Over the past few years, the concept of “farm-to-table” dining has been growing in popularity with both restaurateurs and diners. While what qualifies as farm-to-table is somewhat open to interpretation, a restaurant that places an emphasis on using fresh, seasonal, and locally sourced ingredients, generally meets this understanding.
A restaurant can go about establishing its farm-to-table credentials in a number of ways, such as shopping at local farmers’ markets and working directly with regional farmers to supply products for their dishes. Some chefs have even started their own restaurant gardens or raise their own chickens, further reducing the distance between farm and plate to mere yards.
More Than Just a Pretty Plate
In addition to encouraging people to eat more fresh and seasonal foods, many supporters of the farm-to-table movement also aim to highlight how our food is produced and how far it travels before reaching our plate.
Sourcing products that are locally produced allows farmers to harvest at peak freshness, ideally bringing more flavor to our plates. Products traveling farther distances are often harvested before full ripeness, ensuring these sturdier fruits and vegetables will not become bruised or damaged during the journey. But what you gain in attractiveness, you unfortunately can lose in a depth of flavor.
That said, there is no official or universal definition for what qualifies as a “local” product. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act passed by Congress in 2008 states that if the distance an agricultural product travels less than 400 miles, it can still be considered local or regional. By contrast, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University defines locally sourced food as traveling an average of just 44.6 miles.
Organic and sustainable agriculture are also sometimes associated with the concept of farm-to-table, but they are not interchangeable concepts. A carrot grown organically on a small farm in California and shipped across the country to a table in New York would likely not be considered local.
Similarly, a carrot grown on an industrial farm in California and driven to a restaurant 20 miles away could be considered a local product. It’s worth asking the question of your server or restaurant host when frequenting a restaurant that bills itself as farm-to-table. Chances are, they’ll be pleased to share the details.
What’s Your Local?
Chef Alice Waters was one of the first restaurateurs to embrace the farm-to-table concept in the early 1970s, making organic, locally grown ingredients the center of the meal at her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
Today, restaurants across the country are highlighting locally sourced, seasonal products, often naming the farmers and other purveyors right on the menus.
Besides dining out, there are many ways to support the farm-to-table concept. Farmers markets are a great way to connect with what’s local and fresh in your area, and many offer tasty meals to go. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a directory of farmer’s markets across the United States.
And even if you’re not inspired to cook at home, keep your eyes open. You may run into local restaurateurs scoping out new product or even stocking up for that evening’s service.
Participating in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program is also a growing option. CSAs give consumers direct access to a farmer’s products by selling “shares” of the harvest. Members usually pay for their share up front, and then pick up a weekly bag of freshly picked produce from a communal location. What’s in the share will depend on the season and what farmers harvest that week. The organization Local Harvest has a searchable database of CSA programs across the U.S.
You can also support one of the many organizations that promote locally produced, organic, and/or sustainable agriculture. Slow Food, an organization started in the late 1980s, has become a global movement that promotes preserving local food cultures and traditions, and regenerating interest in where our food comes from, as well as how its tastes. Slow Food has chapters throughout the U.S.
While there’s no denying the convenience of having virtually any type of agricultural product we want year-round, the farm-to-table movement is endeavoring to increase our access to the freshest and tastiest foods in our regions.
And what better way to celebrate that unique bounty than by eating the best that the U.S. has to offer. The results promise to be delicious.
A few farm-to-table restaurants to consider:
Crosswinds Grille in Geneva, Ohio
Apple Farm in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Oak Haven Table and Bar in New Haven, Conn.
Niroj Kurdish Cuisine in Agoura Hills, Calif.
Flyte World Dining and Wine Bar in Nashville, Tenn.
Cork & Cleaver Social Kitchen in Broadview Heights, Ohio
Local Kitchen and Bar in Ferndale, Mich.
Want to know what “organic” really means for your food? We break it down for you: