Registered dietician Gerri French wants you to know that there’s more to food than calories and carbs, vitamins and minerals. A lot more. This month saw her longtime dream-a class that’s all about appreciating our seasonal food and the people who grow it-realized. The four-week-long class, Walk with the Farmer and the Cook, takes students through the field of a different farmer each week, where they learn about how seasonal fruits and veggies are grown and harvested, how to cook and enjoy them, and what they have to offer nutritionally.
Though this series is free, French could undoubtedly turn Walk with the Farmer into a serious cash crop. Interest in where our food comes from, and the health and environmental benefits of cooking and eating locally, has built to a crescendo in recent years. There’s the implementation of the Orfalea Fund’s s’Cool Food Initiative, which aims to create a community of healthy schoolchildren by educating them about food. The Slow Food movement has illuminated the importance of food that’s good for the people who eat it, good for the people who grow it, and good for the planet. And something about the magic that happens when you get your hands dirty planting and tending your own garden, and then harvest, cook, and eat what you’ve sown, is particularly appealing these days: the National Gardening Association found that this year, 43 million U.S. households will grow their own fruit and veggies-up a huge 19 percent from 2008. Even the First Lady is getting in on that action.
So it was no surprise that the first session saw a huge turnout. It was a beautiful Thursday morning, unseasonably warm for the middle of April-a “shoulder season” for our farmers-when more than 30 locavores, foodies, health nuts, and gardening enthusiasts gathered at the Fairview Gardens farm stand to walk its 12-and-a-half acres with French and Farm Manager Toby McPartland. Walking past the compost pile, the goats, and the field where tomatoes were being planted, the two dropped little gems of insight like Johnny dropped apple seeds, such as when French mentioned that those holes you might find in your Farmers Market-procured spinach are a sign of super-nutritious produce. “You want your plants to have to struggle a bit to survive,” she said. “They have to produce extra phytonutrients.” Or when McPartland talked about how costly it is to produce a whole head of cabbage, for instance, versus a bunch of fresh kale-picking the outer leaves of the kale plant allows continual production, while the same can’t be said of a whole head of cabbage or lettuce. This kind of stuff makes sense, but sometimes it helps to have the connections pointed out, especially for those more interested in the eating part of the food cycle. (Eaters got lucky, too: McPartland cut the group loose to sample the goods in the mandarin orchard, the kale fields, and again in a row of carrots.)
Though French has been a dietitian for 30 years, she’s been a foodie longer. In fact, when she was starting out and couldn’t find a job as a dietitian, she taught cooking classes. Oddly, she insists this makes her somewhat of an anomaly in her field: “Not too many dietitians like food and cooking!” But French is passionate about every step of the farm to kitchen to table cycle, and her ultimate vision is a true farm-to-table cooking school.
She wants people to reorient their thoughts about the cost of food: “When food is cheap,” she said, “you have to wonder: What was compromised?” The environment? The workers? She wants people to know that raw, fresh foods have more nutrition. Cooking, she says, saps some of it, “but worry is toxic; I want people to enjoy the journey.” Her enthusiasm is compelling and contagious: “When you think about it, the food you eat becomes your body.” Ponder that the next time you’re elbow-deep in Cheeto dust.
She refers to this class as Food Appreciation 101, and her goal is to get people thinking about all of the connections, from the sun to the nitrogen to the gophers-a nuisance McPartland credits with aerating the soil; he deals with them by “planting 20 percent extra.” Said French, “I want people to see the whole ecosystem.”
Appropriately, the class ends with food: a delicious kale salad, served in corn tortillas to prevent any waste.
Gerri French will teach another Walk with the Farmer and the Cook class this summer through SBCC Adult Education. She will also lead the Sierra Club’s True Cost of Food kickoff event on Thursday, May 21, at 7 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery. True Cost will continue as a monthly dialogue, including visits to restaurants and food tastings. For info, email GerriFrench@cox.net.