Commentary: Time For Fresno to Embrace Food Culture, Not Just Commerce
Earlier this year, the Fresno Food Expo brought together valley food businesses with regional and national buyers, as well as hundreds of ordinary local residents. But Del Rey farmer and guest commentator Nikiko Masumoto says all the buzz about food products, left her dreaming of something more meaningful, a focus on local food culture.
The cavernous hall of the downtown Fresno Convention Center buzzed last month as doors opened for the third annual Fresno Food Expo. Valley food businesses offered samples of their best products: crackers, tortillas, spices, dairy products, frozen items, meats, pasta, and dried fruit, to name a few. The people behind the exhibits were as diverse as their products, ranging from small and mid-size family businesses to huge industrial companies that are already big players in our national food systems. The Expo is designed to connect these Valley food businesses with buyers from across the nation. As the buyers trickled in, the room started to churn with conversation, hand shaking, sales pitches, and lively exchanges.
Underneath the buzz and entrepreneurial chatter, there was clearly a range of agendas for the day. Several exhibitors shared why they came and what they hoped to get out of the day, varying from a general sense of intrigue to ‘shark tank’ ambitions of expanding markets, exporting to new countries, or landing deals with national buyers. The common thread? Everyone was drawn to the expo by a sense of possibility.
While I walked and listened, I also thought of who was missing from the expo. Farmers and growers who produce fresh produce were far outnumbered by food manufacturers. A few familiar faces were in the crowd; I chatted with Chukou Thao, representing National Hmong American Farmers, who said he came to make sure the many contributions of Hmong farmers were not forgotten in the foodscape of our valley. The Expo organizers have already recognized this oversight, as next year’s event is scheduled for July specifically so that more fresh produce exhibitors can take part. Hopefully this also includes small, organic, and sustainable growers.
I left the event impressed and digesting my own dose of possibility. There is clearly a lot of value from the expo for businesses, and a wider appeal, as evidenced by the 1,000+ people who bought tickets for the public evening session. But I kept wondering how some of our national food leaders might react. I thought of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, whose ideas have shaped my thoughts and many others' about searching for - and growing - real food; food that he says our grandmothers would recognize as food, food that nourishes humans and sustains our planet, food that’s full of pleasure, and (I would add) human connection.
I don’t think that Michael Pollan would find everything at the expo within his definition of the type of food we should defend (like energy drinks?). This year’s expo was less about food, than it was about food products, and those food products were really only vehicles for the larger goal of economic development.
I do believe the Central Valley needs economic development and I believe the food expo is facilitating important business conversations. At the same time, I dream of deeper and wider conversations about food. Just one day before the Food Expo, the annual California Small Farm Conference was held just blocks from the Convention Center. Imagine what connections and discussions could have happened?!
Just as the Expo is fostering growth for many food businesses and connections with regional, national, and international buyers, I hope it can grow its vision of what it might become. I’m hungry for the Valley to emerge as a leader of food culture and policy. And that goes beyond just economic development. I dream of public discussions, research presentations, and conferences about the cultural traditions we enrich and teach through food. About equity in our food systems, and the sustainability of our farm and ranchlands. I dream of policy summits, health fairs, and gastronomical innovations, generated here. The Central Valley could be the place people turn to for cutting edge good food ideas and practices. I want to celebrate the Fresno Food Expo as a starting place, get drunk on possibility, and plant seeds for more.
Nikiko Masumoto is a native of the Central Valley. After studying at UC Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, she returned to her family's 80 acre organic farm in Del Rey, in rural Fresno County. She is the star of a one woman show called "What We Could Carry," which tells the story of Japanese Americans before, during and after their internment in World War II. She is also the co-author, along with Marcy and Mas Masumoto, of an upcoming cookbook The Perfect Peach (June 2013, Ten Speed Press). A version of this commentary originally appeared on the local food website TasteFresno.com.