Editor's note: The Fresno Food Expo, by almost any measure, is a resounding success, and has received great coverage from local media reporting it as such. But for those of us focused on food culture - not just food production - it leaves us wanting more.
Nikiko Masumoto is a friend, farmer (of the legendary Masumoto Family Farm), and performer. She explores this thought, and offers her reflection on this year's event.
The cavernous hall of the Fresno Convention Center buzzed last month as doors opened for the third annual Fresno Food Expo. Just seconds after entering, I found my first gastronomical encounter: a sweet waft, a medley of scents from the hundred exhibitors who filled the room with their finest. Organized in what felt like neighborhood blocks, businesses displayed and offered samples of their products: crackers, tortillas, spices, drinks, dairy products, frozen items, meats, pasta, dried fruit.
A small cooking demonstration stage and chairs were set up at one end. Mayor Swearengin cheerfully tried to draw a crowd for a welcome and the award presentation for the best new product, but the scene wasn't set up for collective attention. Rather, the buzz from individual exchanges, presumably between buyers and producers, dominated the room. Like any theatrical production, the design of a space set the tone for the content, and the Fresno Food Expo meant business.
As diverse as the products, the people behind them ranged from small and mid-size family and independent businesses to huge industrial companies that are already big players in our food systems. From nervous newbies and humble family teams, who took the day off from their ‘other’ jobs to promote a relative’s product, to experienced CEOs in button-down shirts and fancy high heels.
There were even uniformed business teams - some more convincing than others. A little piece of my feminist heart died when I saw the exhibitor who chose the disappointing strategy of pitching their products by employing sexy young women in ridiculously small, tight, and branded spandex dresses.
As buyers trickled in, the room started to churn with movement, conversation, hand shaking, sales pitches, and lively exchanges. I didn’t manage to chat with many buyers, but the few I did connect with ranged from local food service institutions to international buyers in slick suits.
Underneath the buzz and entrepreneurial chatter, there was clearly a range of agendas for the day. Several exhibitors shared why they came and what they hoped to get out of the day, varying from a general sense of intrigue to ‘shark tank’ ambitions of expanding markets, exporting to new countries, or landing deals with national buyers. The common thread? Everyone was drawn to the expo by a sense of possibility.
Major characters missing from the expo were farmers and growers who produce fresh produce. A few familiar faces were in the crowd; I was delighted to connect with Chukou Thao, representing National Hmong American Farmers, who came to make sure the many contributions of Hmong farmers were not forgotten in the foodscape of our valley. The expo organizers have already recognized this oversight, as next year’s expo is scheduled for July specifically so that more fresh produce exhibitors can take part. I hope this also includes small, organic, and sustainable growers.
While there surely were dramatic moments between buyers and producers, deals whose details we (the public) will probably never know, there was another narrative arc unfolding that was more interesting to me. After talking with my friend and founder/owner of P*DE*Q, Flavia Flores, I saw another side of the food expo. It’s not just a showcase for outside buyers, it is also about peer-to-peer learning and hands-on pedagogy (or learning by doing).
Flavia shared the two-year story of P*DE*Q, which was launched at the first expo. That first year she came alone with just one flavor (original, cheddar/parmesan), and some collateral material. This year, she had a team of employees, a digital television display, hot samples of five flavors, and a freezer full of P*DE*Qs Take'n'Bake jars.
Between the first expo and now, she grew, and was ready for a bigger buyer. Hopefully others are as savvy and tenacious as Flavia, and they too are learning from the expo and growing their business.
I left the food expo impressed and digesting my own dose of possibility. There is clearly a lot of value from the event for businesses, and a wider public appeal, as evidenced by the 1,000+ people who bought tickets for the evening session. After the event, I kept wondering how some of our national food leaders might react to the event. I thought of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, whose ideas have shaped my thoughts and many others' about searching for - and growing - real food; food that our grandmothers would recognize as food, food that nourishes humans and sustains our planet, food that’s full of pleasure, and (I would add) human connection.
I’m not sure that Pollan would find everything at the expo within his definition of the type of food we should defend (like energy drinks?). As it existed this year, the expo was less about food (as per Pollan’s approach), than it was about food products, and those food products were the vehicles for the larger goal of economic development. The Fresno Food Expo is ultimately about business.
We need business. Fresno needs business. There is no question about that. And I believe the food expo is facilitating important business conversations. At the same time, I dream of deeper and wider conversations about food that are possible and necessary when we consider hopes for a long future.
I’m still hungry for the valley to emerge as a leader of food culture. I dream of nationally and internationally known discussions, research, conferences, panels, policy summits, health fairs, and gastronomical innovations, generated here. Food is more than a commodity, and I don’t want our community to forget that. I left my first experience exhilarated and impressed, and I don’t want us to sell ourselves short. Just one day before, the annual California Small Farm Conference was held at the Radisson, just blocks from the Convention Center. Imagine what connections and discussions could have happened?!
Just as the expo is fostering growth for many food businesses and connections with regional, national, and international buyers, I hope it can grow its vision of what it might become. People are hungry to connect around food, and I believe there is possibility that includes, but is not limited to, economic development for participants and for the valley. I want to celebrate the Fresno Food Expo, get drunk on possibility, and plant seeds for more.