The Challenges of Buying Local Food

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Like many people, I go to work Monday morning expecting to accomplish the long list of things enumerated before I closed my laptop on Friday. But that never, ever, happens. This week was no exception.

The first email commanding my attention was from a tomato sales rep in Florida. In April Bon Appétit Management Company had committed to buy only tomatoes picked by workers paid a fair wage under reasonable working conditions. One farm signed on to our Code of Conduct, the first in south Florida to stand up against the prevailing sub-human labor conditions that characterize winter agricultural operations. Those operations supply 90 percent of the tomatoes purchased east of the Mississippi. My job was to work with the farm and distributors to make sure those tomatoes got to our cafés--or there would be no tomatoes this winter.

My email correspondent works for that farm. "Due to inclement weather," he said--on the first day this program was to take effect--the shipments we were expecting in Cleveland and St. Louis would be "lighter than expected." Oh, the perils of relying on one supplier. Somehow, I knew this was coming. I just hoped it wouldn't.

I really don't have to tell chefs that purchasing special products takes more work. They know that.

What would that actually mean in the cafés, I wondered? No tomatoes on the salad bar? What were the chefs substituting? Would anyone notice? Because it was lunch hour in those cities, the time when chefs and managers aren't near their phones or computers, I could only leave messages and wait to find out.

As I reflected on what could be happening in those kitchens, I got an email from a manager for the heritage breed turkey ranch from which we pre-ordered 500 birds. They were to be delivered to our accounts in the San Francisco Bay Area last week and next. "Our birds' growth rate was much lower than expected this year, and unfortunately we had to put about 170 birds from the 7-15 lb weight class and 30 birds from the 15-24 lb weight class in your order (instead of 100 from each) this shipment. I am deeply sorry about this and any inconvenience this may cause." My back of the envelope calculation suggested that this could mean a shortfall of 700 pounds. OMG.

I called the ranch's geneticist (something that was definitely NOT on my Monday to-do list). These are hybrid heritage turkeys, he explained, and they had anticipated needing 28 weeks to grow to their advertised weight. At the processing plant, they found out that 30 weeks was probably more like it and the birds were smaller than anticipated. More birds were being packed into each case as the pack size was based on weight, not number of birds. Translation: fewer cases. How many cases had the distributor pre-sold? Would he have enough?

As the day wore on, I started hearing from the Midwest. Because the grower supplies only grape tomatoes, the chefs' plan all along has been to make tomato relish and salsas to top burgers and sandwiches. Reaction from the students in Ohio? Very little, so far, but it's the first day and most students are buried in mid-terms.

Just as I was feeling okay about tomatoes in Ohio, a Bay Area chef confirmed my fears about the turkeys. She was distressed to find out that her order for 16 cases of turkeys would go unfulfilled. I could see her point: when you're serving pre-Thanksgiving dinner for 700 people and have no birds, it's not good news. I called the meat distributor. He had indeed over-sold cases based on the original specifications. He didn't have enough turkeys for her.

I took my daily ten-minute "Vitamin D walk" outdoors earlier than usual on Monday to gain some perspective. Then I composed a note to all our Northern California chefs: "Thank you sincerely for participating in this program," I began. I explained why the shortfall occurred and what we were going to do about it. Then I dug deep and drew upon our philosophy about why we buy so much of our food from local sources:

Without question it takes more effort to support small-scale food production systems, especially as they learn and grow, than it does to buy industrially-produced turkeys that are bred to be identical in size and shape. Without your commitment to try new things, sustainable producers don't have a chance. Thank you for your flexibility.

So far, the reply emails are consistent: "The birds are delicious." Although I felt a need to apologize, I really don't have to tell chefs that purchasing special products takes more work. They know that. They also know that the flavor and continuation of the best traditions of producing great food makes supporting new initiatives worth it. Now you'll excuse me as I write my list of things to do next week. Item #1: don't turn on my email until I complete tasks #2 and #3.

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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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