Tasting L.A. at (St.) Vibiana’s

Last night at Vibiana’s, I couldn’t find a place to eat my wild mushroom and goat cheese while holding my glass of Craftsman Octoberfest beer and my notebook and navigating a crowd reveling in some amazing food, wine and brew.  So I ducked into what looked like an old wooden phone booth and set everything down on a handy ledge.

A woman paused to look at me. “I haven’t been in one of those in a while,” she said.

That’s when I realized: I wasn’t in a phone booth, I was in a confessional.

Vibiana’s used to be St. Vibiana’s, the first major cathedral in the City of Los Angeles, built in the 1870’s. The Archdiocese decommissioned and deconsecrated it in 1996, then erected the City of Angels Cathedral on Temple Street.

Vibiana’s, after a brutal conservancy fight with the Archdiocese and a $4 million painstaking restoration, became a breathtaking event space.

It was packed last night with hundreds of local chefs, food producers, activists, politicians and food lovers gathered for the “Taste of the LA Foodshed,” a kick off event for Roots of Change’s Network Summit: Healthy Food & Farms by 2030.  Healthy food, farms and people is the overarching goal of Roots of Change, a   non-profit founded by an energetic food policy cheerleader named Michael Dimock.

Dimock is a former farmer, agribusiness exec and Slow Food leader who recognizes that systemic change in our relationship to food has to come at the policy level.  Over the course of a two day summit, ROC will launch its, “California Healthy Food & Agriculture” Platform that lays out for legislators state policies that ensure a healthy and prosperous food and farm economy in California. Last night the focus was on the potential products of wise food policy: great, local, healthy food.

“We all live in the city but we want to eat like we live on the farm,” said Evan Kleiman, the chef/owner of Angeli, host of Good Food on KCRW and a member of LA’s Food Policy Task Force.

Kleiman pointed out that LA is surrounded by fertile farmland and blessed with great weather— the city’s residents deserve to have healthy, local sustainable food.

“The foodshed needs to be tended like the watershed,” sad Dimock. “So everybody in the city can eat good food.”

We pay a steep price for the current system.

According to the ROC report, South Los Angeles has one of the highest poverty rates (30%) , as well as one of the highest obesity rates (35% of adults).

In 2009, one in 10 L.A. County residents received food assistance, according to the report.  The problem is not starving –African type hunger, but inadequate nutrition, either out of lack of access to healthy food, or poor education, or both.

“We’re here because we need to have rational food policy in this town,” said LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  “We have a high percentage of hungry kids and obese kids.”

Los Angeles tried to do something about this in the 1990s, when it launched its first food policy council. That effort fell apart, while other cities like San Francisco, Portland, and New York made progress.

Judging by the turnout at the conference and the kickoff event, this time the efforts look like they’ll lead somewhere.

Occidental University Professor Bob Gottlieb is a task force member who is the director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College and author of Food Justice, an influential guide to what governments and citizens can do.

I asked him how the awareness, the concern and the renewed interest translate into actual policy, and not just actual committee meetings?

He told me that two immediate policy changes would mandate locally-sourced food procurement policies for the city and school district, and make it possible for low income residents to use EBT cards at farmers markets.

The hall at Vibiana’s was full of groups advocating longer term efforts, too, like community gardens in low income areas, school gardens, hunger relief and food access (The Jewish Federation and the Progressive Jewish Alliance had tables addressing those issues) and fair practices for food workers.

If that’s the medicine, the sugar to take it with were tables staffed by some of the city’s best chef, using over $100,000 of donated produce from local farmers to cook up examples of what sustainable local food could taste like.

It was a grazer’s paradise: Morro Bay oysters with Petty Ranch Meyer Llemon ceviche from the Water Grill.  Sonoma County Poultry Liberty Duck Pastrami and Marinated Duck Tongues with Deardoff Family Farms Swiss Chard Jam from Waterloo and City’s Brendan Collins; EVA’s Mark Gold’s Jaime Farm Fall Squash lasagne layered with Tomato Confiture, Bay Leaf and Walnut… wines from Au Bon Climat and San Antonio (in downtown LA)… beer from Craftsman and from Eagle Rock Brewery.  Multiply that times a couple dozen and you’ll understand the bounty.

“Michael Dimock is a visionary,” said documentary filmmaker Harry Wiland, one of the hundreds of guests sampling his way through the former church.

That vision was clear last night.  Just as the way you and I eat shapes our bodies and souls, so too the way a city eats determines its quality of life.  Food is an obvious lever to reshape our city, if only because it is the one thing that ties all of us together on a daily, even hourly basis.

I didn’t ask Dimock this, but I wondered why, of all the possible venues for last night’s event, he chose Vibiana’s.  I don’t think it’s all a coincidence.  The beautiful spread last night, and the sense of purpose and mission that produced it,  as far as I’m concerned, on October 6, 2010, Vibiana’s was recomissioned, and reconsecrated