In partnership with the California Restaurant Association and numerous others in the Farm-to-Every-Fork arena, Fresher will empower lower-income, underserved areas to select their own “Top Community Chef” to create and develop their own prepared and ready to (h)eat meal plan. These chefs will train youth and other residents who can help everyone overcome the cost, skills and time barriers to cooking and eating healthfully. Based on the work of Fresh Producers, a California not-for-profit that has been an innovative force in food access in the Sacramento area for over seven years, Fresher aims to have positive impacts on health eating, workforce skills development and economic empowerment.
Currently, individuals and families in lower-income and underserved settings face numerous obstacles when they wish to move toward healthier eating. These obstacles include cost of goods, development of cooking skills, the pressures of time, along with already ingrained eating habits that are difficult to dislodge. Fresher is based on the observation that, just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a neighborhood food system to raise the amount of healthy eating in the community.
To tackle the issue of cost, these Fresher Food sites will engage in real Community Supported Agriculture, as the Community club contracts bulk purchases (with a preference for emerging and socially disadvantaged farmers) to reduce costs and Support specialty crop growers Agricultural endeavors. Costs will be reduced further by developing a community gardening program and working with the local food bank.
Even when fresh food access increases, the learning curve and time needed to establish new and healthier cooking and eating habits can prevent adoption of a more nutritious diet. Having professional chefs train those who like to and are available to cook (including afterschool programs for students and culinary arts institute interns) to prepare ready to (h)eat nutritious meals increases the likelihood of better eating in the neighborhood. Restaurateurs will share their expertise in feeding a lot of people in diverse locations with different budgets, along with their ability to train apprentices and create new jobs. Other California Restaurant Association experts can also train club managers in order to maximize the sustainability of the project through sound business practices.
We have currently begun organizing in a lower-income subsidized housing community in South Sacramento, an area of high risk in terms of income, employment, food desert status and violence. The Sacramento Housing and Rehabilitation Authority owns the majority of apartments in the Phoenix Park community and contracts with LifeSTEPS to provide a wide range of resident services, including an after school program of 180 students in the community clubhouse. The Executive Director of LifeSTEPS, Beth Southorn, is a member of the Fresh Producers Board of Directors and she and the site director for Phoenix Park, Jackie Rose (who has been working in the community for 25 years) are enthusiastic and committed supporters of the Fresher Food, Fresher Futures concept.
Fresh Producers also has a footprint in other nearby housing communities and the California Deputy Secretary for Housing Policy, Susan Riggs, is a member of the FP Board as well. We also have a national partner in the National Association of Resource Conservation and Development Councils, whose Executive Director Andrew Gordon is also on the FP Board. Andrew and the NARCDC work closely on a number of projects with the USDA and he has already elicited interest in D.C. for this program. With LifeSTEPS at numerous California facilities and the CA Department of Business and Housing, along with NARCDC, we have the capacity to replicate the project statewide and beyond.
The Sacramento County Environmental Health Department has indicated that a caterer could be permanently dedicated to a community as easily as to an office. Fresh Producers serves as a non- profit food collaborative that can either obtain a catering license itself, or subcontract with caterers who can serve a neighborhood, so long as they are following the health code for their catering permit. The Fresher Food sites can therefore function with or without a kitchen on site. The Capstone Senior Project group from the Culinary Institute at the Art Institute of Sacramento, under the guidance of faculty members with decades of experience in the industry, will begin working on refining the business plan this January, which will undoubtedly include participation by their very own Catering Club.
Several strategies will be tested: Bulk purchasing and then prep of cold dishes by students on site for their families; prep in a nearby commercial kitchen (a restaurant that closes early, a congregation with a permitted kitchen, a culinary institute) and delivery in a permitted fashion for direct or drive-thru pickup; a caterer with a portable bbq/food prep rig that can cook on site and deliver directly (e.g., Sac City Eats). Strategies for the most expansive use of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly food stamp) dollars are being discussed at top levels of the USDA FNS (Food and Nutrition Service) Departments. We are also partnering with the Elk Grove Unified School District Food Services (62,000 students) to explore collaborations to synergize afterschool meal funding and SNAP and other family food moneys to best serve the entire family.
Above all, we want to empower the community to the greatest degree possible and so we will conduct an open competition so that the community itself can choose the site coordinator— community chef, who will work with multi-generational teams to implement the various strategies. Any sous-chef, culinary school grad or student, or home chef who thinks they have what it takes to run their own place and cater to the community and help the community cater for itself can enter the contest. Finalists will be selected by the community teams and over the course of some months, they will audition chef coaches through a variety of challenges, including each contestant taking one half of the mp room and helping the team create a restaurant atmosphere and provide an affordable fine dining experience for them. The residents then vote on which experience they liked the best, and eventually, we’ll come down to two finalists by this coming September’s third annual Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Festival. The prize will be a first year’s salary as the community’s cooking coordinator and the chance to build a model that can be replicated elsewhere. This competition can be turned into a television/internet show.
The Fresher Food program will be based on sales, not giveaways (though a robust revenue stream can help those in greater need as well), run through a non-profit community food collaboration, yet operated like restaurants needing to be able to maintain profitability in order to guarantee sustainability. The bulk purchase and prep strategies are designed to make prices competitive with less healthful ready to eat food, and even more convenient as the meals can be picked up when one picks up one’s child, leaves work, or arrives home. As the number of sites in the Fresher network grow, the cost- and distribution-efficiencies will increase. These distribution strategies also lessen environmental impacts by reducing trips to the store, thus resulting in double lo-carb foods: lower carbs and lower carbon emissions.