"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be
a merrier world."
Each of David Sundberg’s outgoing emails ends with this quote from The Hobbit—simple wisdom from the Shire that applies to our corner of the planet just as much.
In a city with hundreds of restaurants, including many where a single meal can cost the equivalent of a week's worth of groceries, and where statistics indicate at least 21,000 people countywide are food insecure, the head chef at the Blue Corn Brewery on the Southside says everyone deserves the joy of great food produced close to home.
And that also means he's ever mindful of the strong relationship of food to the regional economy and the influence that household economics can have on access to healthy meals.
A recent study of just 12 restaurants in Denver, for example, showed that their purchases from local producers had an economic impact of more than $7.4 million in one year. Multiply that by dozens of professionals with dedication to being locavores, and the impact balloons exponentially. Sure, Santa Fe is on a smaller scale than the Mile High City. But every million counts.
The City Different boasts an inarguable energy around the pleasure and importance of good food. With nonprofits that focus on food justice, new businesses linking growers with cooks and even a joint government committee dedicated to food policy, it's not a stretch to call it a movement. Yet where we're moving and why are not topics of universal agreement.
Like lots of food activists, Sundberg knows he's got to literally put his money where his mouth is—or more accurately, where all of your mouths are. After taking the reins at the restaurant about five years ago, he's proud to have moved closer and closer to local sourcing, partly because of what customers say they want.
You can spot Sundberg at the farmers market, greeting other chefs on Saturday mornings (and this year on Tuesday afternoons at its Southside version, which just concluded for the season), but he's also buying tortillas and chips from Albuquerque, only New Mexico-grown chile and tons of cheese from Tucumcari, and he's serving beef that's mostly raised in state—all just a starting point, he says.
"That is a good place that we can challenge all the restaurants locally to do because they can source things locally. They can do better bit by bit by bit. They don't have to be this scary huge jump in a farm-to-table restaurant," he says.
As the designated industry representative on the Santa Fe Food Policy Council, Sundberg's voice is also one that balances urgency against bureaucracy.
"There's just all this whole jargon that I've had to catch up with and understand how the systems work," he says. "I'm in business. If something breaks, fix it right now. And if we see that there is a gap or there is a customer who isn't happy or not been taken care of, we fix it right now. That is how we have to respond to things—very, very quickly. Government has to take a slower pace, because they have to do things responsibly that affect more than just a handful of people or one person or one table. They affect entire communities."
Sundberg is a big believer in what can happen when communities want resiliency and fairness. Using city and county grants and lots of volunteer labor, the council produced what members refer to as "the food plan" last October. The dense, 25-page document contains value statements and recommendations for action in three basic areas: learning about food, getting food and growing food.
For Mark Winne—who's written books on food systems, recently helped Nebraska establish a framework for a statewide food council and became the Santa Fe group chairman this fall—there's much to celebrate and many challenges ahead.
He says many American cities are on the same trajectory.
"You find that explosion everywhere. You find it to a greater or lesser degree in some places than others, but Santa Fe's food scene is on steroids, so it is just natural that we're gonna jump into something like food policy and look at some way to get ourselves better organized, better coordinated," Winne says.
What makes our foodie muscle so prominent?
"The number of restaurants, the high profile that food has," Winne explains. "People come to Santa Fe because they want the chiles and they want the variety of cuisine that we have here; that's part of it. But I think it is also the agricultural connection. Santa Fe still is a place that is rooted in an agricultural heritage and ranching heritage, and all of Northern New Mexico. Our farmers market is still regarded as I think world class or something close to that. That is all what we think of as the essence of Santa Fe's food scene...Food has a certain cachet."
Plus, the city has a robust appetite for turning back the tide of mass production that threatens to kill all things small and thoughtful.
"We don't like big food. We don't like big agriculture," he says. "We don't like the fact that the industrial food system dictates too much of what we eat, and we don't like GMOs. And I'm a person who generally subscribes to those dislikes. But being in Santa Fe for 12 years, I'm sort of overwhelmed by how severe some of those dislikes are. I wouldn't quite go as far as a lot of people go."
Then there's the other side of the coin, he says, noting that New Mexico as a state has "overwhelming health concerns" rooted in diet and poverty, and Santa Fe is far from an outlier.
We eat too much, and too many of us are obese, yet many of us don't know where our next meal is coming from, and diabetes levels are high—disproportionately so in the Hispanic and Native population, Winne says, "and so we have this sort of paradox of those people who are underfed and people who are overfed."
Dominant food policy in recent memory across the nation hasn't moved us in the right direction, he notes.
"If you look at the numbers nationally in the year 2000, 10 percent of the US population was considered food insecure, and in the most recent statistics that came out for the year 2014, they were just published a couple weeks ago, and we're up to about 14.5 percent. So with everything we have done over the last 14 years, we haven't made any progress," he says.
