They were being eloquent and brilliant about the future of food and where we needed to be going, touching many things close to my heart.
As always happens at one of those gatherings, some smart-ass stood up and asked, "Excuse me, if we were going to make the transition from conventional to organic tomorrow, would we still be able to feed the world?" It's the argument always thrown out by Archer Daniels Midland: "This is the only way to feed the world, through genetically modified crops and by conventional methods of distribution. All of this organic stuff is just pie in the sky." And everybody, all of my heroes said, "Oh yes, organic farming is superproductive. You get a lot more nutrients out of every acre planted."
Berry said, "We just don't have enough farmers. If you went to the unemployment office and said, 'OK, all you three guys over there, tomorrow you'll be organic farmers' — it requires tremendous wisdom and experience and we've lost that. Before we can talk about changing our food system, we have to be cognizant of the supply, and we don't have the farmers and we don't have farmland." It was at this point that I thought, OK, this is going to be my passion, growing farmers.
I don't know anything about agriculture. My area of expertise is the world of commerce, and I know what farmers need is a good path to sell their product. And because farmers cannot survive through Chez Panisse alone, they need a broader base of consumers that might be willing to buy things that aren't as exotic as a $5 peach but greens or even fruit that is delicious but not beautiful.
SFBG Has cooking become some exoticized thing?
LB Elitist thing. People go to the Ferry Building not to buy their food but to accessorize their meals, and so what they're going to eat is pretty standard stuff that they might get at Safeway or Whole Foods, and then they go to the Ferry Building to get this little bunch of herbs or this little piece of cheese that will make it a special dinner. And so how do you make shopping in farmers markets and cooking for your family more of a way of life rather than a lifestyle. When you're living in a neighborhood filled with tension and stress and toxic materials, food becomes even more important to help you survive that, to help you keep a strong immune system. So Nextcourse started in the San Francisco county jail working with women who are moms, mostly, and who, once they get out, need to feed their family.
SFBG When did the cooking in jail program start?
LB I got a phone call from a teacher at a school in Emeryville to come and talk to students there about healthy eating. I took the chef and sous-chef from Acme Chophouse, and we cooked with the kids. A friend of mine said this would be a great program at juvie hall. And so I called juvie hall — it was a bureaucratic nightmare. The same friend said, "Well, I know someone who does work at the county jail. She's a public defender." So, I called her up and told her, "We want to do cooking classes in the jail. I've got these great chefs, and they know how to show people how to cook things that are delicious, nutritious, easy, cheap, fun. Can you help us out?" Within a week we met with the sheriff, who loved the idea.
In the classes, we talk about the importance of nutrition and the how-to. A lot of these women know that eating good food is important for their kids. They know this, and yet they think, "What can I do about this? I can't afford to go to Whole Foods, and I can't afford to eat at Chez Panisse." So we show them where to shop, and every class has a menu. The teacher will shop the day before, both at Safeway or FoodCo or one of these cheap stores and at a farmers market — not at the Ferry Building but at Heart of the City or at Alemany or sometimes just at stores in the Tenderloin.