Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tobacco subsidies, up in smoke.

My investigations into the food system generally result in depression and/or anger. When I decided to take on tobacco subsidies, I had a feeling it would at least ruin my weekend. Just goes to show, you never know the answer until you ask the question.

After the great depression, programs like farm subsidies and crop insurance were instituted to protect people (both growers and consumers) from volatile crop prices. The program for tobacco restricted the size and location of tobacco farms as well as the amount of tobacco that could be grown on any one farm. The idea was to regulate the supply of tobacco to keep the price steady over many years. If the price of tobacco fell despite the quotas, farmers could use their crops as collateral on a loan from the government. The loans were generally repaid over the next few growing seasons as the price rebounded.

In 1982, as people were learning that tobacco products are extremely addictive and lead directly to many forms of cancer, there was a public outcry. People did not want the government supporting tobacco farming with their tax dollars. The No-Net-Cost Tobacco Program was the result: growers and buyers shared the cost of a small fee added to all marketed tobacco. The fee was used to defray the costs of loans that were not repaid. Thus, although the loan program continued to help regulate the market and thereby supported tobacco farming in the US, it wasn’t costing the taxpayers money. At least, it wasn’t supposed to…

Administrative costs for the program remained the responsibility of the government. The government also paid tobacco farmers additional money in response to agricultural and natural disasters. In years when the prices of tobacco and other commodities were especially low, the government again authorized payments to farmers that came from taxpayer dollars. Administrative costs, and these extra payments, ran in the hundreds of millions. It’s a tiny fraction of the federal budget but still a lot of government money for a “no-cost” program.

Over time, domestic demand for tobacco continued to fall, causing the price to also fall. In response, the government reduced the quotas on tobacco production, thereby decreasing supply, in order to bolster tobacco prices. At the same time, however, tobacco farming from outside the US became increasingly competitive, and the US tobacco market suffered even more. It became clear that the old quota and loan system was no longer effective.

In 2005, President George W. Bush enacted the Tobacco Transition Payment Program (the “tobacco buyout”). The act eliminated regulations on the size and location of tobacco farms, crop quotas, and the loan program. Instead, starting in 2005 and continuing for the next 10 years, tobacco farmers receive a direct payment subsidy based on the amount of tobacco they grew in the years before the buyout. After this ten-year period, tobacco farmers will receive no financial assistance from the government.

With the money from the tobacco buyout, farmers can choose to transition to another crop, consolidate or expand their tobacco operations to become more efficient, or give up the farming business altogether. The buyout seems like a good way of transitioning farmers away from tobacco, but how much is it costing us?

Nothing. That’s right. The $10 billion that will be spent on direct payments to tobacco farmers is being paid by the manufacturers and importers of tobacco products. In exchange, these companies do not have to pay part of a health-based court settlement.

I wasn’t able to find any information on the environmental impact of more consolidated tobacco farms, and I don’t know if the buyout has increased cigarette prices or influenced demand for tobacco products. I do know that the government is getting out of the tobacco business and using the settlement against tobacco companies to do so. Overall, I can’t think of anything wrong with this, and that leaves me feeling surprisingly cheerful. If, years from now, it is shown that added sugar makes processed foods addictive and is unequivocally linked to severe health problems (as we already suspect), perhaps there will be a corn buyout. That would make me cheerful too.

(I did find this interesting article on the global environmental and ethical issues pertaining to tobacco farming. Lots of good reasons to no longer support tobacco farming, which I guess we don't!)

The USDA Farm Service page on the buyout
CRS Report for Congress on (pre-buyout) tobacco price supports by J. Womack
The NC State buyout site (assistance for farmers)
The EWG Farm Subsidy Database

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hearty black bean stew.

This is a hearty, flavorful dish that can be varied with the season. It can be made with sausage, or use mushrooms to create tasty vegetarian fare. To design your perfect stew, use the general ingredient list and add the ingredients from the variation that fits with your local food options and personal taste. I have also listed optional ingredients to kick up the spice.

Timing: About 30 minutes.

General ingredients:
  • 2T olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 cans black beans
  • 1 lb. cooked chicken sausage or 8 oz. mushrooms
  • 1 T dried oregano
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • Winter variation: 2 cans diced/stewed tomatoes, 2 carrots, and 4-5 chard leaves
  • Summer variation: 4-5 medium tomatoes, 1 red bell pepper
  • Spicy variation: Dash of cayenne pepper, 1 jalapeno pepper

1. Chop the sausage. Dice the garlic and the jalapeno pepper (if applicable). All other vegetables should be coarsely chopped. If using fresh tomatoes, be sure to keep the juice. Drain and rinse the black beans.

2. Heat oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add sausage and any veggies other than the tomatoes and garlic. Cook about 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until veggies are tender.

3. Add garlic, and cook ~1 minute.

4. Stir in beans, tomatoes, and spices. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low.

5. Cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Do you feel hungry, punk?

Ethical eating goes alternative.

Author’s Note: This work was originally intended to appear in a local food sustainability magazine. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the cut so I incorporated the interviews and photos into this post instead. I want to extend my sincere thanks to Blair Warsham and Clint Davies for taking the time to meet with me and for their fantastic work on the Steer n’ Beer event. I also want to thank my two wonderful photographers, Nadia Haq and Ryan Mack from Joy of Living Photography, who captured the event so beautifully. Lastly, I want to thank the attendees of the Steer n’ Beer for taking time out of their evening to share their thoughts and experiences.

Food is an integral part of many celebrations. From Valentine’s Day to birthdays to simply a night out on the town with your buddies, picking a fun or elegant restaurant and letting someone else prepare your food is supposed to be a special treat. For the ethical eater, however, it presents a real dilemma. Ethical restaurants can be hard to find, and it’s no fun spending the evening obsessing over the menu and grilling the waiter about the cow’s diet before ordering a steak. Luckily, the growing alternative dining movement is offering a new solution for ethical eaters wanting a night out.

