Local Food and the Farm to Table Movement
The farm-to-table movement leapt into the mainstream in the early 2000s, as food activists around the country strove to develop strong connections between restaurants and local farming communities. Consumers are now able to buy local and regional foods not only from restaurants, but also in farmers’ markets or from their food retailers; furthermore, many have advocated the use of local foods in the burgeoning farm-to-school movement. Other local food trends include restaurant gardens, local sourcing of meat and produce, hyperlocal sourcing of greens, seasonal menus, and more recently, use of local foods in fast casual dining. A recent report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates that the use of intermediated channels (which includes farm-to-restaurant sales), in regions with thriving local food systems, helps farmers increase sales. A newly growing segment of this market is locally and regionally produced meats.
The bulk of research on the farm-to-table movement addresses benefits to consumers and farmers. Locally and regionally produced food is fresher and tastier when it reaches consumers, with benefits extending beyond the consumer’s palate, as purchasing food raised nearby supports local farms and can bring economic benefits to local communities. The relatively short shipping distances in local and regional markets allow farmers to produce high-value heritage and heirloom varieties of livestock and produce, which are unable to maintain their quality when shipped over long distances. The market demand for heritage breeds is small but growing, and demand for some products, such as Thanksgiving heritage turkeys, appears so strong that some local purveyors sell out in advance.
Procuring locally and regionally produced food requires a significant amount of effort on the part of chefs and buyers, and places additional demands on local farmers and intermediaries. One challenge of using local food is that the supply chain differs from that used by conventional foods, requiring buyers and sellers to learn new ways of doing business. Research indicates that successful procurement of locally raised meat, as an example, depends on the creation of strong personal relationships that include close coordination and frequent communication between buyers and sellers along the supply chain. The quantity of local and regional meat supply is constrained by the capacity of processing facilities, which includes slaughtering, cutting, wrapping, and, in some cases, value-added processing. Small-scale meat processing facilities are costly to develop and require a steady flow of product for the facility to remain viable, which, given the seasonality of meat production, is more likely to be achieved through coordinated efforts between buyers and sellers.
Restaurants face constraints on the supply of local food by the inherent seasonality of agricultural production. While farms in California are able to produce year-round, for most of the nation there is little production for a portion of the year. As an example, a study of the farm-to-restaurant supply chain in Columbia County, New York, found that restaurants purchased from local farms for an average of 20 weeks per year. Thus, meeting procurement needs is time-intensive and requires juggling multiple suppliers throughout the year, and may mean that local versions of some products, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are available only during certain times of the year.
Upscale restaurants, such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, have developed reputations for using local and regional meat. Yet local and regional foods, including meat, have joined the menus of restaurants of all types, including fast casual dining. Chipotle is one prominent example of a fast casual operation that sources ingredients from local and regional farmers, cultivating relationships with farmers to secure a steady supply of needed ingredients. Sysco, the foodservice supplier, ran a pilot project that developed strong ties with farmer-suppliers, to increase the use of local food. Sweetgreen, a national salad purveyor, has a stated food ethos that includes transparency in the supply chain, which includes developing seasonal menus that allow the company to use local foods as much as possible, year-round. Dig Inn, a recent entrant to the fast casual dining realm based in the Northeast, is bringing a new dimension by operating its own farm in upstate New York, making it vertically integrated. While specific data on the percent of locally sourced foods on the menus of these restaurants is not available, anecdotal evidence indicates that growth in farm-to-fast casual dining has resulted in new relationships with local farmers.
Consistent restaurant purchases of locally and regionally produced ingredients can provide farmers with incentives to produce varieties suited to local agro-ecosystems, which often taste better. Our knowledge of the environmental and health benefits of local foods systems is currently incomplete, yet research is ongoing on these important topics. (To learn more, please see the issue briefs on “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Production” and “Land Use and Natural Resource Conservation.” Furthermore, sustainable water practices may be easier to implement in a local food system, since local producers are likely to possess a good knowledge of issues pertinent to their local watershed. At the same time, it is encouraging that despite the fundamental challenges of the farm-to-table supply chain, restaurants and consumers continue to participate in the experience, because through their farm-to-table menus, restaurants may be able to raise awareness about the connections between agricultural production and fresh, tasty food.
As interest in local foods has grown, so has consumer awareness about animal welfare, antibiotic use in meat production, cages for laying hens, and other related farm practices. The extension from local sourcing to awareness and concern about animal welfare is a compelling example of how restaurants can contribute to greater supply chain transparency, which includes procurement of meat satisfying specific certain animal welfare standards. These efforts appear to be, on a small scale, a fundamental shift in the quality standards and production practices of the foods consumers demand. Hopefully growing consumer demand for tasty, fresh, local and regional food will encourage other restaurants, both upscale and fast casual, to expand their use of food from local and regional farmers.
Consumer demand for locally and regionally produced meat continues to grow. Supply limitations can be addressed by close coordination between livestock farmers and local processors, to ensure profitability in the short term and the long term. To increase market supply, buyers should provide farmers with a consistent market for specialized products, and at good prices. Buyer commitment to farmers, in terms of both price and quantity, will reduce some of their risk of entering into new local and regional markets. Farmers need to commit to processors, as well, by ensuring the timing and quantity of a sufficient amount of livestock to the processing facility. The cultivation of these relationships stands to increase the supply of local and regional meat.
At long last, federal and local policies are supporting local and regional food. The combination of farmers, chefs (and other buyers), and local and regional food consumers in this new policy environment may be able to accelerate growth in the segment of the food system devoted to producing and consuming “good food.”
- Current farm-to-table trends include restaurant gardens, local sourcing of meat and produce, hyperlocal sourcing of greens, seasonal menus, and local foods appearing on the menus of fast casual dining establishments.
- Locally and regionally produced foods make it possible for consumers to have fresher, tastier foods, which can include heirloom varieties and heritage breeds that are unsuitable for mass distribution. They also contribute to economic sustainability by supporting local economies and increasing profit opportunities for participating businesses. By providing new and, hopefully stable, markets for farmers, chefs and fast casual restaurants can be leaders in this area.
- Procurement of locally and regionally produced food requires a significant amount of effort on the part of chefs, buyers, and farmers, particularly as there is an increase in demand for local and regional food. But many restaurateurs feel it’s worth cultivating long-term relationships with their nearby producers.