There is More Than One Way to Realize the Dream of Localism in San Diego
When my family and I moved into our house on a hillside in East County, the yard was a major draw. There were more than a dozen mature avocado trees and citrus, peaches, plums, and apricots. Raised beds were ready for herbs and veggies. There was more space for our flock of six chickens to roam. We were ready to take our locavore life to the next level.
I believe in local. Local farms help buttress the shrinking wild world against creeping urbanization. And they perform valuable carbon sequestration, fixing carbon in the soil and lowering average temperatures—which, countering global warming, could eventually save San Diego from becoming uninhabitable. But mostly, I believe in local because of localism—a foundational belief that creating healthy, equitable, and regenerative communities is better for all of us and is accomplished one local relationship at a time. Supporting local food is a cornerstone of localism.
But eight years later, we’re down to just five avocado trees, and only three of those are fruiting, albeit sporadically—we had to cut way back on our water bill. The citrus and fruit trees are relatively healthy, but more than 90% of what we grow ends up on the ground. We gave up on the veggie beds: They were like all-you-can-eat salad bars for the wild rabbits. My favorite apricot tree was felled by a fungus. And marauding coyotes claimed the chickens in a series of brazen daylight attacks.
This local food thing, it isn’t easy.
In theory, San Diego is an idyllic location for locavores—people who aspire to eat a diet consisting only or principally of locally grown or produced food. According to the San Diego County Farm Bureau, our farm economy ranks 12th in the nation. The Mediterranean climate helps support about 5,732 small farms, 68% of which are smaller than 10 acres in size. That makes San Diego County home to the highest concentration of small family-run farms in the U.S. But then you run into all the ‘buts.’
Principally, that means water. According to the San Diego Food System Alliance, San Diego’s agricultural water rates run about 30 times higher than those paid by farmers in the Central Valley Project or the Imperial Irrigation District. Land is also extremely expensive, with housing constraints pushing values sky high. In response, the Farm Bureau says that San Diego growers have increasingly turned to high-dollar-value-per-acre crops, like flowers, monocrop strawberries, avocados (until recently), and lately, marijuana.
So, do we all just give up? Is the dream of a local food system, of a San Diego animated by the spirit of localism, just that—a dream? Feeling defeated by my own lapsed intentions, I went looking for inspiration.
Jora Vess (@missjora) is that modern phenomenon, a social media maven whose thousands of Instagram followers tune in for glimpses of the good life. Which often looks like roasted Da Le Ranch bone marrow arranged artistically on a plate, next to a pile of sunflower sprouts grown by a friend.
“I came to local foods through ancestral cuisine,” says Jora, who started taking classes with San Diego nutritional educator Annie Dru (@lardmouth) several years ago. “I wanted to change the way my family ate. And when it comes to eating for health, to really trust the food, it’s all about sourcing.”
Local sourcing—procuring products directly from their grower or maker—takes Jora to the Hillcrest Farmers’ Market every weekend. Farmers’ markets (about 50 convene in San Diego each week) are the bedrock of food localism. An opportunity to meet farmers and food makers, to ask questions, and learn first-hand about growing conditions, seasonal struggles, and upcoming harvests.
“I gravitate toward the actual farm vendors, not the resellers,” says Jora, who has become friends with most of the farmers she frequents, getting to know them while chatting over Sunday morning produce purchases. The relationships have paid dividends. Tom King of Tom King Farms in Ramona, for example, gave her an education in dry farming. And now, when Jora waxes poetic about his heirloom melons, black tomatoes or pomegranates, she can praise more than just their flavor. She connects the dots between soil, growing methods and taste. That’s one great example of how localism’s relationships ripple through the wider community. Jora isn’t just a high-profile foodie; within her circle, she’s become a trusted authority, helping others better understand the value of local food beyond dollars and cents.