Alternative dining comes in many forms, but the idea is always the same: to create a unique dining experience without the confines of a traditional restaurant. Sometimes called roving restaurants, these dinner parties can be held anywhere, often in secret. Although everyone seems to have their own goal in mind – teaching people how to cook, exposing them to new culinary delights, or putting on an elegant dinner party - many within the guerrilla dining movement are also very much involved with the movement to change the food system, with an eye on sustainability and education.

Local to the SF Bay Area, graffEats is a guerrilla dining nonprofit run by two acclaimed chefs, who met while working at the Michelin-rated Campton Place restaurant in San Francisco. Their main goal is to create a restaurant quality experience with the feel of a dinner party, and without the actual restaurant - and to do it sustainably. Blair Warsham and Clint Davies, who created and run graffEats, were kind enough meet up with me in San Francisco, and explain their dining philosophy and why they created graffEats.

Educating children about where food comes from is a passion for Clint. Growing up in New Zealand, backyard gardens and buying food directly from the farm were a way of life, and he is concerned by how little interaction children in the United States have with their food. That’s why all proceeds from graffEats events now go directly to Slow Food to support building gardens on school rooftops. “The restaurant business is very self-serving”, explained Blair. “We wanted to do something different with it.”

The ingredients that Blair and Clint use to make their dinners pop are local and sustainable whenever possible, and their meat is also carefully sourced. Blair said, “It’s just a given. We operate sustainably, as we should be; it’s a no-brainer.” It’s not just about being ethical though. “Making a dinner more than just a meal” is the true goal of any graffEats event, according to the two chefs.

Held in art galleries, breweries, farms, and even on street corners, graffEats events offer well-sourced and artfully-prepared food coupled with unique entertainment. “Dinner and a flick” events feature five courses – from appetizers through dessert – paired with wine or beer and several short films. Live music is commonplace for graffEats events, and music was the focus of the recent Covers dinner which featured Blair’s take on the signature dishes of his culinary idols paired with musical covers.

For my friend’s birthday this year, we spent a Saturday night on the outdoor patio of the Devil’s Canyon Brewery in Belmont as part of the Steer n’ Beer event, put on by graffEats. Beer was the star of the show. Blair explained the concept behind the event, saying “We know that you can cook with beer. We know that you can pair food with beer… let’s deconstruct beer and use all the elements of beer and use that in the food.” From the freshly baked bread to the cheese to the steer, all had incorporated beer somewhere in the process.

The steer was raised on pasture and grass-fed at the Bar None Ranch in Half Moon Bay. It wasn’t 100% grass-fed, however, because this cow got to finish out its days munching on beer leftovers: barley, malt, and hops from Devil’s Canyon Brewery. Blair visited the steer and witnessed the slaughter. It was an emotional event, but as Blair put it, “if you’re gonna eat it… you should be able to stand behind that statement. It’s about respect.”

To create the deconstructed beer dinner, Blair connected with Ryan Ostler, a barbecue expert based in San Francisco who has traveled the country perfecting his art. At the Beer n’ Steer, Blair and Ryan manned multiple grills to serve up fantastic prime rib, brisket, sausages, and more. Southern dishes including collard greens and a slaw of Brussels’ sprouts complemented the BBQ. Beef jerky, beer-infused grilled cheese sandwiches, and Texas-style chili were served up inside the brewery. Dessert options included root beer floats made with toasted grain ice cream and chocolate and malt cupcakes that were “sweet but potent” according to Felix Ronin of Berkeley.

And of course, there was beer. Handcrafted using many local and organic ingredients, Devil’s Canyon offered their signature Full Boar Scottish Ale, a barrel-aged version with a flavor reminiscent of bourbon, a root beer made with local honey and organic cane sugar, and many more.

The long lines at each food station, with many people going back for seconds or thirds, were a testament to unique flavors and culinary skill being offered up. “The man is amazing”, said Jeff Harris of San Francisco, referring to Blair. “He turned me from a gourmand into a foodie.” Jeff finds Blair’s focus on presentation especially impressive. “He puts so much care into preparing his food.”

Jeff’s friends, Alanna and Carlos Reynard of San Mateo, were attending their first public graffEats event; they hired Blair to cater their wedding after tasting his food at a corporate event. Alanna explained that food sourcing is very important to her. She and Carlos participate in a community-supported agriculture program, and they appreciate graffEats’ commitment to using local, seasonal ingredients and supporting the community.

I met Jeff and Alanna in the chili line and caught up with them again after downing two bowlfuls of the spicy chili with melt-in-your mouth chunks of grass-fed beef. It’s no surprise that we got to talking. The food, entertainment, and atmosphere at these events encourage people who would never have otherwise met to chat and mingle.

The folks at graffEats always have something in the works. They’ve recently gone international, taking their popular Dinner and a Flick event to Copenhagen and planning events in Tokyo and possibly even Dubai.

In addition to their charitable and sustainable pursuits, for Blair and Clint, it’s the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild that has the most appeal. As Blair put it, “The best part is that the possibilities are endless. We have created this from absolutely nothing and… it just keeps snowballing – slowly, deliberately snowballing. That’s my favorite part. Possibilities. Anything we can come up with, we can wrap our minds around it and actually make it happen.”

Interested in finding an alternative dining group near you? Check out The Ghetto Gourmet.

You can find more information on graffEats and upcoming events on their website. Blair Warsham is also available for private events, and Clint Davies can be found working as a Sous Chef at the popular San Francisco restaurant, One Market. Photo credits: Nadia Haq and Ryan Mack from Joy of Living Photography