Farm-to-Table Fraud

We should stop asking for a government fix and start asking farmers about the weather.  (illustrative purposes only)  (illustrative purposes only)

Last week, the Tampa Bay Times published the results of a two-month investigation, exposing a number of area restaurants and farmers market vendors who misrepresented food as locally sourced. Farm to Fable, written by restaurant critic Laura Riley, documented cases that ranged from honest mistake to disturbingly blatant fraud.

It’s not much of a leap to guess that this problem is not unique to Tampa Bay. A San Diego Magazine piece of the same title chronicled similar fraud last summer. My own experience as a locavore also supports this theory. I’ve encountered my share of shady farm-to-table restaurants. And I’ve shaken my head at many a gullible shopper at my local Indiana farmers market as they boast about hauls that include sweet peppers two months before they’re in season here.

My hope is that Riley’s story will spread some much-needed healthy skepticism, and that the headline buzz (which always gets many more eyes than the guts of the story) will not simply result in disillusion and apathy toward local food.

How did we get here?

Why is this fraud so prevalent? We’ve always liked the idea of good food: happy chickens frolicking in idyllic pastures and tomatoes grown with love on sunny family farms. Manufacturers have been leveraging this attraction for years, using wholesome imagery of small family farms that has very little to do with the reality of food production. So it’s nothing new. It’s just that now we want more of that same fairytale. We don’t just want that fairytale at the grocery store; we also want it when we go out to eat. If Google searches are any indicator of our interest in farm-to-table restaurants, that interest has increased eight-fold since 2009, hitting an all-time high last July.

It was the best of times...

And at the same time as our demand has increased, our access to small local food is rising, too. According to the USDA, farmers are selling 32% more food directly to consumers than they were in 2002, and the number of farmers markets reached 8,284 in 2014. That’s up 470% since 1994. But perhaps our demand for local food has outpaced the supply. Research on Louisville’s consumer market indicated a $158 million dollar gap between availability of local food and what residents reported that they wanted to buy, with consumers and commercial buyers alike citing insufficient supply.

... we believe that when it comes to food, almost anything is possible.

Meanwhile, we’re more disconnected from our food than ever before. (Perhaps that’s why we’re now yearning to get closer to it.) So while we know we want local food, we may not know how to recognize it. We aren’t really aware of what’s grown locally or when it’s in season. Instead, we believe that when it comes to food, almost anything is possible. The average grocery store carried over 42,000 items as of 2014. If bread can be made without gluten, chips can be healthy, and oranges can come without peels, why can’t we have local avocados available year-round in every state? As consumers used to having it all, we simply don’t know better anymore. So if a menu offers “local greens misted with unicorn tears,” as Riley likened restaurant claims to in an NPR interview, why wouldn’t we believe this is possible?

Another piece to the puzzle is the incredible overhead required for restaurants to source ingredients locally. There’s the time it takes to coordinate individually with multiple farmers, rather than a single distributor. Often, there’s also the extra time it takes to clean and prep food. Then there’s the need for quick menu changes if one farmer runs into a problem. Not to mention keeping customers (who are used to having it all) happy with a shorter menu limited by seasonal availability. These factors surely help explain the cases of out-of-date menus, although they’re no excuse for blatant fraud.

If eating local means knowing our farmers and freeing ourselves from corporate food, why on Earth would we invite The Man to the table?

How do we fix it?

A follow-up piece by another Times columnist lays responsibility at the feet of state government. But more government is the last thing we need when it comes to local food. If eating local means knowing our farmers and freeing ourselves from corporate food, why on Earth would we invite The Man to the table? And frankly, would strict government regulation of farmers market vendors or farm-to-table restaurant sourcing really give you peace of mind?  

Sure, someone needs to protect us from sawdust fillers, dangerous food safety practices, and bogus health claims. It’s not realistic to think we don’t need government intervention in those areas. But if we burden our local food movements with bureaucracy, we’ll surely increase the cost of local food while decreasing its availability. Small farmers will tell you that the last thing they need is more hoops to jump through.

I don't need a third party to protect me when I visit my local dairy. I know the farmer is doing everything in his power to provide good milk for our community because his reputation depends on it. There's no county, state, or federal agency that's going to get to know my local food sources any better than I know them. The beauty of small, local food is that it’s in our hands. Let’s not ruin that. 

The solution is not to get government more involved in local food, but to take personal action: start asking questions; reconnect with food; ask a farmer about the weather; adjust expectations; and evaluate priorities. 

Start asking questions

I’m convinced that a big part of the problem is that most of us may not really want to know — after all, what do we do if we’re already settled in for a nice meal but we don’t get the right answer? Do we get up and leave hungry?

I seek out farm-to-table restaurants when I travel. A couple years ago when I sat down for dinner at a much-acclaimed Cleveland farm-to-table restaurant, I innocently asked the server about the source of a couple of the meats on the menu. His haughty non-answer and condescending sneer made me immediately feel like a fool for asking. But they were the ones advertising local food! I couldn’t imagine that the server put on this display on a regular basis. I don’t know if I was, but I certainly felt as if I was really the first person to actually ask about sourcing.

As a reformed vegetarian who previously spent years avoiding the evils of factory-farmed meat while simultaneously consuming factory-farmed dairy products, I understand the desire to avoid asking too many questions. An unofficial don’t ask, don’t tell policy got me and my vegetarian friends through many cheesy pizzas, fish-sauce-laden dishes of tofu Pad Thai, and lard-enhanced bean burritos.

