Pink softballs — those flavorless tomatoes that ripen off the vine and exist solely to look pretty in a salad — are the bane of the local farmer.
“Wholesalers figured out to pick them early and just gas them, so they’re bright when consumers buy them. But they taste like Styrofoam,” says Marcy Coburn, executive director of the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). And they were popular for years, “until farmers markets taught people what tomatoes really taste like.”
With the proliferation of juicy tomatoes, she adds, “people can know why that’s a fruit and not a vegetable.” Pointing to the heirloom offerings available at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on a recent Thursday morning, she notes approvingly that “those tomatoes right there will change your life.”
CUESA’s mission is to cultivate a healthy food system, which it does through farmers markets and educational programs — and its ambitions are rather stratospheric. Let’s start with farmers markets, those rescuers of salsa and caprese sandwiches from the nefarious forces of blandness. Current technology practically enables us to walk through our front doors, announce that we want LaCroix water delivered the following day, and have it be sitting on our doorsteps in the morning. So why should anyone bother with a detour to the Ferry Building on a blustery day just to schlep home some melons?
“From my perspective, human beings want to connect with other human beings around fresh food, and the people who actually grow it and bring it from the farm,” Coburn says. “It still has some dirt on it. It’s a connection for urban people to nature, from city life and the concrete and the limited amount of nature access we have in cities.”
And the Bay Area, with its proximity to lush farms, has it made. Compare the Ferry Building in February to, say, the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, where “they have Zip-Loc bags full of frozen butternut squash.” Coburn isn’t putting down those farmers’ dedication. Rather, she sees the Bay Area’s good fortune as the launching point for a renewed discussion about the industrialized food system, on a national scale. One sticking point is farmers markets’ enduring reputation as places where elite foodies sniff out artisanal stains of kale, and — well, y’know. If you have limited resources, you can come to a farmers market, sample a million things, ask the growers questions, and still have ana even better time than if you’d gone to mooch microwaved tidbits from white ruffled cups on the trays at Costco.
“Farmers markets are quite egalitarian, actually,” she says. “They’re free, for one — which is unusual in the landscape of special events that happen in San Francisco.
“I think, culturally, we need to shift away from this idea that farmers markets are just for fancy rich people,” she adds. “’Cause they’re not.”
Coburn knows this firsthand. Raised in Visalia and Stockton, she comes from generations of citrus and grape farmers, and her grandfather died young of bone cancer she suspects was related to the pesticides he used to fumigate his fields. Having grown up in the ag world but also during the 1970s, she experienced a curious split: Her family would eat pre-packaged TV dinners but also make olives in the garage.
A “10-year walkabout” in her young adulthood — much of it in the company of her lifelong pal Taylor Mac, whose A 24-Decade History of Popular Music played at the Curran last month — led Coburn to hold odd jobs in all aspects of the food world. She worked in restaurants, delivered produce for Veritable Vegetable, and later ran the Eat Real Festival. She became CUESA’s executive director in 2014, overseeing three weekly farmers markets at the Ferry Building plus one in Jack London Square, along with various events like the Goat Festival that formerly went by a name that rhymes with a certain two-weekend music festival held in Indio, Calif., every April.
Meanwhile, it may appear as if the world is midway through a revolution that’s seen institutional food producers and consumers veer sharply in CUESA’s direction; after all, Costco stocks Stonyfield yogurt and Organic Valley greens. And a local, sustainable approach has long since spread beyond Chez Panisse.
“Everything’s farm-to-table,” Coburn says.”There’s no such thing as not farm-to-table in the city anymore. Laurence Jossel from Nopa notably said to me, ‘If you’re a restaurant owner in San Francisco and you’re not doing farm-to-table, you’re not in the game.”
That’s why CUESA’s 15th annual Sunday Supper celebration, a gathering of 35 chefs for a four-course dinner on Sunday, Oct. 15, is a “Farm to City Feast” (and one of the organization’s biggest fundraisers).
But many battles remain un-fought. Working with venues like AT&T Park and the forthcoming Warriors Stadium to provide alternatives to hot dogs has been successful — and Coburn touts Napa Farms Market at SFO’s Terminal 2 for its kombucha and cheese — but hospitals and schools are enormous institutions where cheap, low-quality food options prevail.
Reform enough of those and you eventually change the system itself, right? Yes and no. First, school lunches represent a billion-dollar industry with entrenched stakeholders repackaging frozen chicken parts for kids nationwide. And while millennials’ demands to know where food comes from and whether workers are fairly treated goes a long way toward holding corporations accountable, as organic food scales up, it inevitably assumes some of Big Food’s less savory traits. Even as growth in sales of organics outpaces conventional foods, consolidation at all levels reifies the industrial food system’s hold.
One such incident happened only a few weeks ago, causing much gnashing of teeth on social media. Coburn is relatively neutral on Nestlé’s purchase of Blue Bottle Coffee, taking the nuanced position that if conglomerates allow their new subsidiaries to operate with independence and maintain their integrity, they’re worth our continued support.
“We’re always going to be part of the countermovement,” she says of her organization. “Until we’re not. At some point with the ‘sustainability arm’ of Philip Morris — if sales are outpacing the more industrial side, then we win.”
The same goes for dairy co-ops that reduce the total amount of hormones in the milk supply. For Coburn, the ethics and the aesthetics are closely aligned. If, a couple years from now, our palates sense Blue Bottle tasting ominously Folger’s-esque, then we will know it has ceased to source its beans properly. For now, the Amazon-Whole Foods merger seems likelier to undo hard-won gains in transforming the food distribution system. The upscale grocery’s new corporate parent may have lowered prices — but it also eschewed local buying in favor of brands with a national reach.
Still, the even bigger challenge might be weaning consumers off the assumption that we will always inhabit a world of superabundance. A planet with 7.5 billion humans shipping apples across hemispheres is grossly unsustainable, and even the Northern California foodsheds can’t furnish coffee or papayas, nor can the state supply infinite almonds. Higher sea levels and increased salinity in the Central Valley threaten the long-term health of this productive region, but there’s also the fact that Safeway will stock bananas until the tropics can no longer grow them. Will we adapt, or will we “party til it’s over”?
“I feel that sense of terror when I think about how much we have all the time, and how much we waste,” Coburn says. “Forty percent of the food in this country goes into the trash — not even the composter.”
While copping to some pessimism on our ability to get people to accept fewer choices, she comes back to the idea of farmers markets.
“There’s always going to be — I hope — a counter-surge, which is that people who have the time, the means, and the information will say, ‘Sure, I can probably get apples on Amazon.’ But do you really want to?” she says. “Are they going to be the most delicious? Are you going to have the best experience? Isn’t it fun to meet the farmer every once in awhile?”
Ultimately, it’s doing things that are mildly inconvenient, and maybe even a little bit uncomfortable, that will be the salvation of the sustainable food system.
“To me, that’s a great thing, because what terrifies me is that people won’t get up and do things,” Coburn says. “Shopping at a farmers market is a radical act.
“I never feel uncomfortable ordering off Amazon,” she adds. “Nor do I feel good, like, ‘Oooh, my calcium powder’s here!’ ”
CUESA’s 15th Annual Sunday Supper: A Farm to Table Feast, Sunday, Oct. 15, 5-10 p.m., at the Ferry Building. $275-$350; cuesa.org.