Guest Commentary: Make “Sustainable Food” the Economic Engine of Downtown Davis

By Anya & Richard McCann, Cool Cuisine

Many communities around the region, such as Sacramento and Woodland, have jumped on the “farm to fork” bandwagon to promote their relationships with agriculture. Davis can distinguish itself from the crowd by taking this a step further to promote itself as the center of “sustainable food.” In doing this, Davis can develop placemaking that is the key to economic development and vitality.

Davis is home to one of the top-rated food production research universities in the world in UC Davis. The City of Davis should leverage this position and strengthen its relationship to reinvigorate the downtown. The City has an opportunity as part of its Downtown Davis or Core Area Specific Plan to define a vision to achieve that goal.

Sustainable food minimizes damages to the planet in its cultivation, production, preparation, consumption and disposal. It is largely plant-based because this is the most direct way to deliver calories and protein to our diets. Animal production has much higher waste products, resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and tainted food per calorie or gram of protein. For example, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, beef production emits four times as much greenhouse gases (GHGs) per calorie than soybeans or wheat and twice as much GHGs per gram of protein. Given California’s goal to be a “net carbon zero” emitter by 2045, the state will need to take a wide range of steps to cut emissions across the board, including in food production and consumption. Sustainable food is also more ethically consistent and healthful than our current food production and consumption patterns.

Sustainable food has been in the press frequently of late, with numerous stories in the Bay Area media. San Francisco has become the venture capital center of the world—especially for sustainable food–but real estate is becoming too expensive there to allow an industry that focuses on physical products sufficient space. Davis is close enough to that center for easy communication, but still has comparatively inexpensive land.

Creating a sustainable food ecology in Davis would have five aspects:

  1. Supporting innovation in sustainable food production and distribution
  2. Providing sustainable infrastructure to support companies that are innovating
  3. Serving and delivering sustainable food locally
  4. Preparing food that is consumed locally in a sustainable manner
  5. Attracting sustainable food-oriented tourism

The City can focus development of a sustainable food industry hub in the “Flex District” proposed for the G Street Corridor in the Downtown Plan. This area could house a wider range of facilities, such as test labs, within easy access distance of the UCD campus and the Capitol Corridor train to the Bay Area. Larger research facilities can be housed in other parts of the City where larger, industrial facilities are more appropriate.

Part of the attraction to companies locating here could be a sustainable infrastructure configuration starting in this district, with a district energy network and electric microgrid supporting fully electrified space conditioning and water heating systems. The other sustainability attributes identified in the Downtown Davis Plan should be incorporated and highlighted.

We can also encourage existing restaurants to serve more sustainable food on their menus, and attract new restaurants to cater to the new sustainable food businesses and their employees. The investors and workers at these companies are much more likely to follow their ethical beliefs in their consumption choices. The City could provide incentives through reduced fees to existing businesses, and evaluate how to speed the start up of new businesses.

As part of establishing a sustainable environment, the City should facilitate switching restaurants to more sustainable preparation practices. This includes switching from natural gas to induction cooktops and convection ovens, district water heating and space conditioning, and better management of waste. (Yes, we may need to recruit chefs for this new challenge.)

Finally, Davis can become a sustainable food destination. Less than 20% of our downtown visitors are from out of town according to analysis by consultants to City working on the Downtown Davis Plan. Given our location on the Capitol Corridor train route and Interstate 80, the community has much room for growth in tourism to boost our economy beyond UCD students’ parents visiting in September and June.

Davis already has a core attraction in its world-famous Farmers’ Market. With the addition of plant-based oriented restaurants and closer integration with the Mondavi Center entertainment area, a visitor could easily spend a whole day in Davis with a quick trip on the train from the Bay Area. Implementing this vision just needs closer coordination with UCD to bring events to Mondavi and the new Shrem Art Museum on Saturdays and setting up an electric bus shuttle between there and downtown.

UCD’s Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences provides an example of how local development can be both sustainable and invigorating. That locale now has a microgrid that relies on renewable power. Both UCD and the City could benefit from a closer relationship centered around sustainable food in several dimensions.

Implementing all of this vision requires going beyond the form-based zoning codes that will come out of the Core Area Specific Plan. The City needs a comprehensive economic development plan, direction and resources for its economic development staff, and a willingness to focus on removing the barriers to bringing and supporting these businesses in Davis.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. John Hobbs

    ” The City needs a comprehensive economic development plan, direction and resources for its economic development staff, and a willingness to focus on removing the barriers to bringing and supporting these businesses in Davis.”


  2. Todd Edelman

    I’m reluctant to encourage tourism from outside Davis by car unless I-80 dumps its stinky load outside of the Downtown Core, i.e. in satellite parking facilities. Due to congestion, it’s difficult to drive here anyway in the evening much of the time.

    So it seems then rather to get people to drive or take the train here from Sacramento, Fairfield, etc… that the goal should to get people to stop here during their normal commute, trip to or from Tahoe, etc. A round trip from Sac to Davis using a normal ticket is $18!

