You’ve seen the trucks: Sysco, Reinhart, U.S. Foodservice and others, transporting food to restaurants across the country. And, yes, it’s true. Even here in the Midwest, your food travels on average from 1,200 to 1,500 miles to get to your plate, depending on which survey you wish to believe. Those 1,500 miles are often traveled from central California.
Food travels to our restaurants through distributors, and that process is elaborate and extremely competitive. Like many U.S. industries, farming has undergone considerable consolidation. A large-scale grower or “shipper” such as Dole or Mann Packing has as many as 300 farmers operating under its label, often growing a single crop. The shipper harvests the product and stores it in a refrigerated warehouse, where it is picked up by various distributors for the days-long drive across the country.
To offset freight costs, the distributor balances its needs and inventory and may incorporate multiple stops at farms as well as other wholesalers to pick up various commodities. There are also various intermediary processing steps. That head of romaine lettuce can be sold whole, or it can arrive at its destination in a bag, pre-washed, chopped and ready to be poured on a plate. Unless a distributor has a processing facility at its warehouse, each processing step may mean yet another stop. While the extra processing steps save a restaurateur labor costs, there are obvious macro-environmental costs (fuel consumption, chemical use, etc.).
One reason small farms have been phased out of the supply chain is that the massive producers can more easily afford the mandatory HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point) programs and third-party inspections to ensure crop safety-the costs are absorbed in the sheer production volume. These controls have become even more stringent after a nationwide E-coli outbreak in late 2006. That’s not to say large distributors don’t buy locally, they just do it via another wholesaler that has the required safety checks. Those wholesalers also require the local farmer to have liability coverage. If they don’t have coverage, then that farmer’s product isn’t purchased by the wholesaler.
For the restaurant, it’s as simple as picking up the phone and calling the distributor for product. If they wish to buy locally, that can translate into many calls-and more time spent-to individual farmers. There’s also one obvious hurdle with buying local products: the short Minnesota growing season, which requires chefs to adjust their menus accordingly. There are options to make buying local easier for restaurants, however. The Southeast Minnesota Food Network and Heartland Food Network attempt to make buying locally-grown, natural product as easy as a single phone call. If you would like to support those Twin Cities restaurants that do buy locally through either the Heartland or Southeast Minnesota networks, visit CafÃ© Brenda, FireLake Grill House, Lucia’s, Craftsman, Muffaletta and Heartland.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, Penguin, 2007.
Ask your favorite restaurants if they offer locally-grown menu items.