What Everybody Ought to Know About Farm to Table

Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory | Edited by Aditi Khandelwal

If you’ve been hanging around food blogs lately, you’ve likely heard the buzzwords, “farm-to-table”. This trend piqued interest in 2012 and has been climbing its way up into every restaurant. But what does farm to table really mean? Doesn’t all food essentially come from a farm and end up on your table? It might seem like a trick question, but there is a set of values associated with the “farm to table” label that can help us understand what this term really means. 

What is Farm to Table?

Simply put, farm-to-table refers to food that is locally sourced. This specifically refers to food that is bought directly by the consumer from the farmer or when local food is used in restaurants and school cafeterias. Farm-to-table focuses on cutting out the middle-man (such as large grocery stores or food processing and distribution companies). This concept, also known as farm-to-fork, emphasizes local, fresh, and often organic food. There is also a set of common values shared by those who support farm-to-table practices. Many people use “local food” to be synonymous with “sustainable food”. While this may be true in some places, if you live a few miles from a massive industrial farm, it’s probably not meeting the values people have in mind when they think about eating local food.

History of Farm-to-Table

The concept of farm to table might seem like a new trend, but when we look back on history, we can see that farm to table was the standard way of obtaining food for many centuries. Before we had super-centers where we could buy all of our groceries in one place, people either grew food for themselves, foraged for food, or traded for it with their neighbours. The supply chain was much shorter than it is today, with food going from farmer, to perhaps a small store, then to the consumer. It was also common for families to grow some variety of crops to feed themselves. Now, our food may be grown in one country, processed and packaged in another, and then sold for consumption elsewhere. The distance between people and their food has grown tremendously – but farm-to-table is a trend that is closing that gap. 

In early American settlements, some families practiced composite farming. This meant that families would grow food for their own consumption and also for sale. It became impractical for all families to grow all the food they needed, so bartering with neighbours and selling crops to small stores became necessary to support the community. The need for a middle-man grew as society expanded. Globalization has allowed us to conduct operations in the location that best suits the need. Though it may not seem intuitive, it may be most efficient to grow the crop in one country only to package it in another. 

The desire for a shorter food supply chain roused interest again sometime in the 1960s-1970s. Alice Waters, a chef and activist, is known for starting one of the first farm-to-table restaurants, Chez Panisse, which became known for using local organic ingredients in 1971. For many people at the time, this was seen as a hippie trend and did not gain widespread popularity until the early 2000s. 

Today, one in three Americans grow food at home – whether it be herbs on their kitchen sill or tomatoes in their backyard garden, but only 8% of US farms market their food locally. As more Americans face food insecurity, the trend of growing small amounts of food for yourself eases the financial burden families may face. We have become accustomed to global produce that has been grown and shipped in from other countries, and have neglected our local farmers. This isn’t to say that globalization is a bad thing – we need global food connections to help meet the population’s demand. However, consumers are demanding for a more transparent food system. Food suppliers face the growing demand of consumers who care about food traceability (being able to trace back where your food came from), farm labor practices, and clean eating. We are reverting to simpler practices that reflect our values towards our health and our planet. The times of small scale farms providing for communities may be returning through urban agriculture as consumers drive the demand for fresh local food. 

Benefits of Eating Farm-to-Table

  • At the core of farm-to-table is locally sourced food. This means that your food won’t have to travel far to make it to your plate! Less distance traveled = fresher food! You do not have to worry about how long your greens have been sitting in the grocery store anymore! Buying farm-to-table means getting food at its freshest.

  • Fresh food = healthier + tastier! Most fruits and vegetables begin rapidly losing their nutrients the moment they are harvested, so eating them as soon as possible ensures you are getting the maximum amount of nutrients they have to offer. This can also mean that your food has more flavor than food that has had to travel farther and longer to reach your plate. Eating farm-to-table might give your tongue a fresh perspective on your diet!
  • Eating locally grown food can also be good for the planet! Small-scale local farms often grow a variety of crops and use minimal amounts of potentially harmful chemicals. (Note: if you live in a town with a large industrial farm chances are their practices aren’t as environmentally friendly as a smaller-scale farm – check it out first!). Industrial farms that use a lot of fertilizer or pesticides run the risk of spreading those chemicals into water supplies via runoff, which can then lead to a series of health and environmental issues. Growing a variety of crops promotes biodiversity and helps prevent soil erosion. Moreover, getting your produce locally reduces the demand for globally sourced foodstuff that has to travel thousands of miles before it gets to your plate. These transportation miles add to global greenhouse gas emissions which can contribute to climate change.
  • Farm-to-table can help support local farms! Getting your food from small-scale local farms helps keep farmers in business and contributes to your local economy. Local farmers will likely invest their money back into your community, as opposed to big corporations who may invest their money elsewhere.
  • Sourcing your food locally allows you to know exactly where your food is coming from. By getting to know your farmers and their work, you can understand what may or may not have gone into your food. It can be hard to track down whether or not your avocados from California have pesticides or other chemicals on them – by getting your food from a local farm you can inquire about their practices and feel more comfortable about what you put into your body.

