Farm-To-Table: Grass Roots Or Rotten Greed?

farm table under tree with rolling hills

The Origins of the Farm-To-Table Movement

Certainly, deeply, vehemently, Alice Waters, thank you. To begin a discussion of the farm-to-table movement anywhere else would be nothing short of disrespectful. Alice Waters is a near mythical figure in the world of food, agriculture, and sustainable practices. A community leader, a movement originator, and, both literally and figuratively, a force of nature. If anyone were to be credited with being the impetus for changing the conversation surrounding food culture in this country, Alice would certainly be on the short list. It would seem that the reflex of those who wish to enact real change on the world around them is to think in very broad terms. Change the system, change the whole foundation, let's get everyone together and change everything. The idea of being a consistent shining example of an ideology and enacting change on a small scale begins to sound a touch quaint and idealistic. Alice Waters’s work is a heartening example to the contrary.

The Edible Schoolyard, her project to provide free, organic lunches to the students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, via on-site gardening, began in 1995. A conversation with a skeptical principal and an all-or-nothing attitude quickly turned into every principal in the Berkeley K-12 public school district being invited to eat at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, and promptly being converted to her way of thinking. Chez Panisse was never expanded to other cities; the Edible Schoolyard never iterated in other schools.  These simple facts are incredible in their own right. Let me explain.

When you consider the term ‘scalable’ to be of the vernacular of fast food culture, and lobbying to be an activity for the agents of corporate interest, then you are left with the tools of the grass roots movement: education, community development, profound conversation. While Chez Panisse never opened another location, the Chez Panisse foundation helped grow the Edible Schoolyard, which has become an educational resource and an exemplary proof of concept for those who have taken up the proverbial torch elsewhere. This method of small-scale development of an ideology, slowly working to the end of widespread understanding, is what grassroots is about, people! While Alice Waters can’t be solely credited with the development of the farm-to-table movement, she can certainly be listed along with Thomas Keller, Dan Barber, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin,  and even looking farther back, Jean Louis Palladin, as championing pioneers.

Farm-to-Table: A Brave New World

I remember seeing my first real green onion. My chef sent me to the walk-in cooler to get the green onions we had just received from a local farm to cut for garnish. Excited about the concept I eagerly went to go looking for the produce and squandered precious minutes in the cooler searching. Decidedly confused, I found my chef and asked him to explain more specifically where they were tucked away. Exasperated he breezed over to the cooler and emerged promptly with a bag of…onions? I was befuddled. A far reach from the frail, slender, blown-up chive like items that you encounter in the grocery store, these were a bunch of fully developed bulbs with a tuft of pert, robust stalks protruding from the tops as almost an afterthought.

“These,” he stated fervently, “these are green onions—these are the real thing!”

I haven’t looked at any produce the same since. Though I’ll refrain, for the moment, from going on a tangent regarding genetic modification in produce, I was profoundly struck by the degree of variance from the originally cultivated varieties, to what we’ve come to know as produce from any supermarket.

Since the early 2000s this farm-to-table movement has grown exponentially. The importance of this mentality of responsible and knowledgeable sourcing is being realized more and more. The funny thing is that it doesn’t take much. Take someone who has never eaten anything that isn’t a product of industrialized food production, and bring them to a farmer’s market. Show them what real sweet corn tastes like, talk to the farmers with them, explain to them exactly why the strawberry they just ate tasted like candy and not some vaguely sweet excuse for fruit. Oh, and the look on someone’s face when they eat real carrot for the first time. You can see the realization of the origins of their early childhood rebellion against contending with a disconcerting mound of recently thawed veggies.

Farm-to-table goes beyond the reassertion that we can and should eat better. Sugar content of a plant is measured on the Brix scale. Essentially, micro-organisms in the soil feed their symbiote plants nutrients while the plants feed them sugars generated via photosynthesis. The higher the sugar content of a plant, the healthier it is, the sweeter it is, and the vastly more nutritious it is.

