Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Work In Food

Five or six years ago, when I was first entering the world of food, job opportunities seemed few and far between. Of course, food is a very broad term and needs further definition. I'm referring to jobs in the food system, food security, sustainable agriculture, foodie endeavors... At the time, there seemed to be a lot of people working on food issues, but often food was just a sliver of a much broader job description like Wellness Coordinator, Sustainability Director or Waste Reduction Specialist. There were also the obvious jobs in restaurant which I was neither interested in or qualified for. It seemed like the best, and only, options for finding some sort of job in food were scanning the farm apprenticeship listing on the ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) website, applying for a school-garden related AmeriCorps position, the small hope of the occasional food system coordinator position with a city or county and the good old system of knowing someone already in the game. There was always the need for volunteers, but even those gigs were hard to nail down in Portland, Oregon. I was also new to the scene, and so it could very well be I was just looking in the wrong places...

Flash forward to 2011. My how things have changed. Food is hot! Artisan and local foods have surfaced as a glowing consumer trend; there is a resurgence of small, sustainable, local agriculture; food security is becoming a household term and just look at Farm to School grow. And these six years later, with food in the spotlight, food jobs are also gaining ground. It's a terrific sign of the success of the food movement (for lack of a better term) and growing sense of awareness about what our food is and where it comes from. And sure, as a graduate student about to pop back into the 'real' world, it's comforting to know that your field of interest actually exists, and yes, there are jobs in that field.

After knowing food would be my career path, my struggle has been on choosing a specific field. I think it will be an endless battle between food policy (like improving school food or increasing opportunities for small farmers) or the actual field (as in a lush pasture grazed by livestock who's milk I can then turn into cheese). The good news is that opportunities abound for the grower and the policy maker, so people like me get to have their seasonal carrot cake with organic cream cheese frosting and eat it too!

So yes, my completely non-quantitative guestimations point in the direction of more job opportunities around food. I am sure I could wrangle some statistics about food-related jobs that would prove an increase, but that would just be too much work. Instead, I will go with the obvious: food job websites. I visit them everyday, and if it weren't for Sustainable Food Jobs and Good Food Jobs, I might have felt completely hopeless that my decision to go back to school for an advanced degree in 'food policy' was a grave and terrible mistake. Instead, each day I can pore over a list of organizations, hot restaurants and foodie start ups that want to hire someone just like me. It's like a dash of self-assurance every single day.

Sustainable Food Jobs, using a simple blog format, posts food and farming related job opportunities across the country. Any organization can submit a job posting and the positions listed range from farm apprenticeships to food writing to delivery persons to marketing specialists. SFJ posts jobs for free and advertised positions tend to have an agricultural bent, as opposed to a restaurant or foodie angle. Launched in 2009, the site was created by a recent college graduate with an interested in "sustainable food" who saw the need to collect job openings in one place. Three cheers to you and thank you for your work!

In 2010 the "gastro-job search tool" Good Food Jobs opened its internet doors, providing a community for "farmers and food artisans, policy makers and purveyors, retailers and restaurateurs, economists, ecologists, and more" to connect to valuable work with food. With a smooth aesthetic, a small fee to post job descriptions and a blog highlighting folks already working in the field, Good Food Jobs sends a nice message: look there are jobs and there are people succeeding at these jobs. Positions posted here tend to have a foodie flair (cheese mongers, wine aficionados and line cooks), although there is a fare share of food policy, farm apprentice and business-related openings too. At the very least, the growing number of posts each day helps reassure those of us who have chosen this avocation that we are moving in the right direction, with momentum to boot! [Sidenote: Reading business descriptions, restaurant names and position titles posted on Good Food Jobs is in itself a savory treat...Pie Lab, 'wichcraft & Little Gem Restaurant just to name a few].

Lastly, I would be remiss to exclude the amazing opportunities created by Food Corps as they hit the ground running this August. Food Corps, based on the AmeriCorps model of national service, is training young leaders in garden-based education, farm to school and sustainable agriculture (and so much more) to lead on-the-ground projects in ten states. Talk about amazing. Food sure has its day when it becomes the focus of a national service program. Check out their video below.

