The rain-splattered parking lot was full when I arrived at the fairgrounds for the Napa Food Forum last Wednesday. The meeting rooms were packed, spirits were high, and cheerful volunteers streamed out of the kitchen with arms full of food that they placed on rows of tables, an elaborate luncheon of local, organic food—for hundreds.
But fabulous feasts here are de rigueur. Napa loves good food. Outsiders visiting the valley to indulge hedonistic whims look into this wine-saturated economy and see that Napa is all about serving this bottle with that meal at such levels of artistry and expertise that it's rare to have a poor dining experience.
For one class of eater that's true—Napa's got the food thing covered. But it's not true for the 38 percent of low-income locals who can't always get a meal on the table. According to a study by Joanna Winter, "Comprehensive Planning for the Napa County Food System: A Preliminary Study of Problems and Possibilities," Napa ranks second to last of all California counties in the area of food security—the ability to "put food on the table at every meal." And sadly, food in Napa can be an ambivalent friend to the 8.3 percent of locals afflicted with diet-related chronic disease; for them, the Michelin Guide is irrelevant and the food-delivery systems in the county are substandard.
But change is coming to Napa. And the local leaders and food-industry stakeholders pushing for such change have been about their work since well before the all-day Food Forum on April 28. The trouble was that they were, for the most part, working in slightly disconnected fashion.
"I looked around for a long time for someone to organize all these good efforts around the county," said Dave Whitmer, Napa County agricultural commissioner. "And I finally thought to ask myself, 'Why shouldn't it be the agricultural commissioner's office?' So I provided leadership and we got a core group of committed people to do a visioning exercise." The outcome was the Food Forum, an opportunity for a community discussion of the problems and possible solutions to inequities linked to income and race. Participation was beyond expectation.
When I asked one of the organizers for a head count, I only got an estimate. "We don't have the numbers yet," Karen Schuppert explained. "But it's roughly 250 people, and we were expecting about 175 at the very most." Schuppert, a nutritionist and natural chef, was formerly the organizer of the St. Helena farmers market. "There's been discussion here today," Schuppert said, "about bringing healthy food into the classrooms and hospitals, where there are the most vulnerable populations."
According to Schuppert, whose husband is in the winegrowing business, there is some wine-industry support for diversifying agriculture in the Valley. Parts of wine properties not planted in grapes might go to food crops without any adverse impacts on Napa's major industry.
In an executive summary of her report, Winter claims that "less than 2 percent of [Napa] agriculture is used for food production." One industry insider told the Bohemian that it might work to go back to the cooperative "model of the 1970s" and conduct a survey of agricultural lands to see which landowners would be willing to allow sharecropping.
Much of the land near riparian areas in Napa is rich with alluvial soil deposits but also infected with Pierce's disease, so vines don't flourish there. To remove vineyards from riparian acreage, replacing vines with vegetables, might be a better use of the best soil, since vines produce better fruit under harsher conditions anyway. These and other ideas tossed around at the forum represent a challenge to present thinking and a movement toward change, including a key to food-systems improvement: community building. To approach greater equity and food security, Napa needs more people networking to share information and get the food where it's needed and when.
"This is about giving people hope," Whitmer said. "If we all get together, there is nothing we can't do."