But when it comes to local food, if there were ever a time to step up and start asking questions, this is it, because we have more options than ever. If your favorite farm-to-fork restaurant can’t answer your questions, you don’t have to tuck tail and quietly eat your dinner. That’s because chances are, if you drive down the road you’ll find another restaurant with better sourcing, or a local farm with a CSA program and weekly recipe cards. You might also find that while some items aren’t local, one really is. And if you come back and order it again and again, they might take the hint and add another local item to the menu.

Reconnect with food

If our disconnection from food is at the root of our being easily duped, then the best way to avoid playing the patsy is to know what grows locally, and when it’s in season. I think even more importantly, we can rebuild our collective connection to food by teaching children what we still know about food, before it’s too late. Our collective food knowledge is slipping away because with each new generation, there’s just a little more that we neglect to pass on. If you know what a tomato plant looks like, you may take it for granted, but there’s no telling whether your child will recognize one. (And if you don’t know what a tomato plant looks like, you and your children can learn about tomatoes together.)

One way to reconnect with food is to grow some, even just a little. You’ll learn what grows in your area, what’s in season, and how undersized, misshapen, and hole-filled produce can be the most delicious of all. Our expectation of bountiful grocery store displays of perfect produce creates a couple of problems. It’s the reason we skip over the little guy at the farmers market in favor of bigger non-local vendors. It’s also been spotlighted in recent stories about retailer efforts to counteract the global 1.3-billion-ton food waste issue by encouraging folks to purchase “produce with personality” and tackled by start-ups like Imperfect Produce. If we had just a little more personal experience with growing produce, we might be more willing to appreciate imperfections.


Ask a farmer about the weather

If you really want to know about the source of food at the farmers market, you may have to ask a lot of questions. But you can do it politely. Farmers can be reclusive and even wary, with good reason. A couple of years ago, when I first started buying food from what’s now my favorite local farm, I asked the farmer a lot of questions. Maybe too many, I later found out. I was anxious to understand every detail of the life (and eventual harvest) of their chickens. Over time, I became friends with this farmer and learned that I wasn’t the only one. A lot of folks barge in with a laundry list of questions (questions they surely aren’t asking when they go to to the grocery store for the other 95% of their groceries).

Instead of a rapid-fire line of questioning, introduce yourself and ask farmers how they’re doing. Ask about the weather, how it’s affected their operation, and how their season is going. If you have specific questions about the farm's practices, offer some background about why you want to know, e.g. “I’m looking for a better source of chicken for my family, and I’m wondering….?” You can also ask how the farmer feels about whatever it is you’re seeking. They might convince you that lamb doesn’t need to be 100% grass-fed, after all.

While it’s reasonable to ask about the farm location or try to visit, not every farm welcomes visitors, and they may have a number of legitimate reasons. If they’re not set up for visitors, they may have concerns about your safety as well as the health of their animals. When consumers watch a lot of Disney movies and toddlers aren’t kept away from pig fences, hands may be lost. Farmers also tend to be really, really busy people. If five people every week wanted to stop by your house for a visit, could you accommodate them? Sometimes, that’s sort of what it’s like asking for a visit. It really depends on the farm.

Adjust expectations

If you really want to support local food, consider being more flexible with local options than commercial options. If you demand that your local beef be certified organic, grass-fed, and humanely slaughtered, do you also stock up on those trendy “natural” (read: non-organic) sausages at the grocery store? If anything, it should be the reverse. The reality is that farmers, like the rest of us, need to earn a living. As they benefit from our support and get to know what we want, they may have an opportunity to change their practices or expand their offerings.

...we want to have our steak and eat it, too. We want local and grass-fed and organic, but we want it at rock-bottom prices.

Evaluate priorities

A local grass-fed steak for $15 is a red flag in a restaurant. Why are so many fakers getting away with it? Because we want to have our steak and eat it, too. We want local and grass-fed and organic, but we want it at rock-bottom prices. I think it’s time to re-prioritize our spending and question our demand for cheap food.  After all, provided that you’re safe, warm, and healthy, there’s not much that’s more important than the food you nourish your body with every single day. (I’m aware that not all of us fit this category, but that’s a story for another day.)

When food is actually raised according to the fairytale standards we envision, it’s expensive. One pair of restaurant owners Riley spoke with (some of the good guys), pointed out that they couldn’t afford to source all meat locally. They say a local, pastured pork chop would have a price tag higher than most customers would be willing to pay — over $40.  I’ve made the tradeoff. I stopped entertaining myself at Target on Saturday mornings by accidentally overspending on kitchen wipes, semi-disposable fashion, packaged snacks, and other stuff of questionable value. And I don’t go out often. So now when I do go out, I don’t mind spending a little extra on a pork chop at my favorite farm-to-table restaurant.  (I’m happy to report that here in Indiana, the farm-to-table pork chop is $24. While it's not fully pastured, I know it’s well-raised.) Can all Americans make a spending shift and start dining at authentic farm-to-table restaurants? No, of course not. But I suspect it will work for many of the small-batch whisky-sippers who frequent the offending restaurants.

What's next?

I was surprised to discover that Riley exposed a similar case of blatant misrepresentation of local and organic sourcing at an “iconic” Tampa Bay restaurant nearly four years ago. I don’t know if Tampa Bay restaurants have a short memory span or if it’s simple arrogance that led the latest offenders to defraud their diners with Riley around.  My hope is that this time, the conversation continues, and that around the country we keep asking questions. (But maybe not too many.)

What do you think? I look forward to reading your comments.