Thursday, August 11, 2011

Celebrating 30 Years!

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Santa Monica Farmers Market Celebrating 30 Years!


Celebrating 30 Years!

Santa Monica Farmers Market Quarterly Library Panels Series

The Santa Monica’s Farmers Market turned 30 this year and in celebration its Quarterly Library Panel Series decided to focus on the past, present, and future of good food in Santa Monica.   The August panel consisted of the normal medley of chefs and farmers this time focusing on Santa Monica Farmers Market pioneers. On the cooking sides chefs Mark Peel of Campanile and Josie Le Balch of Josie and upcoming Next Door by Josie (which was just approved this week, new more casual restaurant that will be offering both lunch and dinner that is, appropriately, next door to Josie).  These taste making chefs were joined by farmers market stalwarts “celebrity potato farmer” Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, and Molly Gean of the flavor astounding Harry's Berries.  Laura Avery, the Santa Monica Farmers Market Supervisor and Wednesday Farmers Market Manager, was the night’s moderator.  

Although the Farmers Market now brings farm fresh local produce to some 900,000 customers a year in the beginning it was a little different.  “The Santa Monica Farmers Market began on July 15th 1981,” explained Laura Avery.  “At that point Santa Monica was famously profiled in 60 Minutes as the “People's City.” “Then-Mayor Ruth Yanatta-Goldway a one term Santa Monica mayor, said ‘I want to start something downtown.  So with the help of the Department of Agriculture the Santa Monica Farmers Market was born.  The Santa Monica Farmers Market doubled in its first year, and then doubled again in its second year when I started working for it.”

In the beginning people weren’t quite sure what a Farmers Market was supposed to be.  “I remember when the Farmers Market started because the business was commercial,” noted Gean.  “Many big farms thought it was a great place to dump their seconds, those that were the wrong sizes or had bumps or bruises.”  “But then came the revolution.” “Bring back the flavor.  Flavor is the most important thing to us.  It’s seven or eight on the list in the world of commercial food.”

“For years, we shipped through the normal shipping channels, and we grew the commercial strawberries because they ship well.  We were always on the brink of disaster.  Farmers are optimists; they are able to think ‘there’s always next year.’  But, our commercial sales were getting worse and worse.  But with the Farmers Markets we could control what we wanted to grow.  We could grow “bad” commercial brands that don’t ship well, but taste better and were much sweeter.  It went from the place where you sell your seconds to a place where you sell the best quality.  I can say Farmers Markets saved our farming business.  We are exclusively at Farmers Markets since 1993.”

Avery asked how each person on the panel how they came to the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  “When I was asked to talk on this panel my husband and I realized, ‘Gosh that was the long time ago,’” noted Gean.  “Many of the people we started out with have passed, retired, or, like us, now have our kids are behind the tables.  Harry’s Berries has been at the Farmers Market for twenty-five years.  The way we got started was we heard on local NPR that they were starting these things called Farmers Markets.  I called Laura up and she said ‘we already have too many berries, we don’t need anymore!’  But what got us in at Santa Monica was the Seascape Strawberry (a berry that is now a capstone of taste at the Farmers Market) because it’s an off-season variety.  That got us in the door in.  But Laura told us we had to leave once the season really started because they already had too many berries.  But luckily they let us stay.”

Weiser’s story is even more humble; “I remember being in the double wide we were living in when we got a knock on the door and a man said, “I want to tell you about this Farmer’s Market I’m starting.”   My Dad said, ‘that’s good because Alex is starting college in the fall maybe this can help pay for college.  Initially my family had apples; we had bought 160 acres of Rome Beauty Golden Delicious and Red Delicious for process.  At that time, you grew for the table market or the process market so the apples were being used for baby food and apple juice. It wasn’t the dream my family thought it would be.   We were trying to figure out how to survive that is until we got the knock on the door.  It was great.  I employed all my friends, put them through college.  I learned as much at the market as I did in college.  Communication is not something you get on the farm.”

