"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.