The other significant facet of farm-to-table thinking is having access to knowledge of where your food comes from and what it is. Knowing that your food is organic because you get to talk to the farmers about what they do, not because some monoculture farm a continent and a half away was able to meet the criteria for ‘certified organic.’ Since transporting food across continents became an industrial standard, origin regulations have never been tight enough to guarantee with confidence exactly what it is you’re putting in your mouth.

The Other Side of Farm-to-Table

Naturally, the idea of farm-to-table eating is bathed in a wholesome feeling, fresh tomato scented, ‘green glow,’ but should it be? Well, yes, farm-to-table as a movement and an ideology, is great, stellar even, given that it is what it says on the label. The trick there is the label isn’t always honest. There have been a multitude of restaurants, schools, and other food distributors who have been caught stretching the feel good umbrella of “farm-to-table” to menus, products, and even business identities that are far from the real thing. I’ve been cooking professionally for the past two years, as such, this portion of the farm-to-table movement I can speak to from personal experience.

Candidly, since January 2015 when I began my adventure in food service, I have encountered more places that stretch—if not outright lie about—the definition of local, farm-to-table, house-made, organic, consciously sourced, and sustainable, than places that don’t. These words are far more frequently thrown around as helpful advertising buzzwords than as a legitimate indicator of origin or quality.  Local farm greens? 50% farm greens, 50% big box sourced (if you’re lucky). Those organic farm fresh cherry tomatoes that just came into season? You and the 75 diners before you that ordered and enjoyed that salad are rightfully enthusiastic, even after the 40th order when the restaurant ran out of the farm tomatoes and switched to local grocery store brand. (The chef seriously had no idea you liked salad that much.)

How can you tell the difference?

  • Does the chef care? Tricky to tell without talking to the chef (and no, don’t go pulling him out of the kitchen just to size him up), but if there is a lot of care put into your plate, down to the details, you can be optimistic.
  • Is the food expensive? Unfortunately, because small, high quality farms are inherently not scalable, most quality ingredients are not yet affordable.
  • Is the menu designed seasonally? If you’re getting a fresh strawberry in February, it’s not local. Granted, there is only so much a chef can do to source well year round and still have a varied menu at less than fine dining prices.
  • Does the menu have names of specific farms? If they are proud enough of their sourcing to talk about where the food comes from, it’s a pretty good sign, though this is not the be all and end all as you only have so much space on a menu.
  • Does your waiter know about the farms and product origins? If the management team has trained and tested the wait staff  on where the food is coming from, they’ll be pretty informative. That being said, that doesn’t mean you need to be the person to grill your waiter on every detail of the menu.

No one of these things is a sure fire way of telling if the restaurant is being honest about their menu but together you can start to get a pretty decent idea. Beyond that, next time you see a restaurant that claims to be entirely farm-to-table receiving a monumental delivery from a big box food purveyor, think twice before getting excited about their house made aioli—it’s probably cheap mayo.

The Costs of Farm-to-Table

The other prominent issue of farm-to-table is simply cost. If you can afford to shop at the farmer's market and eat well, do it! However, that isn’t an option for many. I’ve certainly had the pleasure of living in a place where the closest edible plant you can buy is an hour long bus ride away. Even then, if you need to get the most calories for the least amount of money, you’re not pursuing the selection of organic radishes.  In cities and urban centers, often times a diet of unprocessed food is regrettably unrealistic.

Good food is expensive. At the moment, it is still vastly cheaper to dedicate 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to producing a single calorie of food energy than it is to simply take care of the land. Industrial food corporations still have significant political pull, and as a result, the animal protein-dominated American diet still reigns, unhindered by frivolous concerns of health epidemics and unsustainable agricultural practices.

There are a multitude of barriers—legal, fiscal, and logistical—before the result of sustainable farm-to-table methodology is something that isn’t only accessible to the more affluent portions of our society. The first battle is changing the tenor of cultural thought surrounding food. As long as we adamantly refuse to forget the foundations of understanding that Alice Waters and all the other mindful leaders have cultivated, we have an edge.

Though many might not have the option to eat outside of the system of industrial agriculture and processed foods, if we begin to bring attention to the fact that this is not okay, the first challenge has already been overcome.



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