Still, there are bright spots on the local level, Winne says. He points to the state's support of a farm-to-schools program that allocates money, albeit just $450,000 in the last year, so public school cafeterias can serve fruits and vegetables from local growers. New Mexico has also made strides in encouraging families who receive food assistance money to spend it at farmers markets by enacting a "double-up on SNAP" program, where patrons get a dollar-for-dollar match when they use debit cards called EBTs. In fact, the state takes credit for being the first in the nation to use its tax dollars to provide funds. If a shopper uses $20 in SNAP benefits, for example, she gets an extra $20 in market tokens.
Sam Baca, program director with Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, agrees that the double-up incentive is making a significant impact on broadening the market's customer base and its perception.
"We've really been promoting it strongly all year, and in the last four months, we have done more EBT business than ever before," Baca says, beaming. "Farmers have to get a fair price for their work, and at the scale they are producing, it's going to be more expensive than the supermarket, but with double-up, it ends up being less expensive, and it's much higher quality than at the supermarket, and at the same time, they are supporting the local farmers."
The institute raised $40,000 in private funds to supplement city and county spending for the program two years ago, and it's grown quickly, especially with state and federal cash that arrived this year. In June and July, SNAP beneficiaries spent $20,000 at the market each month; in August and September, the use mounted to $25,000 per month.
"Behind the numbers are really just a whole lot of stories of families that are eating more healthy and local and who didn't have access before to what was…kind of an elitist thing," Baca says.
In the Santa Fe Public Schools, local food is taking up more space on lunch trays.
The district spends about $2.5 million each year on food, but the assistant director of school nutrition, Betsy Cull, focuses on sending as much of it as she can to farmers in Northern New Mexico. Last year, payments to regional farmers topped 2 percent.
From apples to watermelons to spring mix from a local grower, the district put $57,000 worth of local food in cafeterias during the 2014-2015 school year (including about $15,000 from the state). Teaching school food workers to use the fresh ingredients and getting students to enjoy them have also been key, she says.
At first, replacing iceberg lettuce with nutritional substitutes from nearby growers prompted lots of "yucks," she says. But over time—and thanks in part to food education and experience programs spearheaded by the Cooking with Kids nonprofit—that changed.
Let us imagine a world in which:
- Food is valued at its true cost, while remaining available and affordable for all.
- Farmers and ranchers can make a living stewarding our rich agricultural traditions.
- Our respect for the land is upheld by all who inhabit it.
- Healthy foods color the plates of our children, elders and families.
- Food choices are determined not by price but by what is good for our bodies and supports our traditions.
- Regulation and common sense policies support our vision.
- Food is simple, celebrated and, of course, local.
The next Santa Fe Food Policy Council Meeting is at 9 am, Thursday, Oct. 22 at the Food Depot, 1222 Siler Road. Visit santafefoodpolicy.org
"If you can get them when they are young, it will carry through. Pretty much the high schoolers now were my kindergartners when we started," Cull said in a panel discussion hosted by the Food Policy Council. "And they like salad."
Morgan Day, who recently completed grad school and came to work part time as the staff coordinator for the council, says those examples of tangible progress toward more fair access are inspirational, because their value in supporting small farmers and changing attitudes about nutritional food is so apparent.
"The thing that we are now trying to challenge ourselves to do is to actually find ways to make policy real for people and make people understand that it's not just suits in Washington DC who do policy, and it's not just the mayor who does policy, or the board of county commissioners who does policy but that policy is alive in their lives and in the choices that they have in front of them," Day says.
But the wheels of policymaking turn ever so slowly. More slowly, for example, than a seed hardens by winter, sprouts in the spring, bursts forth with fruit in the summer and is ready for harvest in the fall. Twice. Or three times.
The food plan calls for the city to embrace urban agriculture, an idea that was also codified by policymakers who adopted the Sustainable Santa Fe plan in 2008. Yet a recent go of it ended in heartbreak.
Just ask Poki Piottin. He and his partner, Dominique Pozo, leased some land and began Gaia Gardens. The once-fallow urban lot, nestled between homes subsequently built in cookie-cutter rows around it, was a breath of fresh air, a place that neighbors could visit on bicycles via the Arroyo Chamiso Trail, buy vegetables and have actual in-person conversations. Birds and pollinators swirled on their unpredictable trajectories in the air and among the plants; children from nearby day cares visited to get their hands dirty and see that tomatoes don't grow on grocery shelves.
Then, after a vehement squeaky wheel complained that the activities there didn't comply with the city's land use code, and after officials found that housing built by the landowner didn't pass muster for electrical rules and other occupancy standards, the whole shooting match became endangered.
Undeterred advocates for local food, Pozo and Piottin kept at it. They worked with city councilors and two successive mayors, who pledged that they would rewrite the city code to permit the farm. Three years later, with the bank now foreclosing on the landlord, Gaia's founders decided to pull the plug.
Piottin describes "useless weeks" of committee hearings
"Because of a city behind the times and a neighbor determined to prevent a farm from operating in the city, it has been a constant battle to do the work we've set out to do. I have spent so much time doing research, meeting with city committees and city officials, and involving the pro bono help of attorneys that I have worn myself out," he posted in a message on Facebook titled "I quit." "Why would I continue fighting to do such a benign and beautiful thing as a farm?"
