With national and international food trends favoring the “locavore” movement and its mantra of locally-sourced ingredients, change is afoot in the culinary world at large, but also here at home. While it remains something of an irony that the so-called “Breadbasket of the World” lacks its own signature regional cuisine, area consumers are adopting a more local approach to shopping. California’s San Joaquin Valley is awash in high-quality produce, and ships produce of mind-boggling variety, quality, and yield to points all over the globe. It provides the United States with fully 25 percent of its fresh produce. In contrast to its somewhat fuzzy image as an ag region in the national psyche, the San Joaquin is coming into its own regarding its culinary scene. Further, the ubiquity of Netflix and provocative documentaries like Food, Inc. and Supersize Me—once hard-to-find obscurities in a blockbuster movie market like Visalia—now more easily influence local consumer attitudes and demands away from corporate food systems. Local just makes sense, given life in one of the world’s preeminent ag regions.

The Central Valley’s output—revenue powerhouses like citrus or dairy that make Tulare County and surrounding environs tops in their sectors nationally—is more closely associated geographically with runners-up from afar: Wisconsin with dairy and Florida with oranges, for example. California avocados—90 percent of those consumed in the U.S.—aren’t that highly associated with the Golden State, despite marketing efforts; say “avocados” and people still think “Mexican food.” Cattle, upon which the Central California ag industry was founded, runs fourth behind Texas and a couple of other flyovers. And if those of us of a certain age hear “California Raisins,” the ’80s-era dancing claymation version might spring to mind as readily as any mental images of the actual dried fruit. California is still winning as the nation’s number one ag state, yet still seems to come in second where top-of-mind awareness is concerned. But the “Alice Waters* effect” continues to shape restaurant practices as well as public expectations and shopping patterns.

How we are perceived is of keen interest to area promoters of our tourism industry, Tulare County’s number two sector. “It is true that we lack that signature item or instant name recognition that places like New Orleans, like beignets or hurricanes, or Napa Valley wine. But we have authenticity,” said Suzanne Bianco of the Visalia Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have real farmers and ranchers, great chefs, and creative people who can create those special cheeses, chocolates, or beers for that matter. Just like planning a party is easier if you have a theme to build upon, it would be easier to market around a signature identity—think, garlic capitol. However, we can springboard in different directions rather than rely on one or two namesakes. We can do nuts, oranges, stone fruit, dairy, grapes, etc.,” she added.

Our fertile region, with its enormous and readily available bounty, may not produce that singular culinary stamp on the state, but there are notable shifts taking place locally. Many San Joaquin dwellers are becoming “locavores,” and some would say many here always were, just without the fancy label.

Locally, many of our chef-owned restaurants take their cues from Bay Area restaurants, some borrowing menus from the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle or Food & Wine. But they are shopping our Farmers Markets for that day’s menu. Chain restaurant mediocrity may still prevail with area consumer tastes, as rife in the Valley as in Anytown, U.S.A., but change is here.

Locavore is a thing.
Despite the prevailing chain fixation, many Visalians and other area residents long ago joined what is now a broader cultural shift toward the locavore movement: Growing locally, buying locally. Michelle Bacci-Jessen—among the area’s key tastemakers, co-founder of Tazzaria, and co-owner along with husband James Jessen of a mini-empire of numerous Visalia restaurants including Pizano’s, PhD, The Butcher & Baker, Tazz.Coffee, and Glick’s—sees major positives to being in this area. “We were recently reminded by a well-traveled foodie just exactly how lucky we are as chefs to live where we do. Being born and raised in this area, you don’t realize how much you take for granted when food is concerned,” said Jessen. “You start to forget just how awesome it is that the lettuce you are serving in your salads is literally grown just a few miles from the restaurant, and the walnuts in the muffins we bake are grown and delivered to us by one of our customers. If I can think of one phrase to describe what we have access to, it would be ‘fresh bounty.’”

Buying local has never been easier. Visalia’s two Farmers Markets attract both amateur and pro chefs each Thursday and Saturday, as well as those with no culinary aspirations at all, merely in search of a good time. “Our farmer’s market is spectacular,” said Jessen. “We love shopping every week for specials we’ll feature at the restaurants. We have become spoiled because we have made relationships with a lot of local growers who deliver right to our door. I have to admit that I am a bit of a fruit bat, so I am in heaven during this time of year. We have fun creating dishes that are hyper-local with what we find at the market, and following the seasons definitely offers great inspiration.”

For those wanting to buy local and subvert a food system that ships, preserves, fumigates, and irradiates, Jessen said, “I guess all I have to offer is just give it a try. Start with something small like local coffee, ice cream, or a trip to farmer’s market. I am confident that you will be pleasantly surprised with finding good food, good company, and people with a passion for what they are creating. Eat local, it’s the way it should be.”

Local producers have upped their retail games, like Bravo Farms, Rosa Brothers, Stafford’s Chocolates, Top O’ the Morn Farms, and Naturally Nuts, among numerous others including Reimers, a locally-owned confectionery that uses locally-grown ingredients in their homemade ice cream. Cacciatore Winery and Olive Corp. is found at Café 225, which serves several varieties of their wine, as does La Piazza in Tulare. Bari Olive Oil in Dinuba distributes to Glick’s, Tazzaria, and Pizano’s. Farmer’s Fury, a winery in Lemoore, distributes via the Cellar Door and Vartanian restaurants. Watson’s Veggie Garden often uses produce grown locally or in their own garden, as well as other locally sourced products like honey and eggs. Those are just a few of the many examples of local establishments supporting local products.

