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Future or Fad: The Great Field-to-Table Debate

July 14, 2016

While field-to-table dining isn’t exactly a new approach, it has been gaining in popularity and practice over the last decade. The concept is simple, restaurants buy everything directly from farmers or grow it themselves essentially cutting out the large distributors in order to ensure everything that is served is as fresh as possible and mostly locally grown. Fresh, locally grown food that makes its way from the field to the kitchen and onto your plate sounds like a delicious no-brainer, right? However, this “movement” has both its advocates and naysayers. The best way to understand both sides of this debate are to look at some of the pros and cons of the movement as a whole.

The Pros

Since the food is coming directly from the grower it is not processed or manipulated in anyway leading many advocates to claim that, “it’s food the way it should be.” They will further argue that since the food is grown locally it doesn’t need to be shipped across the country or globe – thus saving on fuel consumption and pollution. Because it doesn’t go to a factory for processing, the usual waste and pollution caused in that process is also not a factor. In a time where green living is all the rage, they say it’s a more sustainable way of dining out.

It helps out the local farmer, which in turn helps the local economy. This is basic economics: the restaurant buys food from the farmer who in turn spends the profit at other local businesses to take care of their own needs which keeps everything local and boosts the local economy. (There is some debate as to how helpful this “movement” is to the local farmer; more on this later.)

If chefs are limited to only getting ingredients that are locally grown and in season, it forces them to be creative on how they use the ingredients and prepare the meal. Basically, even though they are using local ingredients they would have to have fresh preparation ideas to get people talking and keep them coming in the door. Who wants to pay for a meal you could easily have prepared yourself?

The Cons

It can be misleading. When most people hear field-to-table they instantly think fresh and local. They might also think organic and sustainable, however just because your food is locally grown and fresh from the farm doesn’t automatically mean that it is organic or sustainable. Whether something is organic and/or sustainable depends on the growing and overall farming practices of the farmer, not where it comes from.

While this seems like it would be really helpful to the local farmer, is it really? Consider this: you are a farmer and all you grow is corn. You use sustainable farming practices and all of your corn is completely organic. Once you harvest, you could sell all or most of your crop to one of the big distributors or you could try and sell local to restaurants and farmer’s markets. Now, most communities only have a couple of field-to-table eateries – if they have any at all – and the same could be said of farmer’s markets. How likely do you think it would be that you’ll make enough money off of your corn that you’ll be able to feed and clothe your family, plus pay all of your bills? Don’t forget about the added fuel cost and time driving to and from these restaurants and farmer’s markets trying to make sales. If you are a small family farm, who is taking care of all the day-to-day work and chores while you’re out trying to make sales? Besides all of this, the restaurant business is competitive just like any other. Chefs are going to get their ingredients for the best price they can whether they buy local or not. The smaller farms often can’t compete with the larger farms on price, so the small farms that should be helped out by this “movement,” for the most part, can’t compete.

Local doesn’t necessarily mean better. As the founder of Chicago’s Michelin-starred Acadia Says, “While mushrooms might grow in his backyard, he wouldn’t use them over more flavorful ones flown in from Florida.” Or “A tomato grown in California will always be better quality than one grown in Illinois.” It’s a simple fact of life that certain climates/regions are better at growing certain crops. Besides quality, availability also can be an issue. If you’re a restaurant that only buys local, the variety of available ingredients can become an issue, especially seasonal crops.

So what do you think, is field-to-table the future of dining out or just a fad that will fizzle out like Atkins diet? Join the conversation below in comments.