'Local' Wholesale Produce: Not All That Local

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I try to like "mainstream" food suppliers with big trucks. I really do. As a supply chain manager for Bon Appetit Management Company, I know we have to use them for paper towels and ketchup anyway, and they're great for delivering 900 pounds of potatoes at a time along with the Cheerios college students have been known to inhale. But as much as I want to believe otherwise, big trucks are far from being the supply chain source for sustainable food, at least any time soon.

Let's get real: few chefs who cook for colleges or corporations can buy most of their food directly from small, local farmers and artisan producers. This is especially true if fresh produce is central to their cooking philosophy and they cook from scratch, two tenets that typify our approach to food. A college that serves 8,000 meals a day has the produce truck delivering supplies on their back dock for three to four hours every day. Most chefs have to use a consolidated delivery service of some sort just to handle the volume.

I've found that I can't assume that colorful marketing is evidence that these guys are beginning to get it.

So the question is: what kind of delivery service? Established produce suppliers have figured out that local food is in demand. Now they send their weekly price sheets to chefs identifying produce from nearby farms as "local" and "farm to fork." Well, I beg to differ with their definitions.

A big part of my summer has been spent talking to these produce suppliers—22 around the country. Most of them really, really don't get it. They have put a halo on the nearby farmers they've always bought from and declared victory. I'll admit that most of their designated sources are local to the chefs they are marketing to, but one example—"the country's largest grower of cabbage, with operations in four states, and nine semi-trailers to deliver fresh to your door" —clearly demonstrates the disconnect between their definition of farm-to-fork food and ours.

We're now in our second decade of buying farm-to-fork products grown within 150 miles of the kitchens we run. But our program has always been about chefs buying food that tastes great from owner-operated, small growers and artisans that live and work within the foodsheds where we cook. Size matters. Big Ag is local to lots of our Minnesota and California accounts, but that's never met our definition of farm-to-fork food. They represent big business next door, whose very success has squished smaller efforts in other regional food sheds.

As we try to bring in more artisan producers, we have to find ways of getting their produce through our back door without driving the produce receiver out of his mind. Hence my attempt to get some of these producers distributed by mainstream delivery services (and educate the services on the importance of buying products from smaller local producers at the same time).

I've found that I can't assume that colorful marketing is evidence that these guys are beginning to get it. They see themselves as being in the business of delivering commodities. If the weather is bad in one area, they will substitute products from another—usually without telling the chef who ordered the products. It should come as no surprise, then, that The Produce News reports that only 50 percent of the country's big growers are "ready" for compliance with the produce industry's voluntary traceability guidelines (and the guidelines were proposed as a substitute for regulation).

Some suppliers are simply horrified at the thought that we want them to buy from growers whose annual sales are less than $5 million, as if small farmers can't know anything about food safety. Others clearly don't care about differences in taste.

Fortunately, more farmer co-ops are trying to compete in this market, delivering a wide range of local food products. In July alone I approved the use of three—in Maryland, Minnesota, and Texas—and I know more are in the pipeline.

I don't want to take sides yet about whether alternative delivery methods are necessary to ensure that good food gets greater representation in our diets, but I'm insulted when the sales guy thinks I'm too stupid to know the distinction between local food and true local food.

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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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