For the chefs going to the place where the best quality is sold was a no brainer. Le Balch noted how she was first introduced to the seasonal concept while working for Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison.  “Wolfgang was the first person I met who had no idea what he was going to make for the specials that night.  In the beginning I was like, ‘what am I doing working for this guy?’ But it was great.  It taught me the freedom to experience what’s fresh.  Going to the market is like a candy store for us.  At Josie people will call us to find out what is going to be on our Farmers Market menu and I have to say, ‘I have no idea.’”  Peel didn’t remember the exact experience of the first time at the market (or the exact amount of parking tickets he’s accumulated over the years).  “We opened in June 1989.   I don’t really remember what brought me first, but I remember seeing what was available and thinking ‘that’s good, let’s try that.’ Nancy, my ex wife, she starting going first (Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bread Bakery, Pizzeria Mozza, and Osteria Mozza).  Then we just started planning seasonal menus.”

Avery noted that according to the Chef’s Collaborative the food industry is a 385 billion dollar industry.  “If people are going to hear about anything, you’re going hear about it from a chef.  I was thinking about the power of food.  Chef’s are tastemakers that create people’s eating habits.”  “We have to give Alex his due,” declared Peel.  “We depend upon the farmers to bring us the best of what’s available.  We don’t always know what’s going to happen next.   What’s coming up next.”

“In the beginning, people would go to other restaurants and the food would have no flavor,” expanded Le Balch.  “It was an evolution, making people understand you might be paying more, but the experience is better.  Just look at the evolution of the heirloom tomato.”  

Purslane, Fuji Apples, Kiwis, Dandelion Greens, these are all things that were introduce to eaters through chefs through the Farmers Markets.  Many of these “non commercial items” created uneasy waves when they were first introduced (reintroduced) to the dinning market.  “Lamb’s Quarters is a delicious herb/vegetable that we serve at Campanile, but it’s a weed,” noted Peel.  “It actually grows in the alley in the back of restaurant, but I swear I don’t harvest it there.   We had a waiter who was from Minnesota and he said ‘you have to take Lamb’s Quarters off the menu because my mother is coming into town and she will have a heart attack that you’ve got a weed on our menu.’” 

“I will be interesting to see what the next 30 years are,” noted Peel.  “The Farmers Market went from mom and pop to much bigger.   Now people complain about chef’s scooping things up.”   “I think it’s inevitable,” stated Avery. “The chef’s have been our biggest collaborators.   My sales are the same but now they’re now sixty to seventy percent chefs so I ask ‘where did my table customers go?’”  The discussion then slid into now ubiquitous specialty food companies that buy the market’s produce for high priced restaurants in Los Angeles along with further places like Las Vegas and Arizona.  

Peel continued, “the produce companies are here to stay, they’re the life blood.  Most farmers now sell about fifty percent of their produce not on the street but on the sidewalk behind it.” “We’re the victim of our own success,” noted Gean.  “At one point I stopped wholesale sales because the mom’s at the market deserve taste too.”

Opinions on what to do about this today and how it will affect the future were offered.  “It’s interesting that now everyone wants a Farmers Market in their city,” noted Avery.  “But in most cities they’re not Farmers Markets they’re Swap Meets.  The Department of Agriculture will call it a Farmers Market if they have 2 farmers and 40 people selling ceramic butterflies.  So I think the next big thing is a growth, growth in wholesale.”   Everyone wants to copy the Santa Monica Farmers Market template.  “The commercial growers want to lower the standard, to have unsanitary produces,” explained Avery.  “We need to protect our farms from the legislature pushed by BigAg.  They want to allow dirty farming practices and irradiate all the food.”  “Wal-Mart trying to lower the standard of organic so it’s easier for them to sell it at their stores,” chimed in Le Balch.  

“We’re a niche,” noted Gean.  “But we’re such and important piece of the puzzle because we’re the flavor.”  “What is needed is a massive amount of growth,” observed Peel.  “The Santa Monica Farmers Market is very small potatoes compared to what a single Ralphs will do.   If they are going to be important in the next thirty years this needs to become the standard.  It’s important to figure out this model and increase it by ten times.”

