The Main Reason to Eat Local

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Sometimes I get lucky, and last week I had one of those days. For lunch I didn't eat leftovers at my desk but was presented with a salad of seared Liberty Hill duck breast, Emerald Beauty plum slices, acorn squash croutons, and Green Zebra tomatoes over Little Gem lettuce tossed with a citrus vinaigrette. I normally don't eat meat, mind you, but I also don't insult chefs who present me with their proud compositions. The tossed-to-order dish was on the menu at Mills College in Oakland, California, and many students seemed to share my enthusiasm for this dish and the caramelized cipollini onion-tomato soup that followed. (On days like this I view my job as fair payback for all the chipped ham on toast with gelatinous white sauce that my college dining hall dished out.)

To recognize how far Bon Appétit Management Company's Farm to Fork Program had come since 1999 and to share our enthusiasm for fresh, local food, we created an Eat Local Challenge Day in 2005. Last week was the fifth annual fall event.

I sat down with Jaime Dominguez, Mills College's executive chef, whose generous-sized hand cradled an extra-large Purple Cherokee tomato the way a guy behind a desk might clutch the seams of a favorite baseball, and asked him if the experience of this event was different now than in previous years.

There's a reason we require chefs to source a minimum of 20 percent of their food stuffs locally: it tastes better.

"It was such a challenge to find local farmers who could sell us enough produce then," he said. "Now regular produce suppliers carry stuff from local farms." What's also changed is that local food has become so important in everyday meal planning, the challenge day doesn't have the novelty as it did in the past.

The idea of local food has indeed become mainstream. But this has brought new issues, including one raised by a chef yesterday in an irate email to his produce supplier that I was copied on. This chef knows intimately what's in season nearby because he has walked his fair share of Northern Virginia farms. He was incensed that three pallet-loads of vegetables he had ordered for the challenge--all identified on price sheets as coming from farms he knew--were from Canada or Michigan. The produce supplier's response was apologetic:

"We put a lot of time and effort into the information we put out each week, but I can't tell you we have all the answers yet. As you know the popularity of local grown produce has exploded over the last year and how we identify, slot, ship and train our employees is still evolving."

No wonder most of our chefs prefer to buy directly from the farmers they know rather than the suppliers who are trying to broker for them.

But why are institutions buying local food anyway?

Our organizing principle was freshness and flavor in 1999--when you cook from scratch, as is required of chefs in our company, produce has to taste like what you imagine--but as chefs met farmers and learned more, helping rebuild regional foodsheds became important too. Notions of what food is local and how to define foodsheds can be interpreted many ways, however, and some are quite contradictory.

If freshness is important, then so is proximity from farm to table. But produce that's been picked up by a distributor, brought to a warehouse, refrigerated to ensure longer shelf life, and delivered days later may be neither fresh nor local, depending on how much it's traveled. The same is true about meat which has to be slaughtered in a USDA facility often hundreds of miles away.

Some institutions allow a definition of local that emphasizes buying from regional food businesses to maintain jobs--in which case the size of an operation or its ownership structure doesn't matter. Smithfield is local to Raleigh-Durham and General Mills to Minneapolis, but the national market power of these gigantic companies has diminished regional players elsewhere. Is it fair to support them under the guise of supporting local food?

One of the more questionable claims for local food is reduced greenhouse gas emissions through shorter food miles. Notwithstanding heaps of evidence to contradict this idea (on-farm production has so much more environmental impact than transportation except in extreme cases, and regional distribution has been shown to be more efficient than "local" systems), the big climate change impacts are just not with transportation and lots of little diesel trucks don't help.

So why local food? I think about this question a lot because all the Bon Appétit chefs' applications for enrolling "Farm to Fork" vendors land on my desk. We've considered revisions, but our policy remains what it was a decade ago: maximum 150 miles from the kitchen, owner-operated, sales under $5 million (most don't even come close). There's a reason we require chefs to source a minimum of 20 percent of their food stuffs locally: it tastes better. After ten years, I think this justification for local food is still the best.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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