Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Promise of Local Food

Some version of this was originally published as a blog post for Happy Hour Vitamins. 

Farm-to-Table dining is a growing trend in America, but it's not a new way of eating. It's simple a revamped version of how we used to eat. Before microwaves and fast food, didn't farmers raise food and bring it to the kitchen to be prepared? Today, farmers and fishermen are knocking on the doors of special restaurants committed to serving fresh, local food. These restaurants, called farm-to-table or farm-to-fork restaurants, have especially taken off in states where agriculture is a pillar of their economic growth, like North Carolina and Hawaii.

Home Sweet Home! Wilmington, NC offers a number of farm-to-table restaurants from PinPoint in Historic Downtown to 22 North in Wrightsville Beach. Most students learn of 22 North first as a beach bar on Thursday nights and only second as the great restaurant it is during the daytime. Catch has an expansive menu with options that highlight all seasonal flavors and the rich seafood industry on the coast and the chef is a Wilmington native. Since the food hub I work at delivers produce to these restaurants, I often meet the farmers behind the food and get a glimpse of the raw thing.

Fresh Hamptons in Long Island, NY is another kind of animal: a restaurant serving up produce from its very own garden. Chef Jacobs caters to half-pound steak eaters to liquid-dieters with his vegan Prana menu. He sources most of his ingredients locally, reporting he wants “it to be casual and comfortable, simple and straight” in Edible East End.

It's important to recognize that farm-to-table is not restricted to the East Coast. Trellis Restaurant in Washington state is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and serves what is in season from coriander falafel to crispy pork belly. Pago in Salt Lake City “proudly features” over eleven local farms and artisans in the area. Their menu includes a disclaimer, noting it could change anytime due to ingredient availability.

So why isn't every restaurant serving fresh, local food? 

Unfortunately, access to quantity is one of the largest obstacles restaurants serving local foods face. If they choose to put local kale in their salads, they must have enough to serve those salads for the number of customers that order it that evening, week, or month. This is a challenge that could easily be prevailed with consumer education of access of local foods and the need for flexibility. Zoning is also a contributor to this issue; when in a city, there is less opportunity to legally grow food. Finally, some argue that returning to our agricultural roots is a recipe for economic disaster. Rarely does a small local farmer specialize in one crop, an approach economists acknowledge as beneficial. A Freakonomics article called “The Inefficiency of Local Food” claims “a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland.”

Whole Foods Market, a grocery store infamous for its high prices, is familiar with the cost of local food if you aren’t. Most consumers ask “Why purchase local foods for twice the price when you can get the same thing for less?” The most important answer: it’s not the same thing. The CEO of Whole Foods claims their quality comes at a price, and most local farmers would agree. For example, they make an effort to raise their food sustainably, caring for the environment in a manner most industrial-scale farmers do not. Expense is an issue when considering buying local food over conventional meats and veggies. Vermont Farm to Plate sums it up for us:
“[Local] farmers operate on a smaller scale with lower net incomes than large industrial sized farms, and most do not receive the same level of government assistance, yet are faced with the same or even higher breadth of costs to produce food. Purchasing equipment, packaging costs, tax payments, and wages all factor into the financial equation, with many local farmers and producers wanting to pay fair wages to their workers that are representative of the cost of living.”
However, these pitfalls do not hold up against the benefits of fresh, local food for most. Full disclosure: As a food hub intern, I'm pretty bias. But seriously! Reducing the time it takes to get farm-fresh veggies from the field to your plate results in less nutrient loss and less of an impact on the environment from transportation. Local food has fuller flavors because of its freshness. Local food comes from local farmers and is reinvested into the community when it is served at local restaurants, benefiting the local economy.

Most local foods are better for you because they are served seasonally. When you choose to eat a local tomato in season, you avoid artificial ripening and thousands of miles in transport. Eating seasonal foods often results in a diverse diet because you can no longer eat strawberries for breakfast 365 days of the year (unless you have a smart business like Seal the Seasons to package and freeze locally-produced produce). Whether you are an all-in locavore, backyard gardener, or just interested in the trend, try a restaurant serving local ingredients on your next night out and I promise you won’t regret it.

Local Food Fanatic