By Linda M. Erbele
Farm-to-table can cover a range of meanings, from expensive artisan meals prepared from locally grown ingredients in chic restaurants, to sustainably harvested fish, to simply planning your meals around what’s available at the local farmers market. While it’s reasonable to assume that the closer in proximity you are to where your food is physically grown, the more nutritious and tasty it will be, many families are torn between the convenience of the local grocery store and the superior taste of locally grown food, which also often comes with higher prices and more traveling time.
The packaged-food industry has discovered that consumers will often choose time-savings and convenience over fresher options. While food quality
and nutrition play a part in our purchasing decisions, sometimes we have to compromise. Those steamable veggies that come in the microwavable bag and a box of pre-breaded chicken breasts often have to stand in for what our grandmothers considered “dinner.”
Furthermore, the cost of grass-fed beef, free-range chicken breasts or heirloom crowder pea varieties can be significantly higher than comparable grocery store items that come in convenient, plastic-wrapped containers.
“To find the most nutrient-dense food, it makes sense that it’s local—the closest to your table from the ground,” says Molly Chester, a private chef and chef instructor in Los Angeles. The actual diminishment of nutritional value from harvest to appearing in your grocer’s bin differs by the particular fruit or vegetable, but some studies indicate that as much as 50 percent of the nutritional value can be lost in a week. How long has that bag of broccoli been in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator? And how long was it on the shelf before you bought it? Or on the truck before arriving at the grocery store?
The packaged-for-convenience food producers chime in to say that there’s little difference in nutrients between their products and those on the produce shelf of the grocery store or even at the local farmer’s market. Frozen food and canned-food processors insist that since their products are packed within hours of harvest, they retain as much or more of the nutritional value than the fresh fruits and vegetables that have been shipped to the store from across the country, or even across the hemisphere.
In many cases, frozen or prepared dishes are quality foods, but some fresh tastes simply can’t be beat. There is no doubt that tomatoes in season have better flavor than those out of season. And those purchased locally or grown in your back yard have much more flavor than those shipped from across the country. In the end, people will make those purchasing decisions based on individual circumstances, often informed by seasons, taste, cost and other factors. But a little education about the benefits of farm-to-table eating might encourage you to not only try it, but to make it a part of your lifestyle.
Large industrial farms grow much of the produce shipped to supermarkets. And because their focus is on packaging foods in the most cost-effective and visually appealing way, nutritional value isn’t always the main concern. They tend to plant varieties that are similar in size and shape and select them for their ability to produce large yields. When produce is harvested before it’s ripe, it is not able to reach the maximum nutritional value that it would achieve if it was left to ripen in the field. For example, the red tomatoes you see at the grocery store were probably shipped while they were still green. Even though they are red and appear to be ripe at the time of purchase, they don’t contain as much Vitamin C as those at your local farmer’s market.
Smaller farms are more likely to select varieties for taste. Because these smaller farms are selling to local markets, the produce is usually taken from the farm within the past day or two. Furthermore, there is evidence that composted manures and organic fertilizers, which smaller farms are more likely to use, enhance the soil at a slower rate than synthetics, which increases the amount of nutrients that the produce is able to absorb.
A large degree of farm-to-table products can be achieved at a relatively low pain-for-gain ratio. Besides the biggest benefits of increased nutrition and supporting the local economy, buying local can create new relationships not only with the food, but local farmers and fellow farm-to-table aficionados as well. It can also bring and a bit of adventure to your life and provide learning experiences about a more natural connection to diet and the seasons.
“When somebody tastes the difference in bagged carrots and those from the farmers market, it makes choosing easier,” says Chester, who is a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute of Health and Culinary Arts in New York. “Cooking becomes simply trying to [enhance] something that already tastes so good, rather than trying to create something good.”
By using a few herbs and a little creativity, a gourmet meal can be created from common, but very fresh, items. Many upscale restaurants have gotten into the act, offering the taste benefits of locally grown food by taking advantage of the availability of fresh herbs and spices. “I really take pride in being able to buy everything organic and natural,” says Chef Estevan Garcia of the Tabla de Los Santos located inside the historic Hotel St. Francis in Santa Fe, N.M. “Seeing people enjoying the [local] food that I get from the market is essential.”