But it was the near future that these farmers and chefs focused on at the end of their panel discussion.  Next month, the Santa Monica Farmers Markets will be a holding a five-day Good Food Festival and Conference, held September 14th through 18th.  The event is billed as an “unprecedented multi-day event” bringing together famers, sustainable food advocates, chefs, food businesses and “people who care about good food.”  Events will include a good food street fair, cooking demonstrations at Santa Monica High School and programs focused on school food at Santa Monica College. The event is sponsored by Chicago-based, which trains farmers, promotes local sustainable food and is leading a national effort to improve food safety on small farms.  Brochures describing the festivities can be found at the four farmers market in Santa Monica. 

Kat Thomas is a writer in Santa Monica who is very very happy 30 years ago the Santa Monica Farmers Market was born.  You can check out more of her writing at her food blog

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Lasting Impact of Five Kids

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the chaperoning 5 Cambodian Kids for a week for the Cambodian Children's Fund.

The Lasting Impact of Five Kids:

Chaperoning the Cambodian Children’s Fund

Imagine you went to the moon.   And imagine that it wasn’t the scientific moon of today, but the moon of a hundreds years ago: a fantastical land full of abundance where every whim and desire that you ever had appeared before your very eyes, and land where anything was possible.  

Now imagine instead you grew up in Cambodia. A country that where between 1975 and 1979 one-quarter of the entire population, 2 million Cambodians, were killed in genocide.  A country with the highest under-five mortality rates in Southeast Asia (with 141 per 1,000 live births.  In America, by contrast, the number is 8 per 1,000).   A country where 45% of children suffer from malnutrition. A country where 38% of the population is under the age of 15.

Now imagine for two weeks in August you left Cambodia and went to the moon.  But instead of calling it the moon just call it the United States of America.    

A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of chaperoning five kids from Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) around Southern California for a week (I was their English chaperone since they also had a Cambodian chaperone that came over with them).  Five kids who had some of the biggest, and humblest, hearts I’ve ever seen.   Five kids who equally marveled at the expansiveness of supermarket and the Pacific ocean (most were seeing the Pacific ocean, really any ocean for the first time).  Five kids who up until six years ago would have thought the chances of them going to Disneyland were pretty much the same as going to the moon. 

Now how these five kids came to America was mainly due to magic, the magic of opening your heart.  In 2003, then Hollywood executive, Scott Neeson first set foot in Cambodia.   On holiday from work, he was making the transition from being the president of 20th Century Fox International to an executive at Sony Pictures; Neeson was traveling through Southeast Asia on a five-week backpacking trip.   When he arrived in Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) his intention was to travel to northern Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat (a Cambodia’s famous 12th century temple, considered to be one of the wonders of the world).  

Instead Neeson discovered teams of orphans and families living at Steung Mean Chey, the largest (and most toxic) trash dumps in Southeast Asia.  Eight football fields wide and 100 feet deep Steung Mean Chey is composed of trash and medical, industrial and human waste.   It is also home to 600-1200 families, to 2000-4000 children. 

From sunrise to sundown, these children would forage for scraps to sell in the hopes of earning enough money for food for themselves and their families.   All the while breathing in methane fumes and contracting illness such as HIV, Hepatitis, Respiratory problems, and skin diseases.   These twelve hour days usually resulted in somewhere around fifty cents, enough for a bowl of rice.

Neeson returned to Los Angeles, but not for long.  

In less than a year, he traded a booming career, a house, and a boat to make a safe haven for these kids to learn and live.  In June 2004, Cambodian Children’s Fund opened its doors.   In the beginning the boarding school revolved around the health and well being of 45 kids. Today they provide food, housing, quality education, medical/dental care and cultural enrichment to over 700 children in five centers.  Unlike many non-profits CCF believes that for optimal development and healing the children in their care must remain connected to their families and communities.   Thus along with the five schooling centers CCF runs a myriad of community services (a daycare, a vocational school, well-baby support, women's empowerment classes, and job readiness and placement) that offer the strongest safety net for the kid’s families. 

