Farm-to-table (or farm-to-fork, and in some cases farm-to-school)
is a social movement which promotes serving local food at restaurants and school cafeterias, preferably through direct acquisition from the producer (which might be a brewery, ranch, fishery, or other type of food producer which is not strictly a “farm”).
This might be accomplished by a direct sales relationship, a community-supported agriculture arrangement, a farmer’s market, a local distributor or by the restaurant or school raising its own food. Farm-to-table often incorporates a form of food traceability (celebrated as “knowing where your food comes from”) where the origin of the food is identified to consumers.
Often restaurants cannot source all the food they need for dishes locally, so only some dishes or only some ingredients are labelled as local.
The farm-to-table movement has arisen more or less concurrently with changes in attitudes about food safety, food freshness, food seasonality, and small-farm economics. Advocates and practitioners of the farm-to-table model frequently cite the scarcity of fresh, local ingredients; the poor flavor of ingredients shipped from afar; the poor nutritional integrity of shipped ingredients; the disappearance of small family farms; the disappearance of heirloom and open-pollinated fruits and vegetables; and the dangers of a highly centralized food growing and distribution system as motivators for their decision to adopted a more locavore approach to the food system.
How to tell if your "local" food is actually local:
Some restaurants, grocers and outdoor markets routinely misrepresent the nature of the foods they sell. So what are you going to do about it?
You need to know what grows here and when.
If a market or restaurant is making “local” claims, ask the manager or chef precisely what that means. Eating locally means eating seasonally, which frequently means relying on a more limited repertoire.
Country of Origin. In grocery stores, supermarkets and club warehouse stores, it is required that fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and shellfish, many nuts and ginseng be labeled with basic information about the country in which it was produced.
Outdoor markets, roadside stands and other venues are not required to comply with this. Feel free to ask. Be insistent, and don’t hesitate to scrutinize boxes under a vendor’s table or on the truck. Box labels may give a more accurate accounting of food’s provenance.
If something has organic seal, it means that crops cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, synthetic chemicals or sewage sludge; they cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. However, if a farm or business’ sales are for example $5,000 (in the USA) or less per year, it is considered an “exempt” operation and doesn’t need to be certified to sell, label or represent its products as organic. Don’t get hung up about certification, some farmers say. Jim Kovaleski started Freedom House Farm eight years ago and farms four front yards in New Port Richey. “Ask regional farmers if they are using organic practices”, he says.
All organic beef is naturally raised, but not all naturally-raised beef is organic. While in a sense, every cow and steer is grass-fed (after weaning, nearly all cows graze on grass), beef labeled “grass-fed” means that the animal has received 100 percent of its energy outside of weaning from grass or forage, and not from grains such as corn. This does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were administered.
Seafood is much less regulated than meats. Be afraid “Why are we seeing more and more nutritionally related diseases?” asks Mesh. “Our methodologies for both production and processing of food are killing us.” And in the past few years, food-borne illness crises seem to be coming at an alarming rate.
More broadly, there are websites that pay attention to our food supply:
grist.org; foodsafetynews.com; thefoodwatchdog.com; politicsoftheplate.com.
Farmers have advice:
- “All of these people claiming to support the local farmer: you basically need to trap them in their own words. Can I see your last invoice? Show me your documentation.” — Jim Wood, Palmetto Creek
- “I tell customers to try to do business with a farmer, not with a broker. If I was a customer, I’d want to go see the animals. Ultimately that’s what needs to happen.”—Tom Siverson, Pasture Prime Family Farm
- “There are a lot of resellers saying ‘this is local and organic.’ The best thing (you) can do is go out and visit the farms. Make that connection. And always ask if it’s locally grown. Build real relationships with the people who make your food.” — Emily Rankin, Local Roots
Consumers have to do it, because grocers and restaurants want to buy low and sell high. Small farmers don’t have lobbying resources.
“Farmers don’t want to be perceived as the junkyard dogs,” explains Joel Salatin of Polyface, a farm in Virginia. “We tend to not like controversy. The tractor never argues with us.”