Good year, good food

Theodor Herzl understood the truth about food. When the founder of Zionism imagined the Jewish People reborn in a land of their own, he wrote of Jews tending their own orange orchards, vineyards and olive groves. In his novel “Altneuland” (“The Old New Land”), the fantasy that gave birth to the reality of Israel, visitors to this fantastical homeland saw Jews remade as a different sort of human being altogether. In the cities, they engaged in high culture and the merchant trades, but they also did something revolutionary, something that would remake them from the inside out: They farmed.

Is it any coincidence that the orange became the symbol for pre-state Palestine — the product of Jewish hands?  (OK, let’s put aside all the sticky questions that arise from the fact that the Jaffa orange was developed by an Arab.) Is it any wonder that the sabra, the native, local cactus pear, became the symbol of the independent Israeli, whose identity was inextricably entwined with the food that sprang from the soil?

Herzl was no foodie. But he understood that fundamental changes in society begin with fundamental changes in what we eat and how we produce it. To change our very nature, Herzl was saying, change the way we grow our food. We don’t make food; it makes us.

I thought about Herzl, oranges and cactus pears as I dragged my daughter around the Good Food Festival & Conference in Santa Monica last weekend.

The three-day festival used the 30th anniversary of the Santa Monica Farmers Market as a starting point for seminars, workshops, lectures and displays of how growing local, sustainable food can bring about a healthier, happier and more just society.

It sounds dreamy and grandiose (by the way, so did Herzl), but think of the Santa Monica Farmers Market itself. Founded in 1981 by the city’s one-term mayor, Ruth Yanatta-Goldway, it transformed the city. The market brings 10,000 shoppers each Wednesday into the downtown core, according to Laura Avery, the market’s manager. Some 85 percent of all Santa Monicans have shopped there. Chefs across Los Angeles have changed what they serve, and people have changed what they eat, because of what Chef Mark Peel called “the immediate connection between people who love food, cook food and grow food.” Change the food, change the society.

A major focus of Good Food was how to bring these benefits of local, healthy food to all neighborhoods, especially poorer ones. Jim Slama, the founder of a group called FamilyFarmed, which co-sponsored the conference, told me that one key is to expand the market for food grown locally. One encouraging sign: In his home base of Chicago, the school board recently agreed to purchase $3 million of food locally.

“We have to create hubs for production, marketing and distribution,” he said.

While many forces in agribusiness are arrayed against this effort, some big players, notably Whole Foods and the “fast gourmet” chain Chipotle, have embraced it.

That’s key, as are efforts to extend the benefits of local food production to the people who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. In the Midwest, Will Allen, a former pro basketball player and a 2008 MacArthur Fellow, has created an archipelago of inner-city farms.

“The only way to end world hunger is to develop local food systems,” he said.

In Los Angeles, there are urban farms like Miguel Luna’s Urban Semillas and Rickey Smith’s Urban Green.

The idea, said Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, is to create “citizen farmers” who can replace a food system that has gone horribly awry. “We don’t want to just recycle the back-to-the-land movement,” Lipkis said. “We’re trying to get more and more people involved.”

Yes, it’s all something of a dream. The crowds at the conference were largely the already converted — some idealistic young people and about 100 scholarship students brought in, but a lot of middle-agers like me walking around in jeans and untucked shirts, tasting the latest chia seed bars (Locally made! Stuffed with omega-3!) and fawning over the chefs at a luxe reception at the Annenberg Beach House, who turned the market produce into a beachside feast (Melon Soup With Thai Basil! Goat Cheese Rinds With Tomato Salsa and Goat Cheese Fondue!). But, hey, somebody has to be at the vanguard.

On the last day, a Sunday, I brought my daughter to the last workshop, a demonstration on home goat-cheese making. I told her I was toying with a New Year’s resolution: more urban farming.

We have raised chickens on and off for 18 years. Now we have six. I’ve ripped out our front lawn and planted enough artichokes to sell at the farmers market. Two pygmy goats provide us all the fertilizer we need. But fresh chevre?

I took copious notes as Stephen Rudicel, who runs Mariposa Creamery in the heart of Altadena, spoke of Nubian goats and bacterial cultures and cheese molds. My daughter groaned.

But at the end of the day, isn’t that how change comes — through each of us shifting our own relationship to what we eat, and how and where we get it? We don’t make food, it makes us.

If you want a good year ahead, eat good food. And start now.