The best part about these websites, beyond the fact that they mark food as a valuable career path, is that they provide a wide range of options and show the connections between the diverse ends of the food world. I am grateful for this, to see postings for vegetable farm managers listed next to non-profit executive directors and all mixed in with the need for people to sell artisan chocolate and teach at school gardens. In some ways, it gives us all level footing as equal pieces in this puzzle that just may bring about a better world through food.

As for me, as soon as my academic-yearning self sat down in a chair in a classroom in Boston two years ago, I instantly wanted to be outside raising animals. Something about coming back to school (to satisfy that part of my brain wanting for policy, improving school food and figuring out how the world works) made me realize just how much I also need to satisfy that other half of my brain that craves raising food, constant physical exhaustion and waking up with a to-do list of chores longer than two people could attempt during one round of daylight hours. So it's a balance, and I am sure it always will be. But for now, I've just committed myself to a nice, long season on a goat farm: making cheese, mucking stalls, collecting eggs, milking goats, selling at the farmers' market and helping a small farmer grow her business. For now, the perfect mix of learning, doing, thinking and existing outside. But thank goodness all those other jobs are out there for when I swing back to a desire to sit at a desk and do a different kind of work.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tres Gatos, meow!

Sometime last spring, Rhythm + Muse started a clearance sale. Big signs and bookshelves of discounted books lining the sidewalk announced the liquidation. The sleepy little book and record store, nestled into the first floor of a multifamily home, looked like a cute little place to visit. Even though I walked passed it on a million dog-walks, the sale was the first inspiration to actually go inside (in part because I am a graduate student, and book stores only entice me to spend money and add stuff to my transitory life when the library is always free). My first thought was dismay as another cute, local, family-owned business goes down the tubes.

But then the rumors started (a wine bar?)...and shortly after a sign appeared as construction began. The sign thanked us for our patience and support as Rhythm + Must transformed itself into Tres Gatos, a neighborhood wine bar and tapas joint promising to significantly increase the coolness and tastiness of my little corner of JP.

I watched the construction with interest throughout the summer, noting small changes each day on my walk to work. Weeks dragged into months and I thought I would have to wait years for the final product. Fortunately, a few weeks back I noticed tall tables in the front windows, all set and ready for dinner service. Finally!

It was a rainy Monday night, and there seemed no better way to celebrate Spring Break than by splurging on tapas and wine. Raincoats and umbrella at the ready, we walked the few blocks to Tres Gatos. Talk about a makeover! The front room, with velvety mocha painted walls, housed a few tables in the bay window, an open bar space and a few small tables in the back. There was a view of the white-tiled kitchen and a peek through to the bright red party room with a large table and a smattering of white doilies painted on the wall. So far, so beautiful! The walk continued to the back of the house which contained updated remnants of the old book store: a special collection of records, books and cds. Talk about all the best things in one place. After perusing the paperbacks and vinyl, we escorted ourselves back to the dining room to find the place a bit more full and a bit louder. A very friendly man, who I assume was the proprietor, handed us menus and gave some explanation. And then the fun began.

The wine list featured only Spanish wines. I am not a wine connoisseur, and I was a bit overwhelmed by the long names that I didn't recognize, along with the prices. I ordered the 2009 Ladera Segrada "Castelo do Papa" because it was the least expensive at $8 a glass. At least I can admit to that. My fine dining companion ordered the Southern Tier 2X IPA on tap, which in the end was a finer selection than the wine list, and I can also admit my envy.

With drinks decided, we perused the menu. Instantly we knew we would have to balance our huge appetites, the delicious option (cod, mussels, pork belly, french fries oh my!) with our grad student checkbooks. Through an arduous selection process, we narrowed in on the olives and Spanish style pickles (pinchos), the fiddlehead tomme raw cow cheese (queso) and the Albóndigas and Creamy Brandade from the Tapas menu.

The waitstaff was friendly, and usually stood two deep when serving our table. As a new joint, they looked to be still training staff and getting their rhythm, however they were off to a good start. The staff whisked through the dining room, seating and serving guests as the dimly lit room became quite full and loud.

