Local trends in food service pop up all the time: organic, fair-trade, preservative-free…but one of the largest movements right now might be the cry to choose local ingredients, rather than purchasing something shipped from Mexico (or even farther away) to serve in restaurants. Also known as farm-to-table, this movement has sparked debates over almost every aspect of food. Does it taste better? Is it healthier? What’s with the higher price tag? Why should I even do this?
One of the largest reasons people buy local ingredients to serve in their restaurants or sell in their grocery stores is the impact it has on a community’s economy. In an article Matt Schuler, industry expert and corporate chef at The WEBstaurant Store, wrote for Main Line Parent, he states that, “[c]hoosing local ingredients is important, first and foremost, because of the impact it has on our community’s economy.” The number of small farms popping up across the United States has grown exponentially in the past decade, and the number of consumers choosing to eat or serve locally sourced food grows with them. The dollars spent in that community stay there and foster growth. A community created through food, if you will.
Schuler opened Ella’s American Bistro, in Wayne, PA, which uses sustainable ingredients locally grown and seasonably sourced from local farms. An advocate for buying and serving local ingredients, Schuler says his intent when opening Ella’s was “…just wanting people to know where their food came from, and know the people that grew it.…Being able to shake a farmer’s hand is gratifying. It’s almost like a sense of ownership: not only is this product great, I’m able to help him produce more great products and grow.”
Another important aspect of the farm-to-table movement for Schuler is education. A lot of Americans don’t know where their food comes from when it arrives on a plate. Some believe hamburgers are simply born in a grocery store, already packaged in Styrofoam trays and sealed in plastic. “Educating consumers on food in general [and] what it takes to get to your table…everyone should know that process.”
So why is this movement gaining momentum now? Schuler says he believes the Internet has a lot to do with it. “People are reading more, starting their own movements or organizations that try to boost the economy and local commerce.” Another reason is consumer education. “People are more educated about what’s in their areas now….A customer base out there sees local markets as more ‘food educated,’ so when they see ‘local’ a lot of people go for that.”
An additional reason folks like serving locally grown foods is the nutritional value and seasonality of fresh produce. “The flavor, taste and nutritional content is far superior than it coming from longer distances….People want fruit, vegetables; produce picked when it’s ripe. Being able to pick a peach or have a peach that’s just a day or two days old is awesome,” says Schuler.
There it is: to get the best flavors, some say, one must buy local AND buy seasonally fresh – but does everyone know the seasons of fruits and veggies? Probably not. The WEBstaurant Store created What’s in Season? A Regional Guide to Fresh Produce – a great tool for finding out which produce is in season when, and where it comes from. Locally picked produce, like corn from the fields of PA, can be tastiest during the months of June, July and August – which is why it might not be prevalent on the menus of your favorite farm-to-table restaurants before or after the summer months.
So what can someone with a farm-to-table dream and a bag of local potatoes do? According to Schuler, the best way to get started is simple: “Visit the farms, meet the people, taste the food, explain to the farmer what you’re trying to do.”
Seasonal ingredients are available locally and even regionally. But farm-to-table restaurants aren’t necessarily taking the country by storm yet. Schuler says there are very few restaurants in the country that are completely farm to table, but, “…Some have one or two [local] items, and that’s better than none. If restaurants have this concept, or have a couple of [local] items…the more the better.”
Schuler notes that there are some drawbacks to buying strictly from local farms, “They only have a certain amount of product, and a certain amount of ability to produce that product.” But the benefits probably make up for it. Schuler simply says, “Knowing when you order something, that it came from somewhere around here mentally makes it taste better.”