Chef Patrick Mulvaney referred to him as “The man who changed the way people buy food in Sacramento,” but Jim Mills of Produce Express said his role in Sacramento being named America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital isn’t quite as dramatic, attributing the rise of farm-to-table eating as the result of people making conscious decisions about their food choices.
Mills began his career as a chef, and he worked for Sacramento restaurateur Randy Paragary before switching from food preparation to food supply a little more than a decade ago.
“Coming from being a chef to working in produce, I was able to bring farmers and chefs together,” Mills said. “We have 1,200 customers – from taquerias to Ella (Dining Room & Bar), and of those, about 200 really focus on locally grown ingredients.”
Chefs have long shopped at farmers markets to get fresh local foods for the evening’s meals, but now, Sacramento region farmers and other local farms in nearby counties supply them directly, often designating plots of farmland for certain restaurants and growing what the chefs want them to. The Sacramento region has perfect agricultural land, enabling farmers to deliver fresh foods to restaurants -- sometimes on the same day.
Mills said that, just like the focus on organic food, farm-to-fork eating is only going to grow, and the larger companies are watching closely.
The company that owns both Red Lobster and Olive Garden opened a new restaurant in Sacramento earlier this year that focuses on seasonal ingredients in its meals – Seasons 52. Mills said it’s a strong indicator that everyone is taking note.
“What’s going to occur is that the consumers will shape everything,” he said. “People are more aware of where their food comes from and when it’s fresh.”
So what are the benefits to eating farm-to-fork food?
Mills said there are several.
“It’s a better product, first of all,” he said, noting that locally sourced foods are picked closer to the time they are ripe – enabling them to reach their full flavor and maturity on the vine, tree or in the dirt. That contrasts with out-of-season produce that might be picked from halfway across the world before they’re ready, then get shipped over the ocean before spending time in storage areas before finally ending up on supermarket shelves.
“Another thing is, they’re usually cheaper,” he added. “When something’s fresh here, everyone has it, so the price goes down because of supply and demand. You end up getting a better product for less money, and the money you spend stays here, too, which helps the local economy.”
And what fresh produce is available in March and April?
Mills said the big one for the region is asparagus, but arugula and spring onions will also be harvested, and citrus fruits will still be plentiful.
"I'm just pleased that it's come to a point where it's valued and here to stay," Mills said. "To have the upcoming Farm-to-Fork Week (Sept. 21-29) is great. This is only going to get bigger."