Next spring, they're planning to find another piece of land—outside the city limits this time—to start over. After all, farming is on the uptick in Santa Fe County, where the US Department of Agrigulture says the number of acres in agricultural use spiked from about 569,000 in 2002 to about 717,000 in 2012.
Meanwhile, the City Council has yet to debate meaningful urban agriculture. A proposal that shuffled around in 2013 got scrapped. John Alejandro, the mayor's right-hand man on sustainability policies, said in September that a draft of a new proposal would be available for public review in October. During a panel at the Food Policy Council event last week, Alejandro said he now expects it to be ready in November.
Instead of selling corn, squash, beets and beans at the farmers market or a trailside stand, Pozo and Piottin instead delivered every pound (more than 1,000) of the late-season harvest from Gaia Gardens to the Food Depot.
That agency, which collects and disperses nearly 5 million pounds of food each year to 145 nonprofits in Northern New Mexico in nine counties, could use more contributions like that bittersweet windfall. Its fall food drive is under way with cooperation from area businesses, including places like Auto Angel, where Gabriel and Caroline Garcia collect bags of groceries year-round in exchange for auto inspections, and the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, where donated goods earn players free pulls on slot machines.
As reflected in federal hunger statistics that are moving in the wrong direction, advocates say it's frustrating that the need for emergency food distribution continues to climb rather than helping sate hunger pangs over the long term.
Feeding Santa Fe, another nonprofit that provides bags of groceries and recipes each week, reports that it has zoomed through 900 bags of food in record time each of the last four weeks, with people still showing up for help long after the food was gone.
Members of both distribution organizations joined dozens of others from nonprofits in the food sector last week at the Santa Fe County Fairgrounds for an exercise intended to help build bridges among them and see areas of overlap and gaps with particular attention to the city's Southside.
One person talked about a members-only food co-op planned for Rufina Street location that has $4.2 million in the bank from private investors.
Mariajosé Ugalde Alcazar says the meeting was a reminder of how polarized Santa Fe can be. Not many people who are on the hunger side of the equation are involved in the conversation.
"We get invested in just surviving," says Ugalde Alcazar, a Bolivian native who showed up in the city six years ago to undergo trauma resolution work, with just a suitcase and a guitar. She stayed as a volunteer with AmeriCorps. Now, she's on the staff at Earthcare.
Like those in the last several cadres of volunteers that Earthcare has deployed in Santa Fe, young adults who began working just last week are assigned to a number of existing programs for the needy. That's also helped Ugalde Alcazar notice the system's redundancy.
"We need to be more collaborative. A lot of us have mission statements that are overlapping," she says, taking a break from the hourslong session. "It's ridiculous that we have so many nonprofits and so much need that is not met."
Maybe some of the lofty food policy ambitions could use a little more retooling.
For example, much has been made of addressing Santa Fe's food deserts, regions where options for purchasing fresh food are limited. But development incentives intended to lure the next natural grocery store to Airport Road have not panned out.
While the guests at the fairgrounds wrote about programs on half-sheets of paper and taped them to the walls, down the street past where it turns inexplicably from Rodeo to Airport, Cesar Araiza was working in his Panadería y Tortillería Sani, which has been bustling in the Zia Center for eight years.
Just recently, he purchased a 15-year-old carnicería on the south side of the street, and he tells SFR that business is going well at both of them.
Does Araiza see a yawning gap? A huge place where no one can possibly eat?
As he doles out tortillas, wedding cookies, sweet bread and dozens of tamales wrapped to go for a steady stream of customers on a Friday afternoon, he shrugs his shoulders.
"I don't know. Not really. Walmart is very close," he says. "Mostly it's the Hispanic people who live in this area, so we shop here."
Sundberg says Araiza's perspective is important.
"This community can only carry so many grocery stores—large chain grocery stores. One thing that we have really just recently started discussing is more the idea of locally owned smaller tiendas…It's so much easier to encourage a small-business owner who has a dream than it is to get a major conglomerate to invest multimillions of dollars into opening a massive footprint of something and take a chance that people will come to it."
Those kinds of shifts in policy have to come with as much groundswell as top-down rule making.
Is Santa Fe ready? Piottin says part of why Gaia Gardens didn't make it is that the community just isn't there yet. Leaders like the mayor who say they want to mandate change need more support.
"The way we are accustomed to getting our food is going to have to change," Piottin tells SFR.
"I don't think the mayor has enough sway to really change the mentality of this town. It's the town, at large, that is not ready for change. We are not hungry enough for making progress."
Others have more optimism.
Nina Yozell-Epstein launched a farm-to-restaurant business called Squash Blossom this year, after spending several years laying its foundation as part of the Farm to Table nonprofit. She says the city's progress is happening, and on several front lines.
"I get pretty overwhelmed pretty quickly when I'm trying to make policy changes," says Yozell-Epstein, a born-and-raised Santa Fean who now helps 20 farms provide for 30 restaurants here. "I am more like a grassroots, on-the-ground person. I appreciate all of the people who are willing to do the slow-motion advocacy."