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Farm to Fork

Farm to Fork: Priced out of reach?

I use plastic water bottles as piggy banks when I have something to save for. Last fall I started to stuff $20 bills into one specifically for Farm to Fork. I knew that I would want to go to the F2F final dinner that is going to take place on the Tower Bridge. I also knew it would cost over $100 a ticket, so I started saving.

Farm to Fork is the initiative started when Mayor Kevin Johnson, the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau and some of Sacramento’s top restaurateurs proclaimed Sacramento the “Farm-to-Fork Capital.” According to the website, F2F “will highlight the Sacramento region’s local and sustainable restaurant scene while educating the public on why eating local products and in local restaurants is so important to the community’s overall well-being.”

September has been proclaimed Farm-to-Fork month and September 21-29 the focus week. The week will start with a kickoff event on September 21st with the Soil Born Farms 11th Annual Autumn Equinox Celebration. On Saturday, September 28, there will be a F2F Festival on the Capitol Mall which will include displays and activities surrounding all aspects of F2F: farming, food, sustainability, livestock and more. The grand finale is the gala dinner on September 29, which will take place when they close off and put tables across the span of the Tower Bridge. This final dinner’s ticket price was announced as $175 and went on sale on July 1.

The $175 dinner ticket came as a shock to some people. A few people even immediately called it out as an elitist event. “Is this the exclamation point that the Farm-to-Fork movement wants to leave during celebration week – that local food is for the privileged few, not the masses on a budget?” Comments on forums like this caused me to think about what the intent and message is for Farm to Fork.

Careful review of the website reinforced what I understood F2F to mean – a way to make Sacramento a dining and food destination. After being kept under the shadows of the San Francisco and Napa dining scenes, Sacramento wants the world to know that we have considerable culinary talent in the midst of the most fertile region of the United States.

“Mission: The mission of the farm-to-fork movement is to bring awareness to the Sacramento region’s local food production, consumption and sustainability as well as the contribution and exportation of sustainable products to the rest of the nation and world.

Vision: Communicate a regional identity that celebrates the local sustainability and food production of the Sacramento region by featuring the farmers, chefs and culinary community that make the Sacramento region the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America.”

The SCVB’s job is to take this message across the country and around the world. They are the ones charged with attracting conventions and athletic events to Sacramento, bringing millions of dollars to the local economy. They also try to spread the message to tourists so that they don’t just drive through on their way between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, but actually stop and enjoy what Sacramento has to offer.

“There are several events during Farm-to-Fork Week. Four of them are being put on by us, two of which are free to the public,” said Mike Testa, Senior Vice President of the SCVB.

On Monday, September 23, there is a cattle drive from West Sacramento, across the Tower Bridge and down to the Capitol. The festival on September 28 is free as well.

“The funding for the free events has to come from somewhere,” Testa said, “so hopefully the price of the dinner tickets will cover not only the dinner, but the free events as well.”

Josh Nelson, partner at Selland Family Restaurants, came up with the idea of the Farm-to-Fork Festival. It started when his wife came across an article about farmers being the next “celebrities” after chefs.

“I realized that Sacramento was a unique spot when it comes to food,” said Nelson. “With the mixture of farmers and chefs, Sacramento had something special to offer.”

Nelson’s original concept was for a food festival, but with more focus on the farmers than on food and wine seen at food festivals in other major cities. “It seemed to me that our image as a cow town was incorrect. We are more of a farm town and we should celebrate that.” While dining would obviously be a major part of the festival, he also looked to promote topics such as education, sustainability and preservation of farmlands..

When asked about the comments that the F2F dinner is too expensive, Nelson replied, “Yes, the dinner ticket is expensive, but you have to remember that to close the bridge you have to work with Coast Guard, City and other agencies. We will also be seating 600 people and that means rentals of chairs, tables, servingware, setting up five free-standing kitchens, and more. Meanwhile, the day before is the festival on the Capitol Mall and that’s free.”

Although the SCVB is putting on four of the events, Farm to Fork is not limited to those alone. Keep in mind that F2F is an open concept. Anyone can put together an event and, if appropriate, tie it to F2F. Restaurants will be having specials and hosting dining events on their own. Charities and other organizations are planning events, as well as some of the farms and orchards in the area. You can already find over 40 events that are tied to F2F on the events page at FarmtoForkCapital.com – everything from BLT Week and Have an Offal Day to local food tours and wine tastings.

Food festivals in New York, Miami and Atlanta all have pricey tickets for their events. None of these food and wine festivals have free events for the masses like F2F. SF Chefs takes place at the beginning of August. The favored events are held in the Grand Tasting Tent where tickets start at $140. A weekend pass ticket is $650. They do have a few free cooking demonstrations, but with limited space. Atlanta’s Food and Wine main events start at $100. They have no free events, and same with the New York Wine and Food Festival.

Food festivals do cost money to put on and sponsorships can only cover so much. Amber Stott, Founder of the California Food Literacy Center, put it in perspective. “While I feel it’s important not to lose sight of the multiple issues wrapped up in our current local food system, I think it’s unrealistic to think that one event can be all things to all people. I get the financial need to charge a higher price for the event on the bridge. That’s a major undertaking and likely the ticket price this year will barely cover costs for a first-year event.”

Stott sees the impact of F2F as more far reaching than just a single week of events. “In an ideal healthy food system you will have these gourmet, high level food experiences, but it will also extend to the community through increased living wage jobs in this food industry, or increased profits for chefs who turn around and donate to nonprofits.”

Is the dinner ticket pricey? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean that people at all income levels will be left out. Enjoy the free events and check the calendar for more affordable events. There IS something for everyone.

Stott sums it up well. “It’s exciting to see Sacramento raising the food dialogue as a result of Farm-to-Fork Week.”

Catherine Enfield writes the food blog Munchie Musings.

What’s your take? Do you think the farm to fork campaign is “elitist” or do you think it’s something everyone should rally around? Is there a conflict between pricey tickets and menu items on one hand, and promoting food access on the other, or is it more a case of “different strokes for different folks”?

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