A Grassroots Effort for Sustainability
By Megan Roche, Crystal Springs Uplands School Class of 2015
It was 5:30 pm when I walked into Crystal Springs Uplands School’s ballroom, and there were already rows of tables and chairs set up, ready to welcome a coming flood of teachers, staff and alumni. The building—an old mansion—occasionally feels anachronistic filled with a mass of middle and high schoolers, but that night it wore its formality well: It was time for the second annual Crystal Connects alumni event, and this one’s title and focus was Food, Wine & Sustainability.
The hallway was lined with tables where vendors served locally sourced and artisanal food and beverages. We had a chance to mingle and learn about these businesses—such as 31st Union, Grape & Grain, Belinda’s Chocolate and Epicurean Group—and their commitment to sustainable practices. Later there would be a keynote address by Kat Taylor (CSUS ’76), CEO of Beneficial State Bank and Founding Director of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, followed by a panel of CSUS alumni—all connected to our local foodshed. The attendees included graduates of CSUS from the 1970s to the last several years. I was the odd one out, 18 years old at a 21+ event, carrying a notebook in the place of a wine glass.
As people began streaming through the doors, I continued dodging my way around tables and chairs to find the people I was most looking forward to talking to: the panelists. From a personal chef to the manager of a vineyard, the panelists had experience in in every aspect of the food industry, and they all agreed on one thing: the importance of the sustainable food movement.
Jack Rudolph (CSUS ’07), manager of Stepladder Ranch, said that people are becoming increasingly more interested in finding out how their food was sourced and where it came from. The obsession with everything organic, he claimed, is on the way out, simply because the label doesn’t mean all that much. Mara Scribner (CSUS ’92), a personal chef, agreed that in the past, sustainability wasn’t on many people’s radars, but it has quickly begun to permeate our culture. In addition, several spoke about how changing expectations can continue to further the cause. A push toward sustainability can only go so far without the support of those buying the food, and Jessica Goldman (CSUS ’01), author of Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook, said that expectations and actions are indeed changing. There is a connection with farmers that didn’t exist in the past, she said, and people are making more of an effort to get food directly, without the transportation and extra hassle of non-local food.
With the push for locally grown food comes a need for farms to grow it, and Kat Taylor knows more about that than almost anyone. As a strong proponent of the sustainable food movement, Taylor became part of the system to understand the struggles it faced, in the hopes of later being able to help fix them. The vision of TomKat Ranch is to create “healthy food on working lands,” a goal which Taylor firmly believes will alleviate other problems as well. From water management and climate change to economic recovery, she says there is little the agri-culture industry cannot solve. At the moment, the average age of farmers in the United States is 63; there is a significant amount of change needed, and a significant amount of knowledge that we will need to relearn.
But Taylor is adamant, and with her belief comes a mountain of data: perennial grasses hold the most water, store the most carbon, and are more resilient to drought than other grass-es. Annual grasses, according to a study cited by Taylor, took more than 31 minutes to absorb 1/2 inch of water; perennial grasses took a mere 10.6 seconds. At TomKat ranch, 50 of their 72 paddocks now have perennial grass presence after 3 years of simulating real-world predator pressures by shifting where the cows are allowed to graze. Something as simple as rotating pastures allowed for a sharp increase in sustainability, so it is clear that, as Taylor put it, “Some-times the grass is greener on the side of the cows.”
Everyone at the event was passionate about sustainability in food and agriculture and despite the challenges, there was a sentiment of optimism for our future as people continue to take action. Yet here in California, we have good reason to be optimistic. Our climate is as close to perfect as any when it comes to growing food. The variety of foods provided at the tables—everything from local passion fruit and avocado to grass-fed beef and a variety of wines—proved this point well. With that in mind, I asked several people what they thought the next step was. Where do we go from here? When the going gets tough, will the tough get going? Interestingly, I received a variety of answers. Some people, like Jessica Goldman, said that understanding seasons is an important step: People need to be aware that they cannot always expect things like berries and certain vegetables year round if they also seek to buy sustainable food. Mara Scribner agreed, stating that changing people’s minds can be the hardest part. Consumers often know what they want, and convincing them to eat something different is not always possible. Stephanie Jones Bailey (CSUS ’90), manager of Jones Family Vineyards, suggested that “Many problems can be solved by learning to work with the environment you have and saying, ‘Why not try it?’” Yet several panelists acknowledged that there may be a limit to the sacrifices people are willing to make. There are only so many root vegetables you can eat, said one panelist, and that’s a big concern for the future of the movement.
Even to those most dedicated to the cause, the future is unknown. It is easy to be sus-tainable when you have the economy and climate for it, but the next 20 years represent a large wildcard: If these hurdles can’t be overcome in places where sustainability isn’t as easy, people may become unwilling. But how to fight these problems remains an question, and the answer is far from clear-cut.