For the last three years five of CCF’s top students have attended Global Youth Leadership Summit hosted by the Anthony Robbins Foundation and then spend a week seeing the site of Southern California such as SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Disneyland, a taping of Modern Family on the 20th Century Fox lot, Griffith Park, and the Santa Monica Pier.   It was during this time I had the honor of chaperoning these five kids.   And everywhere we went magic seemed to happen.  

Everywhere we went we met people who had a connection to Cambodia (which truthfully up until this experience I couldn’t even point out really well on the map… and if you’re wondering it’s on the Indochina Peninsula boarded by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast and Vietnam to the east).  My absolute favorite story: after a ten hour day at Disneyland (which was by far the kid’s favorite experience… it’s good to know the love of Disneyland is truly a universal experience, although the need to buy overpriced souvenirs does not translate as well) we were waiting in line for the People mover that takes you to the parking garage.    Exhausted beyond believe I was totally zoning out when I noticed the kids were pointed to an All American looking guy standing behind us in line.  They kept pointing to the extent that I wondered if he was a pop star of some sort that the kids recognized but I was completely unhip to (pop stars are also a universal experience with Taylor Swift and Katy Perry being at the top of these kids list of favorite artists).   

All of a sudden one of the girls went over and began talking Khmer (the official language of Cambodia) to him.    Similar sounding to Thai, Khmer is like a verbal version of the old Atari game Pong on the highest level.  And to the astonishment of the CCF employees he started talking back.  It turns out it’s a small world after all (a joke that was repeated numerous times in the telling of this tale).   Having volunteered in Cambodia two years prior at CCF Mr. All American knew the kids by name.   And to top it all off he doesn’t even live California, he was on vacation with family from Utah.    If you start thinking about the odds they are astronomical, which is why I can only chalk it up to the magic. 

We sometimes forget it but we have so much magic in America; magic that comes in the form of opportunity.  For weeks after chaperoning all I could say is that I finally I realized how my problems, the things that I spend day in and day out bitching and moaning about, really weren’t that big.

A good amount of this country seems to forget these days how much we have.  I sometimes think that Americans feel it’s their job to talk about everything.  To talk, and talk, and talk about our problems while never really taking real action to change the world.  Happiness, like everything else is attainable, but to do so we need to reset priorities.   We need to understand that the conduit for happiness is gratitude.       

We don’t live in a land where the only way you’re going to learn how to read and write is if you bribe the teachers (which is the standard at most Cambodian public schools).  In Cambodia, elementary enrolment rates are high, but so many children repeat grades that it takes on average more than 10 years to complete primary school. Less than half of all students make it that far.

These kids, who previously spent 12 hours a day picking trash from a garbage dump for their dinner, will happily spend at least that many hours going to school.  These kids first attend Cambodian public school from seven till four, and then at English and Khmer cultural classes at CCF till ten or eleven at night.  And once these kids have graduated and gone to college what do they want to do with their lives?   Most of them want to help other people; most of them want to be doctors.  

These five kids hearts had a nuclear impact on each of us that interacted with them.   As the week progressed I noticed how the Americans just kept trying to give the kids more and more stuff.   “We have so much,” I heard over and over again, “please take some more.”

We live in a land where whatever you want to be you can be.  It just so happens that these days I get the feeling that what most people want to be are pessimists, people who complain about how “hard” their lives are.  And then you meet five kids whose lives are actually hard and they have some of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.  These kids had so little and yet they were constantly creating and giving.  Each of the four girls made an intricately braided bracelet for me.  At token that meant more than anything bought in a store ever would.  

I learned so much from these five kids.  Yes I learned about Cambodia and its culture, but more so about perspective. 

We have so much.    More than we could ever hope for, but only if we can open our eyes and see how much we can give.  For the biggest thing I learned is that the real magic comes when you open your heart.   

For more about the Cambodian Children’s Fund please go to:

Kat Thomas is a writer.   You can check more of her creations at and