But local food is frequently more expensive than conventional produce. So a few years back, Jora also started hosting Pantry Parties at her Mt. Helix home, where she has chickens, fruit trees, and an extensive garden. “The rule is, you have to bring something you made or grew, and enough of it to share,” she explains. Based on the old world concept of ‘economies of skill,’ she tells her friends to, “play to their strengths.” So one with a gift for fermentation brings batches of homemade kimchee. Another bakes loaves of sourdough and provides jars of starter. There are usually eggs, honey, and jam. Gardeners bring herbs, fruits, and veggies. It all gets divvied up, an edible form of redistribution. And the haul, of course, is documented on Instagram.
What did I learn from Jora? Even a weekly farmers’ market trip can become a form of activism. Ask questions. Learn. Share. And Pantry Parties can help you and your circle of in-real-life and social media friends stay motivated.
When Clea Hantman and her husband Jeff Motch were opening Blind Lady Alehouse in 2009, their business partners thought the Normal Heights brew pub should focus on vegan cuisine. Clea and Jeff wanted more casual fare, and meat on the menu. “Our common ground was a desire to be part of the community,” Clea says. “That brought us together.”
Clea and Jeff now run three popular and successful restaurants, all with accessible price points: Blind Lady, Tiger! Tiger! in North Park, and Panama 66 in the courtyard of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. And according to Clea, community remains their focus. The restaurants work almost exclusively with San Diego based businesses, from a paper goods vendor in Clairemont Mesa, to Catalina Offshore Products for local seafood, to San Diego Soy Dairy, to Home Kitchen Culture for killer cookies.
Working with San Diego farms, though, is harder. “It’s weird to me, because we have so many farms per capita,” Clea says. “But they’re all kind of doing the same things. It becomes like a true struggle.”
Sharon Wilson, the chef at Panama 66, uses lettuce to illustrate the restaurants’ sourcing issues. “I probably need 20 pounds of salad greens a day, year round,” she says. Her farm vendors can’t meet that kind of volume. The same problem exists with potatoes (“We go through a crap-load making French fries”) and bulk items like onions and carrots for stock. So she orders these from Specialty Produce, the San Diego wholesale and retail supplier. They aren’t necessarily grown within a 100-mile radius (locavores aim to constrain their sourcing within that distance), but, “Specialty is a local business, so that’s our compromise,” Clea explains.
Sharon integrates local produce from farmers like Sage Mountain Farm into her specials. “I can’t do my entire menu off the farms, but I try to do a good portion,” she says. On Sundays, she goes through her farmers’ produce lists, talks to her colleague, chef Tim Fuller, at Tiger! Tiger! to see what he’s picked up from the farmers’ markets (Tiger! Tiger! has lower volume, so relies more on local farms), and plans the specials, noting each item’s provenance on the menu.
Despite the struggles, “I don’t know why more businesses don’t do it,” Clea says of practicing localism. “We joke that it’s our marketing plan.” Blind Lady, Tiger! Tiger!, and Panama 66 have become known for their dedication to local, endearing the venues to their communities and turning them into local hubs.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, in fact, Clea decided to take that a step further, founding Agents of Change. “Every month, we invite a local charity or organization to set up tables in the restaurants to promote their cause,” she explains. “And then we donate a portion of our proceeds to them.” Her customers, she says, love it. “They’re learning about local issues and really getting involved.”
Clea considers Agents of Change one of the best things she’s ever done. “When we bring these folks in, we’re bringing goodness into our business,” she says. “It makes people feel empowered.”
The takeaway? Everyone struggles to stay local, from restauranteurs to chefs to home cooks. Some obstacles are baked into the cake. Some are factors of life—we get busy and lose sight of our intentions. But if the struggle is real, so are the rewards, a tighter-knit community and personal empowerment among them. Localism starts with the desire to do better, and can be as simple as a visit to the farmers’ market, or signing up to help a local organization. Or, in my case, reclaiming those veggie beds from the rabbits.