It might have been possible that our food arrived at the table before we were finished ordering, or at least that is how it seemed. Quite hungry after our walk, book browsing and dish deciding this was a good thing. First to arrive, a mini cast iron skillet embracing a batch of small Moroccan lamb meatballs, the Albóndigas. These little gems, so juicy they could hardly hold their shape without melting, were my gold star of the evening. Bright spices, a soft texture and a sauce I wanted to lick out of the cast iron dish almost enticed me to order a second plate. Soon after the first bite of Albóndigas our small table was awkwardly piled with olive, pickled vegetables and the cheese plate. Organization was required to keep everything within reach and elbows and sleeves out of harms way.

The olives, swimming in a blend of their own oil, peppercorns and garlic, were tasty but by no means special.  As a pickled vegetable fanatic, I was eager to fork the dainty plate of carrots, turnips, and pearl onions, but was quickly disappointed. The vinegar taste was mild, more like a sherry vinegar dressing than a long, slow, piquant mingling between vegetable and tangy acids. This, however, did not stop me from eating them all. The tomme looked promising, with toasted bread crackers and a dollop of fig preserve, this we saved for dessert.

I never heard of a brandade before, and felt unsure about this cod fish selection until it landed on our table. I knew we were in for something delicious when I first made eyes with the generously sized cast iron terrine full of a hot, creamy, salted cod spread and the toasted slices of thick "grilled country toast". Turns out brandade is a traditional Spanish emulsion of salt cod and olive oil, with a consistency similar to warm hummus, and is absolutely delicious. Perfectly creamy, barely fishy, satisfying like the best comfort food and harboring undertones of butter and parsley - this was a perfect treat that seemed to never end.

After Nikki daintily emptied the terrine and licked her fingers clean and the plates were cleared, we focused all attention on the triangle slice of Fiddlehead Tomme in front of us. Described as aged and grassy, the dry cheese split the table. I found the flavor too subtle to make an impact on my tongue while Nikki enjoy its grassy smoothness and the exceptionally delicious pairing with her IPA. Oh well, you can't win them all.

Bellies almost-full, and with no interest in the pear tart or the churros & chocolate desserts, we asked for the check. The din in the dining room had grown quite loud, but a full house made me optimistic about the success of this new little neighborhood joint. After the meal, we browsed the record section once again, and found some good treats to bring home in leui of a doggie bag. Overall, there were some tasty little dishes at this inspired new restaurant and I'll probably come back to savor more flavors when the checkbook allows!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Hip Young Farmer Boom

"Why doesn't my hair ever look that good when I am out in the field? Or anytime really."
(The anonymity of the source is retained to protect the innocently jealous.)

That's probably my favorite of my friends' comments on the New York Times article In New Food Culture, a Young Generation of Farmers Emerges. The article, beyond the semi-flashy lead photo, paints a semi-realistic demographic of the younger crowd returning to the land and addresses some of the most important issues and barriers facing new farmers today. But, with just one glance at the cover photo, you realize exactly what the above comment is referring to (no really, go look at it): a young couple, with slightly pointed stares, each holding a chicken and standing next to a beautifully dilapidated barn on a classic Oregon winter day. The canopy of the tree above them is bare, the scarves a must to ward off a damp chill and the fly trap above the chicken coop door a necessity. The striking aspect of the image? The well coiffed -literally- duo, sporting leather jackets, a ruched skirt (her) and smart pageboy hat (him), look better suited to attend a show at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland than spend a long day on the farm in Corvallis.When did farming turn into a hip fashion statement?

A snarky response? Absolutely! And I can give you all the reasons why...

1. I am jealous
2. Reality.
3. Am I jealous?
4. More jealousy.

1. It is true, I am jealous. Not of their totally rad style, or even the fact that they have a spread in the Times (ok, maybe a little). I am jealous they get to wake up each morning (style their hair) and start the day off with a never ending list of farm chores: animals to feed, fields to cultivate, pasture to monitor, crops to plan.  They have the one thing I don't: a farm. And as an aspiring farmer, I am envious of their land, barn, infrastructure, market for their goods and the sweet aesthetic of their Afton Field Farm sign. What this article doesn't share with us, however, is the background, training, education and farming skills this young couple brought to the bank when they signed their mortgage (or lease) for the farm.

