Farm to Table: Good or Gimmick? Conclusion: Vetting Your Meal

Megan Lynch (@MLynchOnAir)

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – With consumers increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, restaurants are paying more attention to sourcing fresh, local ingredients. It’s grown into a movement known as farm-to-table.

Many restaurants are managing the trend with integrity. Farmers say a few others are just using the catch-phrase to make a buck.

As a patron, how do you know if you’re really getting field-to-fork freshness? KMOX wraps up our series “Farm to Table: Good or Gimmick?

Which truck is supplying a restaurant’s kitchen? A big distributor’s box truck, or a pickup just back from harvest?

“Unless you actually go into their walk-in, which no one’s allowed to do, and see what’s on their shelves, you’re not really going to know what they are doing.”

Veronica Baetje’s Farm has made its mark crafting award-winning goat cheese. She tells KMOX she knows of several restaurants that use her name, while buying very little – sometimes none – of her product.

By the way, it’s nothing that’s regulated by state inspectors — KMOX checked. It would likely be up to the producer to take legal action — not an easy option for a small family farm.

“Running a business, milking goats, making cheese, managing people — I don’t have time to police everything, and yet, at the same time, this is a problem,” Baetje says.

So that really leaves it up to you, the consumer, to try and determine who’s serving the truth.

“If they’re involved in the farm-to-table movement, the restaurants really are trying to illustrate the farmers that they support, and they’re not trying to mislead.”

You remember the Missouri Coalition for the Environment’s Melissa Vatterot? One of her missions is to link small-scale farms with buyers.

“There are going to be restaurants that may create the atmosphere that you think suggests farm-to-table, but if you don’t see any farm name listed anywhere, then you should be suspicious,” Vatterot says.

For example, you may see menus that tell you dishes are “locally sourced” or “regional.”

“Local and regional is sort of ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ if you will,” Erin Tortora says.

Likewise, there are many different interpretations of “farm to table.”

“You’re spending twice as much money at a restaurant that you hope, you think, you’re being told, is sourcing better products, but how do you really know?”

Tortora is Director of Partnerships and Outreach for Crave Food Services. It’s a company she and her husband created based on his experiences as a chef trying to source the best ingredients.

“We go as far as to say, we want to know the farmers who are producing our food. We want to know their practices. I want to learn about what they’re bringing on their farm and what they’re taking off their farm.”

Their multi-state website, Source What’s Good, connects farmers and buyers. Eventually, it will also provide accountability for consumers.

In the absence of this tool, Tortora and others recommend just using common sense: “If your geographical region grows tomatoes, then there’s no reason you should be getting tomatoes from across the country.”

“I eat out a lot, and I see a lot of claims made that just can’t simply be true.”

You met Ann Lipton earlier in our series. She owns and operates both a farm and a restaurant.

“People will be claiming for three or four months that they have local strawberries, and the strawberry season, in the best of times, is probably four to six weeks.”

Likewise, Lipton says you should be skeptical of a restaurant that claims to have fresh leafy greens in August, because lettuces are a cool weather crop.

One clue that farm-to-table is being done right is a restaurant that shifts menus with the season. Another clue is volume.

“A higher price point restaurant that takes reservations and you do 40 covers a night, that, I think, is probably believable.” Restaurant owner Jenny Cleveland says those establishments do a lot of pickling and curing to stretch ingredients when they’re out of season. They’re also fine dining — what she calls a tasting menu, not “a 16 oz pork chop with 10 oz of mashed potatoes and green beans.”

That’s why Cleveland tells KMOX, she also has a hard time believing some restaurants’ claims that they are fully farm-to-table, year-round, in this climate.

Beyond common sense, you have to connect the dots.

Many modern family farms have websites with lists of establishments they regularly supply and they’re proud to support.

What you’ll start to see is names that stand out as farmers’ trusted partners in farm to table.

“There’s a lot of them that care where their food’s coming from and have that passion. I love dealing with those kind of customers.” Farmers like Todd Geisert say when you find them, you’ll taste the difference.

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