    About the train, a few things: First, it would be great if people’s commuter train passes and normal tickets allow people to stop in Davis for a few hours and then get back on the train with no penalty. There might be a way to do this via the Capitol Corridor ticket portal, which already provides many benefits not possible via the main Amtrak portal.

    Second, there’s already a vague plan for European-style lockers at the Depot – these are used in European cities instead of car as a way to keep belongings safe without schlepping them everywhere – e.g. the main station in Amsterdam has over 1,000 lockers that allow people to e.g. drop something off to or from the train, and that’s a good segue for fiets, also known as “bicycle”, as a way to get people around — this means some kind of shared system, probably not what Jump Bike is designed for (picking up a bike at the station and using it around town, e.g. to Mondavi, back for a late dinner, then back to the train, all at a reasonable price, probably bundled with the train, or the Mondavi ticket, or both!

    Third, back to the train: Maybe… just maybe, there’s a way to get more local food onto the train, either in its Cafe menu or just on a promotional basis.

    Fourth, maybe there’s a chance via the Capitol Corridor portal for a small group evening ticket – for Davis people to visit Sac or vice-versa – think a car’s load, 4 or 5 persons, for a low price, purchased spontaneously/right before travel. Perhaps it’s possible if Amtrak wants to fill seats which would otherwise be empty. Of course it would take evening consumers out of Davis, but this should be a normal function of a regional train.  Ask anyone without their own car in Davis who finds a cute vegan on OK Cupid etc. that lives in Sacramento. They’re not likely to dine with or on each other, sustainably or otherwise…

    1. Richard McCann


      Our sustainable vision would try to do this. The ideal tourist would take the train up on Friday from the Bay Area, stay overnight after dining in one of our sustainable restaurants, then tour our model Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning, then walk or shuttle over to the UCD art museums or performing arts center for entertainment, and then return to the Bay Area that evening or Sunday morning. It was that vision of an ideal day that led to this article.

  3. Don Shor

    Great article. It’s nice to see positive ideas that actually could be implemented to help set Davis apart as a destination. There are a lot of cars passing by on I-80 every day, and it seems we could do more to get a few of them pulling in and spending dollars here. Food is a natural draw. Thanks for writing this.

  4. R Fung

    Great ideas.  A couple of thoughts:

    1.  The Woodland food strategy which was launched within the year is called Food Front.

    2.  Nugget headquarters are moving to Davis from Woodland.  I think Nugget would have an interest in having Davis raise its food profile.

    3.  I think that local farmer’s, homeowners who want to grow more of their food, and the use of City land to grow food (which was proposed by Julie Partansky in some fashion)  should somehow be included in the overall idea.

  5. Tia Will

    Thanks for an article with great ideas.

    One more aspect of the university strikes me as relevant. UCD draws students from many different parts of the world. It would seem that sustainable foods combined with the draw of a diversity of cuisines beyond the handful of the most commercialized and homogenized meals might be a natural pairing for food tourism.

    1. R Fung

      To Tia’s point, Davis has a lot of Asian students which has attracted restaurants that cater to them, so Davis actually has the most diverse set of Chinese restaurants in the region.

  6. Anya McCann

    Excellent points @tia will and @r fung, for instance when we traveled in Japan, we never had the same meal twice and we only had one meal that resembled anything I’ve seen in a Japanese restaurant in the U.S.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a few places that showcased foods with more variety than is usually available in the US, and to market them that way?

    1. Tia Will

      Definitely what I had in mind.  When traveling in Turkey, the variety was much broader than what we get in the “middle eastern” restaurants  here. Same for in Spain.

  7. Alan Miller

    This is a fantastic concept for Davis.  We don’t have canals, we don’t have an ocean, we don’t have a mountain, we don’t even have a river, we aren’t an international gateway, we aren’t the capitol, we don’t have gambling, we don’t have prostitution, we don’t have a desert climate, we don’t have a port.  We can only be Davis.

    Davis has ag, it’s surrounded by ag.  We have the Capay Valley nearby bringing in their organic goods (Woodland can compete in that), we have the Sustainable Research Area on campus and the student farm and an Ag College at UCD, we have the traditions of growing veggies at the coops and Domes.  We have community gardens.  And most of all we have one of the greatest farmers markets around.

    We should exploit that, build on it, embrace it as our vision for economic prosperity.  Organic ag, plant central, healthy eating — Davis.


      1. Bill Marshall

        There’s no (…) allowed on the Vanguard.

        Nor, as I understood it, using a posting moniker that is first name/initial…

        If I’m wrong, I want a “do-over” on my ‘posting moniker’…

  8. John Hobbs

    Necro-posting, but a good topic.

    “It would seem that sustainable foods combined with the draw of a diversity of cuisines beyond the handful of the most commercialized and homogenized meals might be a natural pairing for food tourism.”

    Certainly one area of the “downtown economy” that might be developed without the usual  “Davis Divisiveness.”

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