In the case of Tyler Jones of Afton Field Farms, he grew up with vegetables, chickens and an family-instilled appreciation for agriculture, followed by an intensive apprenticeship with Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms in Virginia. If you haven't heard of Joel Salatin yet, he's sort of the public face for pasture-based farming in the United States with accessible books like Salad Bar Farming and Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front and cameos in documentaries like Food, Inc. But I digress...The basic point is Tyler was prepared. He had ample training, education and real experience. He knew what he was getting into and had the taken the time to acquire the skills to make it work. Further, he had the wholehearted support of his family...and eventually his future wife Alicia. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.

2. Over the past two, three years, five years there has been an unquestionable growth in farming. Seems like everyone wants to be a farmer these days, and many are young, idealistic people. Not people like Tyler Jones who were raised on the land. Not sons and daughters of farmers. Not people who grew up in a town with a 4-H club. Not even college-age hippies who like to walk around barefoot. People more like Jenni and Scott Timms, both 28, who left their engineering jobs in Texas to start farming.

I don't know anything about Jenni and Scott other than their brief mention in the NY Times article...but I can tell you this: you can't engineer a farm. You can throw a lot of your hard-earned savings into buying land, a tractor or a herd...but that is very different from being a successful farmer, or even a barely successful farmer. Almost all farmers narrate the horror stories of their beginning years in operation. Most farms have horror stories for the middle years too. But the best prevention is a solid plan, as much experience as possible and some source of continued off farm income. I have heard too many firsthand accounts of people quitting jobs, selling homes, buying farmland and heading off into the country to live that dreamy, idealized agrarian lifestyle of the past. Yea, that one. The one that never really existed. Often, these new farmers find that farming is challenging, exhausting and poverty-inducing.

Much of the press about young people flocking to farms outlines the challenges, but never quite puts them into true perspective. This article mentions "the lack of health insurance, inability to repay student loans and a failed garlic crop." Our generation is conditioned to accept some of these failures, so these barriers don't easily deter. The media rarely gives these challenges the level of coverage they deserve. There is debt. There are also skills needed for farming: obviously agricultural knowledge...but also all the business savvy of a small business woman and the motivation of the successfully self-employed. The problem is, many new farmers have trouble tackling even the first item on this list: successfully raising enough high quality food to sell.

Don't get me wrong. I wish all new farmers good luck, because sometimes that seems to be the necessary special ingredient. And I want all that same luck for myself! What an adventure, what a challenge, what a risk. We must all be crazy to even consider it!

3. Fortunately/Unfortunately, farming has become the cause celeb, the new dream job of the vegan-tattooed-fixie riding hipster, the Subaru-driving educated liberal back-to-the-lander and the spirited venture capitalist looking for a second career. One of my dearest young-farmer friends puts it well in her response to this article, "I ask myself, am I happy that young farmers are gaining recognition and the challenged they face are acknowledged...or am I totally annoyed by foodie hipsters and their "cool" farmer aesthetic...Struggle is NOT a fashion statement." This comes from a woman who has spent years learning, working, managing small farms, her very own farm the last two years. She's the real thing, down to the permanently sore muscle, dirty fingernails and seasonal bank account. It's great that so many people are eager to raise food, but are we idealizing the process and what it means? I can admit I am jealous on two fronts. The first, I fear I have missed the farming boat and that the ship of small-farmer popularity has sailed and is being carried on a brief wave of revival popularity. Have I been left in the dust? By the time we plant seeds, harvest first eggs and slaughter pigs will small-scale farming be passe? Markets swelled to capacity? No more room for our delicious mold-ripened goat milk cheese with the think layer of ash in the middle? It's hard to sit by patiently, computer and concrete bound in Boston, watching everyone else live the dream!

