Growing up in a Korean-American family in Hawaii, Paula Daniels had a precocious awareness of the natural environment. When her 12-year-old friends made “slam books,” soliciting salacious opinions about their classmates, Daniels focused her book's questions on water conservation. “Mine asked, 'Do you turn off the water when you brush your teeth?' ” she says, laughing. “I have always, always cared about water.”
Daniels majored in broadcast journalism at USC but was dismayed after graduation to find few opportunities for environmental documentary work. So she went to law school. She'd already made partner when, in 1989, she saw a reminder of her 12-year-old activist self: a Heal the Bay T-shirt. “They had this very hip message about ocean water quality,” she says. “I knew I wanted to help.”
She began volunteering for the organization, eventually becoming its president. In 1999, Antonio Villaraigosa, then speaker of the California Assembly, appointed her to the Coastal Commission. “That was the turning point for me,” she says. “I was starting to see how you can really make change through politics and policy.”
Six years later, Mayor Villaraigosa appointed her to the Public Works Commission.
But it was thanks to another board appointment, to the California Bay-Delta Authority, that she started to see the connection between her water work and Los Angeles food issues.
Namely, she wondered why residents of L.A. — a place where nearly every fruit or vegetable grows within a 200-mile radius — weren't eating more local produce. Daniels labored to establish a food-policy council, and in August, she gained two new titles: senior adviser on food policy, special projects in water in the office of the mayor; and founding director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.
The council is a collective of farmers, educators, activists, chefs and food writers. “The way we accomplish things is just by bringing together people who didn't talk to each other before,” Daniels says.
As an example she points to the L.A. Unified School District, the largest food provider in the city. Inspired by the council, the district pledged to source 50 percent of its produce from local farms. And, Daniels says, “They've achieved it already. They hit 57.4 percent by the end of last year.”
Daniels, 56, hopes the council can help two groups: small farmers and underserved communities in South Los Angeles. Both would benefit from a food hub — a central market that would help farmers distribute local produce to L.A. residents.
Now, L.A.'s food culture is caught up in third-wave coffeehouses and pork belly confections, but it's also learning about the strawberries Phil McGrath grows on his Camarillo farm — and understanding why there's a monolith of Cheetos in a Boyle Heights bodega. That's the kind of consciousness, and civic engagement, Daniels hopes to see manifest in L.A. eaters.
“I hope people realize that you're voting with your food dollars,” she says. “Every time you make a choice about food, you're voting. And the change we can make is huge.”