 

Cons of Farm-to-Table

Eating farm-to-table has only a few drawbacks, some of which can be overcome!

  • One obstacle of local food is having to eat what is in season. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! For most of us, we choose our food without thinking of the seasons, so changing to a local-based diet may not offer the exact food we are craving. With a bit of an attitude adjustment we can get over this hurdle in no time, it’s just a small change that still offers up a delicious variety of food! 
  • Some local farmers may practice organic farming, which tends to be more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. Locally grown does not immediately mean that the product is organic, so this may not even be an obstacle for everyone. On the other hand, consumers on a budget may struggle to eat farm-to-table if their local farmers only offer expensive organic produce.
  • Like many other green-trends, the label “farm-to-table” is not regulated so it can be misused by stores and restaurants to attract customers when the food may not actually be locally sourced.
cropped image of chefs preparing vegetables at restaurant kitchen

Farm-to-Table Restaurants

 

As consumers shift the demand towards farm-to-table foods, restaurants may integrate the trend into their menu to meet customer interests. Unfortunately, not all places are transparent about their practices and may mislead guests into thinking the restaurant is using farm-to-table ingredients when it actually is not. Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley investigated several restaurants that had bold claims about their food being local or all organic, and what she found was that all restaurants were stretching the truth. Reiley looked into the claims one restaurant made about where they source their ingredients from and found that the distribution company had never even been in business with the restaurant. Similarly, she found that some places claiming to get their ingredients locally were actually getting them from overseas. 

 This process of misleading customers about being more environmentally sustainable than something is actually is known as greenwashing. This does not mean there is no truth to the claims, but the truth is likely not as good as it seems. Sometimes this may be harmless or accidental – such as a farm changing its practices without notifying a company, other times it may be intentional to attract customers. A little bit of research can go a long way when choosing where to spend your money – try to find companies that can back their environmental claims!

Kids learning how to farm and garden

Farm-to-School

As the farm-to-table trend gains popularity, so does the demand for farm-to-school practices. This practice focuses on providing fresh local produce in school cafeterias for children. Some schools achieve this by growing their own produce on property, while others source their food from local farms. The National Farm to School Network sees this as a win for students, farmers, and community. By giving children access to fresh produce we can provide them with nutritious healthy food that they may not have access to at home. This experience can also teach them about where their food comes. Whether the school has students engaged in growing the crops directly or educates them about the farms their food comes from, students can learn more about their food systems and foster a relationship with the environment. We can help our children have a better experience at school . This initiative would also help support local farmers, thus helping the community and economy!

delivery bag next to berries fruits vegetables for a healthy diet

Farm-to-Table at Home

Integrating the farm-to-table concept into your home is easier than you think! Don’t worry you don’t have to start growing all of your own produce to reap the benefits of fresh local food. Here are two easy ways to get farm-fresh food – without having to grow it yourself!

  • Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). A CSA allows consumers to purchase a share of goods directly from a farmer. This subscription service allows farmers to sell a variety of their goods (whether meats, dairy, or produce) to consumers on a consistent basis – typically every one or two weeks. Consumers may not have much say in what comes in their package, so it’s important to find a farm that has the kind of products you are interested in! This method saves you a trip to the store and you can feel good about supporting a local farmer stay in business!
  • Start shopping at your local farmer’s market. Taking weekly trips to your local farmer’s market allows you to get familiar with folks in your community and helps you get familiar with seasonal produce. The goods at farmer’s markets are typically coming from farms close to your community meaning the produce is fresher because it did not have to travel far to get to you. You will get the chance to chat with you farmers directly, giving you the opportunity to ask questions about their practices and learn more about your food.

Conclusion

Now that you understand this buzzword you can take your knowledge to the community by encouraging your school or neighborhood to start up a garden! Try to support restaurants that source from local farmers – just check that their claims are accurate and trustworthy! Tell us about your farm-to-table adventures @cookandculture on Instagram! 

Happy eating!

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