
Still, the staff lunches mirrored a bit of contradiction. Brett Melone, ALBA’s executive director, ate a homemade salad of cabbage, carrots, cannellini beans, and cucumbers – followed by a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Farm Incubator Program Manager Nathan Harkleroad ate beet chocolate cake he baked himself. He told me he usually he eats a burrito from a place down the road, as do many of the farmers training at ALBA. They also supplement lunch with their own vegetables and fruits.
It was ALBA Deputy Director Gary Peterson’s lunch that worried me most. He had (organic) ice cream at a staff birthday party, chased by a handful of (organic) blueberries and almonds. He was the one who looked desperately for the exit when I brought up my topic. He sits at a computer far too much. I wished an intern would cook for the staff.
Later in the day we met Tony Serrano, the charismatic and impressively expert general manager, who grew up in a farm worker family and has helped ALBA Organics double its capacity since 2008. After walking the rows and meeting farmers at the 110-acre Rural Development Center farm, we hopped into Tony’s truck and bumped on dusty roads towards the 95-acre Triple-M farm.
Tony is addicted to soda. He knows it’s evil but it’s a habit that’s hard to kick. On the bright side, he arranged for ALBA to provide fresh carrots to his kids’ middle school. Now his daughter is considering following him into farm management.
Touring the Triple-M farm as the sun set, we enjoyed a wonderful combination of tiendita-purchased beers, vine-ripened blackberries and golden raspberries. Then we strategized dinner in Salinas. Our options were slim and there were no vegetarian choices, no sustainably raised meats, few vegetables, and only unsustainable seafood
Maybe a few years from now a restaurant there will feature ALBA’s produce. We’d eat there together someday.