Garcia learned to cook from his mother, then honed those talents cooking at the monastery during the four years he spent studying under the Franciscan order. Garcia has been recognized by the media for his creations using organic produce. He is also a familiar face at the farmer’s markets in Santa Fe, and for those who wish to bring the farm to their tables at home, he suggests combining regular visits to the local market with growing whatever fits with your lifestyle, whether its simply a pot of parsley on the window sill or a kitchen garden with tomatoes, squash and chard.
The farm-to-table movement is more than a trend, however. Because New Mexico has a strong local food ethic, many citizens and chefs, like Garcia, have joined in the farm-to-table craze, which led to the creation of Farm to Table.The organization works in the Southwest region to connect farmers to other farmers, as well as buyers, and helps make local produce available to mothers participating in the Women-Infant-Children (WIC) programs. The movement in New Mexico is even going mainstream, with coupons being accepted at farmers markets. Seniors with food subsidies can utilize those options too. Even food banks have been taking advantage of the local availability of produce and pick up produce and other foods from farmers at the end of the day.
Recently, schools in New Mexico began serving local produce, which benefited not only the local economy, but the state’s children as well. “We now have 12 school districts that are serving New Mexico-grown produce when it’s available,” says Pam Ray, executive director of Farm to Table. “There are 185,000 kids in the state who are getting a chance to eat more nutritious food, and about a half a million dollars stays in the community.” The organization has also helped to increase the sales of locally raised, grass-fed beef, which has more omega-3s than the grain-fed beef that comes from large, meat-packing facilities.
Farm-to-table in your home
Aside from providing for the community, the farm-to-table movement also offers other benefits to its practitioners. “People don’t like to waste food,” says Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, a national organization that links consumers with farms, markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Barnett says that by shopping locally, the quality and flavor of the food convinces people to cook, so they end up staying home more and eating in. “Another part of what makes it worth doing is that the experience of shopping locally becomes, over time, a valuable part of their relationship to the community. They like having a chat with the farmer, learning about what last week’s rain did to the farm.”
This growing awareness of the community is an excellent lesson for children. Learning that carrots and potatoes grow under the soil and that chickens aren’t actually boneless and shrink-wrapped can be the start of a wider worldview. Further, children who participate in the growing or picking process are often more willing to try foods they’ve never eaten. “There is more of a naturalness—a ‘right feeling’ of making it a practice to get to know the people who grow your food,” says Barnett. “That anonymous way (of buying in a larger store) is not natural. That’s not how we evolved.”
For those in cities and the suburbs who are conveniently located near a large grocery store and away from local farms, the idea of eating locally may seem a little difficult. However, you’ll likely be surprised to find how many farms and farmers markets are located near you. Check for a slow-food or farm-to-table organizational website in your state, or investigate LocalHarvest.com, which allows farmers to be listed free of charge.
Another bonus of incorporating a farm-to-table approach into your diet is the simplicity of it. Cooking fresh produce doesn’t have to be complicated. “The greatest thing about farm-to-table is that it’s the simplest way to eat,” says Chester, who blogs at “Organic Spark” and is working on a traditional foods cookbook with her mother called “Roots ‘n’ Sprouts, A Mother-Daughter Cookbook.” “A really good piece of fish, olive oil, lemon juice and some of the herbs from your garden and you’re done. If your head of lettuce is really fresh, it’ll be delicious.” Chester says just adding a little bit of freshness to your normal routine is a good start, whether it is growing a few fresh herbs and tomatoes or visiting a pick-your-own farm.
When planning meals to increase the amount of locally grown food in your diet, choose foods that are in season. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive,” acknowledges Farm to Table’s Ray. “One thing we can do is pay attention to what’s in season. A lot of people just don’t realize [what is in season] because food is so available to us all year round.” Again, your state’s farm-to-table or organic farming organization probably has a website that lists the availability of local fruits and vegetables by month. Look for quick and easy recipes that may be on the site as well.
CSAs are another great way to support local farmers and add more fresh produce to your regimen. Designed to “invest” in local farms, most involve a subscription that is paid to the farmer for a box of fresh, seasonal produce that is delivered to or picked up by the subscriber on a monthly (or other) basis. Common concerns are about whether the consumer is going to get his or her money’s worth and, well, what exactly to do with those fresh beets that may come in the box one month. On the upside, a CSA eliminates that weekly visit to the farmer’s market and can be an adventure in itself.
Finally—tell your grocer that you expect to find local produce in the store. They’ll listen if you and your neighbors say it often enough.