4. And beyond that, not only does everyone want to be a farmer these days, everyone seems to want to write about being a farmer. Juicy, farming reads used to be limited to the likes of Michael Ableman, books with simple images weaving the story of a farm with yarns of personal narrative. The landscape, foggy mornings, beautiful descriptions of food in the field and long wooden tables in the farmhouse kitchen. Then there was a little Barbara Kingsolver with Animal, Vegetable, Mineral and the likes. Now the hottest reads are the likes of Growing a Farmer and The Dirty Life. Even Roseanne Barr is getting in on the action...

In the big picture, it's great that the good word is getting out there about the need for farmers, the hard life of growing food and the beautiful and bountiful rewards too. I'm just a little sour grapes that the time for the soft-voiced farm narrative, brimming with stories of brilliant failure, full-tilt exhaustion, love, equipment mishaps, unruly animals and financial demise is now, not (say) six years from now.


But really, it all boils down to the fact that I am jealous of all these good people and their incredible adventures. I want all their ups and downs RIGHT NOW! In the mean time, I'll sit back, breathe a bit and enjoy the slightly longer road to the farm I am traveling on. I'll be sure to take a look out the window and enjoy the view, gather my resources and skills for the on and off-farm jobs often required to make a living in agriculture. And it's not all bad, the time spent in grad school has helped me hone my skills, pinpoint the enterprises I want to undertake (broilers, hogs, goat & milk cheese and a winter CSA), take advantage of the abundance of new farmer training programs and meet a special someone who is just as crazy as me and wants to do this farming together. The hard thing is the patience, the knowing there is a reason to wait for that barn door to open with just the right opportunity on the other side.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Carrot or the Stick?

Welcome to National Nutrition Month. Oh, you didn’t know it is National Nutrition Month? I’m not surprised. Despite the fact that I am a graduate student in nutrition, I didn’t either.  It’s hard to get a handle on all the ‘awareness’ days and months we are subjected to, nonetheless untangle the positive or sinister motivations behindd each. Let’s see: February is National Snack Food Month, June 1st is World Milk Day and National Candy Corn Day is celebrate on October 30th: surely the importance of each is fully understood and appropriately celebrated. At least nutrition is something we can all relate too. We all eat (unfortunately some too little and some too much) and our bodies all interact with the nutrients in our food. No matter how you swallow it, that’s nutrition. It doesn't matter if you are the American Dietetics Association, Sally Fallon, the Institute of Medicine, Julia Child, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans or your advice-giving mom. So, in honor of National Nutrition Month, savor these ponderings on our food landscape.

. . .

Have you slipped your coins into the Baby Carrot Vending Machine yet? Would you? The machines, bright orange with a bold tag line on the side, offer fifty-cent single-serve portions of baby carrots housed in a graphic plastic pouch. Debuting last fall in two Ohio high schools, the vending machines are part of a national marketing campaign sponsored by “A Bunch of Carrot Farmers” to make these vegetables cool. The media campaign, consisting of “extreme” commercials and the “Eat ‘em Like Junk Food” slogan, is part satire and part sincerity. The aesthetics mock the ‘extreme’ marketing tactics of today’s top junk ‘food’ items, yet respectfully recognize the success of these gimmicks in creating high demand for these unhealthy items. So why not hop on the ‘radical’ marketing bandwagon and attempt and make boring baby carrots ultimately hip?

This fancy new vending machine has its pros and cons. In this case, a student who is habituated to using a vending machine for snacks (or possibly even meals!) is now offered a healthier, fresher, nutrient dense, low-cost option: boring old carrots. Of course, healthier, fresher, nutrient dense and low cost are all based on an assumption that the student is otherwise buying a heavily processed food product laden with saturated fat, sodium and sugar from the neighboring vending machine. Further, as anyone interested in economic development for the often-struggling fruit and vegetable growers of America recognizes, this is a great new market for producers to offer their crop to consumers. A second bright point of this concept.

