Most Americans cannot trace the chain of events that brought last night’s dinner from the farm to their plate. But a growing number of consumers refuse to remain in the dark.
Their curiosity has sparked a revolution in the food and restaurant industry known as the “farm-to-table” movement. Sometimes referred to as “farm-to-fork,” it means different things to different people.
However, at the heart of the farm-to-table movement is the belief that food should be produced by local farms and delivered directly to restaurants – or even to households, in the case of farmers markets.
Farm-to-table food is different because it removes both distributors and grocers from the food delivery process.
“Any time you shorten the time frame or the distance between the time the product is picked and the time it is eaten, you do have that freshness and better taste,” says Craig Chase, program manager of local foods at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in Ames, Iowa.
Chase says consumers are chiefly attracted to farm-to-table for three reasons.
- To support local farmers
- To help the local economy
- To eat more healthfully
Many restaurants are capitalizing on the growing popularity of the food-to-table movement by creating menus based on local ingredients.
These eateries establish relationships with local farms and buy produce and meat from them.
Phony farm-to-table claims?
As the farm-to-table movement has grown in popularity, something of a backlash has set in. Some critics poke fun at farm-to-table, saying its adherents are pretentious and self-serious.
More troubling are criticisms that many farm-to-table restaurants stretch the truth about the foods they use. In April, Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley wrote about her two-month investigation of local farm-to-table restaurants.
She found that behind the kitchen door, Tampa area restaurants were preparing “Florida” blue crab that came out of the Indian Ocean, and serving quail allegedly from Lake City, Florida, that actually originated in Wyoming.
“Just about everyone tells tales,” Reiley concluded. “Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions or ‘greenwashing.'”
Chase says that it is “absolutely” true that some restaurants tell tall tales about using local ingredients. In many other cases, the restaurant is honest, but the definition of “local” probably differs from what diners expect.
Chase notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says food can still be considered “local” as long as it is transported less than 400 miles from where it originated. “Four hundred miles from where I’m at, I could almost get to Indiana,” Chase says.
However, many other restaurants make a genuine commitment to buy locally. If you want to make sure your favorite eatery truly is farm-to-table, Chase suggests you ask specific, pointed questions about where the restaurant gets its food.
“A lot of the restaurants we deal with will give out the name of the farm, and even the website,” he says.
Diligent consumers can also call the farm in question to make sure the restaurant is truly using their food on a regular basis, and not just occasionally.
“The consumer has the right to ask about local products,” he says. “If the restaurant isn’t willing to offer that information, then I really would question how important ‘local’ is to that restaurant.”
The future of farm-to-table
Chase believes the food-to-table movement is mimicking the trajectory of the modern organic food movement, which really began to get traction in the 1970s.
“It always starts as a fad,” he says. He notes that for years, organic food remained a niche product with a small section in the grocery store. Eventually, it grew to point where “you have grocery stores that are all-organic.”
While food-to-table is not yet mainstream, “we’re getting there,” Chase says.
Chase says the most important aspect of the farm-to-table movement is that it helps consumers to better trace where their food comes from. In turn, that fact encourages many people to eat foods they otherwise would not.
“The point I typically make is that if a food is not being eaten and consumed, it has no nutritional value,” he says.
This last reason includes knowing that foods are grass-based, or hormone- and pesticide-free. “So much of what we buy is processed, and we have no idea what these ingredients are,” Chase says.