Who has the vision?
Suzanne Bianco of the Visalia Convention & Visitors Bureau, sees a lot of interest coming from outside the region, perhaps more strongly than longtime residents. The world’s tourists come to visit the Sequoias, but often mention our local roadside produce stands as among their favorite experiences.

Efforts are being undertaken to raise the profile of the San Joaquin Valley as a foodie destination, given that we are awash in great sources and ingredients. “I think because ag is our way of life, we locals forget that people from all over the world are fascinated to really see that connection: the growing, preparing, and enjoying of food. We always highlight all the wonderful places we have in our county to celebrate food whether it is eating, making, or growing. And while farm-to-fork is a catch phrase used often in big cities, in Tulare County, it is the way we live everyday,” said Bianco. “We have suggested itineraries for foodie visitors who are looking to explore the food scene a little deeper. From restaurants, to farmers markets, to the best strawberry stands, to museums and farm tours that teach about ag, we have so much to offer. Rosa Brothers Dairy tours offer insight into the dairy business to help visitors see how milk gets on the grocery store shelf.”

Food writer and photographer Lori Rice, a transplant now living in Central California whose food blog (fakefoodfree.com) covers a variety of timely issues including the local food movement, agrees on the allure of roadside stands. “In terms of ingredients, the local farm stands, especially during berry season, really stand out for me. It’s one of the major food-focused things I love about this area,” she said.

Another characteristic of our area that stands out to the relative newcomer: Local restaurants often don’t brag when they are sourcing ingredients locally. “In fact, I rarely see it on menus at all, even in fine print at the bottom,” said Rice. “I recently learned that several restaurants in town get some of their ingredients from the Farmers Market and local farmers. Please, please, please brag about that—on your menus, in your ads. I want to know that you are sourcing foods locally. Your food and establishment become much more inviting to me because I know that by supporting you, I’m supporting the community.”

Some of the reasons to shop locally—sustainability, as well as qualitative matters, can be summed up in these three things, according to Rice: Relationships, community, and food quality. “I enjoy having a relationship with the people who supply my food. I like to hear their stories, their triumphs, and their challenges when it comes to growing and producing that food. Strong communities are built by supporting each other. There is no better way to provide that support than by purchasing the goods we use every day from someone who produces them locally. Finally, I find that the shorter the time a piece of produce spends between the dirt and my kitchen, the better it tastes. Shopping locally means farmers can harvest that produce at peak ripeness leading to a better taste, and according to some research, a greater nutrient content.”

But to change habits, people must first change their minds. What are some of the barriers, including mental and logistical ones, as well as economic or cultural ones, to shopping locally?

According to Rice, “I’ve spent quite a bit of time in my past work evaluating barriers to local food supply and there are many. They exist with both the consumer and the producer. As consumers, we’ve lost touch with seasonality. We want all varieties of foods to be available at all times of the year. I’m guilty of this, too, in my current work [as a food photographer]. I’m a big believer in a global food system along with my support for local shopping, but this constant demand for foods regardless of the time of year causes us to forget about seasonality. So when the season does come around, those local options are often forgotten about and traded for convenience with consumers buying the product at the supermarket, regardless of the origin.”

Like all of us, farmers and producers must have an income to survive. If they can’t guarantee a local market to bring in that income, they might move on to a larger market that they can depend on and allow the demand in that market to drive what they produce. This also leads to fewer varieties of foods being grown. Products tend to lean toward familiar retail varieties and not less common—but beautiful and delicious—heirloom varieties. “I’m crazy about all varieties of heirloom tomatoes and rare peppers,” said Rice. “Basically anything that is unfamiliar to me, I buy, research the origin, and then experiment with it in my kitchen. Those rare items are harder to find in this area and I expect it’s just because the demand isn’t there.”

Rice spent the first part of her career working with food access as it relates to health and much of it was focused on low-income communities. “Every time I’ve provided my view about valuing food, spending more for good food, and supporting local, I’ve always been challenged with the statement that not everyone can afford it. When you are trying to make ends meet and keep your family healthy, buying a local heirloom tomato is the last thing on your mind,” said Rice. “I do feel that mass-market and chain-oriented food cultures can make a difference by sourcing more foods locally for sale at affordable prices so that more people can easily access these foods.”

That being said, Rice’s response to this challenge of cost has always been that many people can afford these foods. “Let’s start there. Many of us have the money to pay more for a local tomato, we just value convenience and other expenses in life more than supporting a local food system. I think the greatest thing to witness in a community is when this value system shifts; when supporting a local food system becomes important enough to us that we invest in it by buying local. I’m not saying we can or should buy every single food we eat locally, but when a food is available locally, I see no reason not to buy it from the place it is grown. The benefit is a stronger community, respect for producers, enhanced awareness of seasonality, and fresher, better tasting foods.”

That works for Jessen: “We’ve built our restaurants and reputation on fresh, local ingredients. I think that we recently are finally realizing the magnitude of everything that our region truly has to offer us. With that being said, we are enjoying our ingredients more than ever. Everything from fruits, vegetables, cheeses, jams, meat, to beer and wine; there is such an abundance of fresh, quality ingredients and talented artisans right in our backyard. We are lucky to call Visalia home and to be part of the great food revolution that has been taking place here. n