Broccoli example: Putting 'local' where your mouth is
August is Gainesville’s ‘Farm-to-Restaurant Month,’ follow this link for more information. This column is reprinted from 2112.
We talked last month about combining fun and a break from the "norm" with food: Enter the local food vacation. What does that mean? It means combining a vacation at home or away – whether a day, a week, or longer – with learning a skill, harvesting food for yourself, and putting it by for later. If you are using paid vacation time off, then your benefits double as you are getting paid to provide yourself and your family and friends with food for months to come.
But here's a secret: There are mini, food vacations you can take when you eat at our community's local and independent restaurants and you ask, "What's local?" and you order something on (or off) the menu with local ingredients.
Why do I call this a 'mini food vacation'? Because you reinvest your time, energy, and money to support our local farmers and restaurants, plus you are taking a "leave of absence" from the usual way that you order food and the kind of food you order.
On a mini food vacation you think about what's on the menu, interact with and provide feedback to the restaurant, and buy a menu item that includes ingredients a local farmer sold to that establishment. Restaurant owners often tell me that , in order to make the kind of investment to provide local food, they need to hear more people say they want local food and to see more people order it. "But," you may say, "that sounds like work, not a vacation!" Let me tell you why your mouth will tell you otherwise.
In February, a colleague of mine and I did a local vs. non-local comparison of price, distance, and travel time for two commodities you often find at restaurants year-round: broccoli and green leaf lettuce. These healthy, green veggies were in season then. They are not in season now, but you may still find them offered in restaurants.
The non-local broccoli traveled from an Arizona farm it was grown on, about 2,100 miles away, and took 7 days to reach a distributor, who then sold it to a restaurant here in Alachua County, but maybe not on the same day the distributor received it. The local broccoli traveled 41 miles and 1 hour to reach a distributor.
And how about that lettuce? It traveled a similar number of miles from a southern California farm over 5 days; the local lettuce traveled 20 miles in 45 minutes.
Most of the time, when I ask local farmers when they pick for their market or restaurant orders, they answer, "That day." If it is an early morning market, farmers pick the produce the day before.
Have you heard those campaigns that say local food is thousands of miles fresher? They're not kidding and – at least in my experience – a tomato, broccoli, lettuce, or whatever it is tastes exponentially better the day after or the day it is picked than when it's been freighted around for a week and a half.
There is, in fact, evidence that suggests that high-yielding crop varieties, which are selected and then picked to survive transportation over long distances, are less nutritious. Depending on the fruit or vegetable, it may not even be allowed to ripen naturally.
That case of conventionally-grown broccoli from Arizona cost the restaurant about $19, and the cost of shipping (and fuel) was more than the cost of the broccoli itself. The only part of that money that stayed in our local economy was the 'case surcharge' the local distributor tacked on to the price before sending it to the restaurant.
The case of local, organic broccoli cost about $32; all of it stayed in our local economy; and – with the exception again of the case surcharge the local distributor tacked on before delivery to the restaurant – all of it went to the farmer who grew the broccoli.
So why do restaurants want to hear from you before switching over to more local food – or any local food at all? The reasons I hear restaurant owners or buyers voice often concerning you, the customer, are:
> They are afraid you won't select menu items with the local food and it will rot in their walk-in coolers.
> They are concerned that the increased prices they will likely have to charge will drive you away (remember, it's more expensive to pay small farmers a living wage and the real value of their products).
> They think you will dislike the inconsistency of seasonal produce throughout the year, even though it is fresher and more nutritious (no, you can't have tomatoes and lettuce year-round).
If you would like more local food in your favorite restaurants, you have to tell them and then support them in that transition. It really is time to start asking your server, "What's local on your menu?", and start putting "local" where your mouth is.
Want to know more about what’s local and what local means in our community? The Local Digest is a monthly piece on all things local in North Central Florida, from food to economics to environment to community. Local, you see, isn’t just a way of buying or a way of eating: it’s a whole system of the social, economic, and environmental values that mark the character of where we live, and how we seek to improve the health of those values. This is a column about sustaining our region and what we love most about it.