Local culinary sage Larry Bain's Nextcourse bridges the food divide and brings good eats to the masses
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A lot has happened since Californians first rebelled against the canned food and Jell-O molds of the postwar industrialization era. The American food politics revolution is very much alive and well and thriving in the Bay Area, where the movement started. And California is still the food basket of the United States — it's been the top grower in the country for more than half a century. The dialogue about sustainable growing practices and environmental impact is open, and the fight for more mindful production practices is still on.
We are home to around 100 farmers markets — including Alemany, which, at 63 years old, is the granddaddy of local markets. Alice Waters's groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant celebrated 35 years of organic-minded Epicureanism this year. CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms) — started in the United States in the 1980s — are going strong. Local groups and organizations that continue to educate and activate the revolution around here include but certainly aren't limited to San Francisco Food Systems, Food Not Bombs, Food First, and the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust, which protects farmland against development. Blogs like the Eat Local Challenge, written by authors across the United States, and resource Web pages like those of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the organization that runs the Ferry Building farmers markets, offer a plethora of information about the local food politics movement.
And then there's Larry Bain — restaurateur, activist, and founder and executive director of Nextcourse. He doesn't just eat his politics, he feeds them to the Bay Area. Bain has a hand in a few of the finest and fanciest restaurants in town (Acme Chophouse, Jardinière), but his work through Nextcourse in San Francisco jails and schools and with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area narrows "the food divide" and shows how eating well doesn't mean breaking the bank for artisanal olive oil. We talked to him about his organization and some of the major issues it's taking on in the quest to bring mindful eating practices to the larger community.
SFBG What inspired you to found Nextcourse?
LARRY BAIN I've been a food activist since 1983, when I opened [Zola in San Francisco] with the intention of creating a new model for restaurants. Restaurants use more energy per square foot than any other retail operation, so the consumption of water, gas, electricity, and the generation of greenhouses gases tend to have a very deleterious impact on the environment. Then there's the cleaning solutions used in restaurants. And the amount of garbage generated, the packing, and then of course the stuff we know and think first about restaurants, where food comes from, the fossil fuels used in the creation and transportation of food. Every year I owned a restaurant, I got more excited about the positive impact restaurants could have and about finding ways to influence other restaurateurs. Because nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "I want to be the cause of 17 trees being felled in the redwood forest."
But I wasn't big enough to take it all on. Every issue is far more complex than you'd think. Whether it's a straightforward Atlantic salmon or a Chilean sea bass, there are layers of impact. Even eating local — what does that do to communities that depend on people in America buying their coffee beans or some other product? I wasn't sure where to focus until I went to a seminar that was given at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. All of my heroes were up on the stage: Vanda Nashiva, Orville Schell, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Carlo Petrini. 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. And we line the ingredients up side-by-side and invariably the ingredients from the farmers market, aside from being more nutritious and delicious, are cheaper because we shop seasonally.
All of the cooking takes place with minimal equipment. In the jail we can't use knives. Everything can be done — a salad, a main course, a vegetable — in 25 minutes, and for less than $5 a person. Cooking quickly is all about being organized. We teach them those skills as well.
SFBG How many women have gone through this program?
LB I think it's about 750 now. One of the things that we're moving forward with is finding a way to connect with the women after they leave. One of the new initiatives is working with a postrelease program where there'll be a kitchen so we'll be able to do the classes on an ongoing basis.
SFBG Something that a lot of people don't know is that people who have a felony drug offense can't get food stamps.
LB It was part of that whole clean up drugs thing. It's changed slightly so that now if you have a minor drug offense, you can get food, but if you have a heavier felony offense, it's still not possible. [Assemblymember] Mark Leno is working on fixing it.
SFBG Have you kept in touch with the women from the program?
LB Yeah. We have one woman who found us because we also offer the courses to women who provide day care. She told us, "When I was in jail, I was thinking this was all bullshit. I can't do that. It's going to be too expensive. It's just you white people blowing smoke up our ass. But I got out and now I'm going to the market every week and my kids love it."
SFBG You're also coordinating food service for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area?
LB Yes, coordinating purchasing so the prices are better, but also coordinating so some people can get products that there hasn't been enough demand for. The great thing about McDonald's is that it represents this huge buying power, and if McDonald's says, "We want an alternative to Styrofoam," people say, "OK, we'll do that." So when 17 food services here say, "We really want cornstarch knives or sugar-based packaging material" ... companies will see this opportunity and figure it out.
I started talking to the people in the national park for two reasons. One is that the park feeds a lot of people. Golden Gate Park is 75,000 acres, the largest urban park in the country, and feeds 17 million people a year, whether they're dining at Greens, which is a park partner, or the Cliff House or some little café. The park also sits on a tremendous amount of good agricultural land, some of which is being used up at Point Reyes National Park. Cowgirl Creamery, Strauss Dairy, Hog Island Oyster, Sun Farm — all those are on park land. We want the park to become not only a purchaser of good sustainable, healthy food but also a producer.
SFBG One of the reasons why Nextcourse is interesting is that it addresses the "food divide," actually doing outreach into the community that is not going to show up at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. What do you think needs to be done? It feels like the gap is getting wider rather than narrowing.
LB That just represents what's happening in our society. Truly, you can't change the food system without looking at every other aspect of the economic system. You've heard it before, but there's all these wonderful catchphrases like "the high cost of cheap food." People shouldn't be asking why this beautiful piece of fruit is so expensive, they should be asking why this other piece of fruit is so cheap. And the reason it's cheap is because of the way our economy is structured, with lobbies, subsidies, and oil companies having such a strong vested interest. The real problem with food costing "X amount" is that we can't survive just on food. We need housing, we need education, we need health care. The government is no longer in the public service business: they've privatized all of those things, and they're driven by profit. People can't afford more expensive food because they're spending so much on rent, health care, and more expensive schools.
We've created a society that's increasingly divided the rich and the poor. Food is just symbolic. If we want a just society, this is just one aspect — don't stop at food, but see food as the beginning, a way to engage in a better world.
SFBG What about the conceptual problem? It's fine to repeat the mantra that cheap food is more expensive, but when it's not immediately visible ...
LB We're encouraged to not see beyond our own noses. It's not in the interest of economy for us to think of long-term effects, to see the net. We just see "cheap." This is the money I have in my pocket at the moment. I'll worry about the hospital when I have to go to a hospital, and in fact, it's best not to think about that. So in order for things to change, food people need to see that while they need to collaborate among the food community, they also need to collaborate among the social justice community as a whole. The food community has to see that people struggling for immigration rights, workers' rights, health care rights are their natural friends.
SFBG What are some organizations around the Bay Area that are doing good work?
LB On a really grassroots level, I think la Cocina is fantastic — an industrial kitchen facility that brings in mostly Latina women with the hope that they'll be able to have their own kitchen or restaurant someday. The Columbia Foundation, particularly through their Roots of Change program. Something new to the Bay Area is the Community Alliance for Family Farmers that is trying to bridge the gap between farms and urban centers.
SFBG What are the top issues facing the Bay Area — in terms of food and our ecology — in the next decade?
LB The offshoring of our food production. It's going to happen unless we start yelling and screaming, because it is so much cheaper to grow and produce food in developing nations. A lot of these agribusiness companies want to get out of the US. They want to be someplace where there are no labor laws, there are no environmental restrictions. That's what keeps me up at night. I wake up in the middle of the night screaming, "They're offshoring our food production."
Environmentally, water is the biggest issue that we're facing. What's happening is that farmers are saying, 'I could sell my water for much more money than I could ever make growing food.' Because all of our communities, particularly those built in deserts, are so desperate for water that they will pay anything for it. So as water becomes more politically contentious and expensive, anybody doing agriculture will go someplace where there isn't necessarily more water but they can get it for free or get it illegally. SFBG