But what would the student do if the carrots weren’t there? Is this healthy vending machine going to educate students about overall nutritious food choices? Will it encourage teenagers to eat healthier food the other twenty-three and a half hours a day when their growing appetites go unsatiated? Can it educate youth to savor full meals consisting of whole foods that meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans? In reality, this is still a fast food item wrapped in glitzy packaging! Although it may offer a healthy snack on the spot, these bags of carrots may well be teaching kids that the only palatable foods are heavily marketed, spit out of a glowing vending machines and wrapped in branded cellophane. [As if food comes from, ick, the soil.]

A similar conversation occurred last month at the Tufts University Friedman School for Nutrition Science and Policy Weekly Seminar Series featuring Thomas John, the Executive Chef for Au Bon Pain. The chef asserted that people automatically turn away from menu items labeled as “healthy” because they assume they will taste bad. Obviously, we all know healthy food can’t possibly taste good. And, of course, people are often looking to ‘splurge’ if they are eating away from home.

Mr. John explained their proactive nutrition approach to helping people be healthier this way: people choose the foods they know taste good, so we will make the foods people want to eat a little bit healthier. Maybe that means cutting saturated fat out of a sandwich by halving the cheese content, reducing the sodium and fat in favored dressings or reducing the serving size of soup by offering smaller bowls. (These are not examples from Mr. John, but pulled from the top of my head.) But don’t tell your consumers the food item is healthier!

Where does this leave the consumer? Nibbling on a slightly healthier meal because a revenue-driven business wants to make a small socially responsibility step in the field of nutrition? Still thinking that a daily Roast Beef and Brie on a Farmhouse Roll is a good choice? Eating tiny carrots out of a vending machine as part of a marketing campaign?

Is this the carrot or the stick? Is this a way to encourage people to make healthier food choices, nudging habits slowly in the right direction? Or is it just a sneaky way to market food items to make them appear tastier and more accessible? We can entice youth to eat gimmicky baby carrots out of a sparkling vending machine, but will that encourage them to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables at home? To pack a wholesome lunch and snack, or choose the healthiest option in the lunch line? I’m skeptical, but I hope this is at least a step in the right direction.

Happy National Nutrition Month!

Post Note: October is National Farm to School Month! That's an awareness month I can support.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

It's the Small Things...

For advocates of local food, it's a success story when government agencies move toward purchasing local foods for their own programs. By sheer volume alone,  these large organizations have a significant impact on local agriculture (read: small to medium size local and regional farms and food processors). This is called preferential purchasing, when a buyer places a preference (in this case where the food comes from) on some aspect of a large purchase. Regular demand from a large institution can mean a lot to a farm or cooperative of growers: a guaranteed market that encourages agricultural production. It seems like an easy win-win: local government agencies like schools, prisons and offices support their own local economy by buying food from local farms. 

But it is not always that easy. Many states, and some federal programs, specifically do not allow preferentially purchasing specifically to ensure equity in the way the public dollar is spent. This is navigated by the elaborate bidding process required for purchase of big ticket items or high volume sales purchased with tax payer dollars. Here's how it works: a state or local government agency puts out a request for proposals (RFP) outlining what they want to buy: a fleet of hybrid cars, four thousand pounds of apples or a new suite of office computers. Individual companies respond to the RFP with a bid outlining the exact details of what they can offer and at what price. The government agency is then required, usually, to select the lowest price bid. This bidding process allows for large purchases to be transparent, unbiased and (hopefully) corruption free.

However, when a food items is to be purchased: the local option does not usually offer the lowest price. Sure, maybe the it's the freshest, the tastiest or the best variety...but not always the least expensive. This can put local products at a disadvantage, especially since in many states it is illegal (ie, not competitive enough) to specify you want a food item from your own state.

So what to do? How can local governments support the purchase of local foods and the local economy in a fair way? Many are turning to changing the laws to allow for more local procurement. This is the case with the New York City Council and the  proposed Local Law to Amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the purchase of New York state food. Sounds like a mouthful, but it would turn the tide and make it possible for New York City to include a preference for New York State food items when it releases an RFP. Farmers markets and CSA may be the sexy, visible face of increasing access to local food...but subtle policy changes like allowing for the preference of local foods will make dramatic changes in the marketplace for local and regional foods.