The day is just barely breaking at 5 a.m., but the mad dash is already on at Moceri Produce's Miramar area warehouse. A line of trucks, their back doors open to receive crates of fruits and vegetables, await the start of their local rounds. This morning's deliveries need to get out within the hour; if they don't make it out in time, there will be chefs to answer to. Moceri's, a family-run wholesale business, has been in operation for a century and supplies around 300 restaurants, big and small, with the bulk of their produce.
The food in supermarkets and restaurants these days can come from anywhere in the world, often traveling thousands of miles to reach our plates. Surviving all that travel is rough on the produce, so it has to be bred for storage rather than flavor. But there's movement to return to our food roots and find ways to eat food grown and produced close to home.
I'm here to meet with the two guys that anchor their fledgling Locals Only network, an ambitious yet small-scale distribution-operation-within-a-distribution-operation that delivers local produce to a handful of locally minded kitchens.
I stand in the refrigerated chill with Robert Farmer, who helped found the Tierra Miguel Foundation and Farm, an educational center and working farm about an hour's drive north of San Diego, and who now spends 12-hour days working as the farm liaison for Moceri's rapidly growing local operation. Farmer meets in the early-morning hours with a few North County farmers at the Escondido farmers market and drives their produce down to the office with him.
Simultaneously, farmer-philosopher Tim Connelly brings some of his fresh harvest, baby beets and herbs, grown just for the program from his farm in Ramona, to add to the selection. We go over a shipment headed for the Wine Vault & Bistro in Middletown, which has featured local baby lettuces from Fallbrook's Peterson Produce on the menu since chef Bob Matos took over its kitchen last year.
I meet up with Matos at the restaurant later that afternoon, and he tells me he became a devotee of local, seasonal food while at the MODERN in New York City, where he had access to that city's best farmers markets and a direct relationship with growers. Now, he makes occasional trips to the Hillcrest farmers market but relies on Moceri for a constant supply of local produce. He says the Wine Vault's owner is fairly amenable to the local ingredients that Matos and his sous-chef try to incorporate into every menu, as long as they're able to maintain the moderate prices for which the bistro is known.
The Wine Vault and The Linkery in North Park are two of the Locals Only program's regular clients. The two rely so heavily on seasonal produce that they change their menus weekly, sometimes even nightly. When you're buying local, your food sources are fluid and diverse.
Linkery forager Lea Scheppke is such a passionate local foodie that she makes weekly trips to the Ocean Beach farmers market and People's Co-op, on her own time, to seek out supplemental ingredients for the restaurant. She's warm and bubbly and introduces me to some of the farmers she's gotten to know, including Victor, a Dulzura farmer, from whom she buys a bag of green garlic to take to the Linkery's chefs later that night. Victor tells us that he often has to throw away his unsold produce at the end of the night, as he doesn't have an easy way to donate it to a suitable place and the market doesn't have an organized plan for the collection and distribution of leftover goods. Scheppke and I both put that on our to-do list.
Scheppke walks me over to Roots Kind Food, a sidewalk café that also uses Moceri's, although much of their menu is made of produce from the farmers market, and I tag along as Heather, Roots' chef/co-owner, walks the few steps from the café's kitchen on Newport Avenue to pick up collard greens, apples and oranges for the fresh vegetarian-vegan fare they feature.
Besides being delicious, locally sourced eating is trendy, too. Hipster hotspots Starlite Lounge and Ritual Tavern are both using produce from Temecula's Crows Pass Farm, which gets additional crops from a few of its adjacent farm friends and makes deliveries to each restaurant. And Specialty Produce, another San Diego, family-owned produce supplier, always carries stuff from local farms.
If you've got a soft heart, know that when you buy local, you're also helping the little guy. There are more than 6,000 small farms in San Diego County, and the county has the highest number of itty-bitty farms (fewer than 10 acres) in the nation. Most don't produce enough yield to sustain a CSA (community supported agriculture) service or regular farmers market appearances. Local produce distributors and community groups like San Diego Roots and Slow Food San Diego are working to establish a practical connection from the farms to us city-folk with the goal that someday, eating food from closer to home won't be limited or financially prohibitive, but, rather, affordable and easily accessible for everyone.