Turn on, tune in and take action
The local food movement takes the debate to the airwaves
By Elizabeth Limbach
When it comes to food shows on radio and television, the majority consists of how-to demos, foodie travelogues or tense kitchen competitions. While these can leave the audience drooling, they are often void of substantial conversation or insight. Two Santa Cruz-based radio shows are different. They aim to rouse intellectual appetites, and they provide in-depth discussions about food and farming issues and what we can do about them.
The newer of the two, FoodSpeaks, is broadcast from the redwood-lined KZSC station on the UC Santa Cruz campus. The program is the brainchild of several recognizable faces from the Santa Cruz food movement: Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Market (SCCFM) director Nesh Dhillon, SCCFM education coordinator Nicole Zahm, Food, What?! founder and director Doron Comerchero, and Kate Purcell of Kate’s Kitchen Gardens. With the support of local radio virtuoso John “Sleepy John” Sandidge, FoodSpeaks has taken over his show, Talkabout, at 7pm on the second Wednesday of each month, and will mark its first anniversary this December.
“Food and farming is such a powerful component of this community, as well as economically very significant,” says Dhillon. “And there are a lot of myths about sustainable agriculture or organic farming. The show is a great opportunity to demystify some of those [myths] and to introduce some of the key people who have made [the local food system] what it is.”
The collaborators take turns hosting the show, which Dhillon calls “pretty grassroots and pretty low-fi.” Rethinking the meaning of “value” as it applies to our food system is Dhillon’s main mission with the program.
FoodSpeaks probed the dichotomy between price tags and true worth when Dhillon interviewed el Salchichero owner and sustainable butcher Chris LaVeque last February. “The way [LaVeque] is doing business is just inherently more expensive, and the community needs to understand that in order to support a more sustainable food system, you have to pay more money,” Dhillon says.
To be sure, plenty of the people who tune in are already hip to the issues, and Dhillon acknowledges that “ultimately, the survival of this movement rests upon the folks that aren’t [yet] a part of it.” As a result, despite their passion for their mission, the FoodSpeaks team strives to avoid sounding preachy, and embraces “educate” and “encourage” as their mantras.
Clear across town, nestled on the banks of the Corcoran Lagoon, broadcast veteran Michael Olson is nearly 20 years into hosting Food Chain Radio at KSCO, Santa Cruz’s oldest radio station. He began broadcasting the show from the station’s vintage 1947 RCA studio (the last of its kind in the country) in 1994, soon after publishing his book MetroFarm, which looks at growing food for profit in urban areas. More than 900 episodes of What’s Eating What (and syndication on 25 stations nationwide) later, Olson says the show’s primary theme has remained the same.
“My goal has always been to bring agriculture together with people. The two have become so separated and divorced.” He recalls his grandmother’s root cellar in Belfry, Montana, which was lined with hundreds of colorful jars of preserved foods. The historic flight from the country to the city has produced city dwellers who are disconnected, and thus vulnerable, when it comes to their food supply, he says. “When you don’t have control over what you eat, you are vulnerable to whatever is in what you’re being fed.”
One thing that has changed over the show’s trajectory has been the public’s interest in these issues. The difference between awareness then and now, he says, is exemplified by the fact that in the beginning, he “was a total heretic,” but now, he gets invitations to do things like speak at University of California farm conferences.
There are also many more writers, researchers and activists focused on the subject than ever before, and Olson regularly brings the food movement’s biggest and most provocative names into listeners’ homes. For example, in September, he hosted Marion Nestle, author of Eat Drink Vote, for a conversation about food politics, and in August, he hosted Beverly Bell and Tory Field, authors of Harvesting Justice, for a conversation about food sovereignty.
Certain issues generate bigger reactions from listeners, such as genetic engineering. (The subject was the sole focus of the now-defunct Right to Know radio show on KZSC, which aired for several months leading up to the 2012 election with hopes of rallying support for Proposition 37.)
But whatever the topic, Olson puts the journalism training he received from working with David Brinkley at NBC to use in crafting each week’s show.
“I always look in my stories for places that are rubbing up against each other,” he says. “I think it takes conflict, friction, to spark interest. Otherwise, you end up being a proselytizer and that gets old really fast. I try my best to put both sides of the conflict on the table. In doing so, I hope to never leave the audience with enough that they’re satisfied, but to always leave them with enough information to go away curious and hungry for more.”
Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist based in Santa Cruz.
Food Chain Radio airs on KSCO from 9–10am on Saturday mornings at 1080 AM on the radio dial. FoodSpeaks airs from 7–7:45pm the second Wednesday of each month on KZSC, 88.1 FM. Podcasts of past shows may be found on their websites at www.metrofarm.com and www.foodspeaks.org, respectively.
Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist living in Santa Cruz, California. In this fruitful region and beyond, she finds the intersections of food, ag, health and the environment to be the most intriguing realms to write about. A bookworm and vegan foodie, the San Diego native has lived in Santa Cruz for a decade, relishing its redwood forests, fresh produce, delicious wines, and sparkling sea.