The challenge facing local food

Food service giants like Sodexho, Aramark and BAMCO are jumping on the "eat local" bandwagon. Will the corporate attention give a boost to sustainable agriculture, or defuse the grassroots revolution?

Topics: Food,

The challenge facing local food

On Oct. 3, with the fall semester in full swing, the dining hall at Georgetown Law School was packed with students slumped over bookbags and laptops. Squeezed among their plates and papers were tabletop displays announcing that the day’s meal was part of an “Eat Local Challenge” that required the school’s chef to create a meal of ingredients entirely grown or raised within 150 miles of his kitchen. Between bites, the future lawyers peered at the signs with a mix of curiosity and indignation. Reducing food-shipping miles and supporting small farms were all good and fine — but what ever happened to Taco Tuesday?

Though it’s been 20 years since graduation, I can still recall my alma mater’s grim fare: the tetrazzinis, the iceberg lettuce, the gluey stews. I remember how my fellow students clamored for more vegetarian dishes — or more anything that just plain tasted better. The garlic roasted chicken and sautéed greens served up at Georgetown Law would have blown our minds and our taste buds. But the students I met there spoke longingly of packaged sandwiches and tacos filled with greasy, industrial-strength hamburger meat — while the food service staff sounded like gourmet revolutionaries. I wondered: What kind of culinary looking-glass universe had I fallen into?

Georgetown’s Eat Local Challenge — and the temporary disappearance of Taco Tuesday — was the brainchild of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appétit Management Co. With a national staff of 10,000 and annual revenues of $400 million, BAMCO runs 300 cafes in colleges like Georgetown Law, at the corporate campuses of Oracle and Yahoo, and at other posh locations including the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif. Yes, that’s cafes, not cafeterias, as BAMCO’s director of communications, Maisie Ganzler, is quick to stress. “Cafeteria” conjures up images of can openers, frozen veggies and great quantities of mystery meat. But BAMCO believes even lowly college mess halls can be brought into the culinary vanguard.

BAMCO is not alone. In the past year, the “local” ethos has overtaken even organics as the gourmet cause célèbre — And eat-local challenges have begun sprouting up all over the place. Large food service providers like Sodexho and Aramark, having already introduced organic products, are now experimenting with local sourcing. At Yale, Stanford, Berkeley and other universities, students can eat meals prepared with fresh local produce grown on or just off campus.

The eat-local movement owes no small measure of its success to recent exposés of the organic industry. As huge corporate farms have moved into the sector, the media has been abuzz with the transformation of organics into business as usual — with Whole Foods catering to the upscale consumer and Wal-Mart aiming for the fat middle demographic. The question is: will big business’s discovery of “local” food eventually undercut the positive effects the movement may have on the environment, small farmers and taste? Advocates of eating local say no. Their singular hope is to foment a revolution that starts on the farm and ends on our plates.

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BAMCO’s annual Eat Local Challenge debuted only two years ago, but the company has long made local food a priority. Since its founding in 1987, the food service company has attempted to marry sustainability with profitability. “We weren’t founded as a health food company,” Ganzler explains. “And as we’ve made more decisions about sustainability, we’ve always considered the bottom line.” BAMCO’s Farm to Fork program, which connects small local producers to the cafe chefs, guarantees that an average 20 percent of sourcing for all meals must be local. “But that’s not the upper limit,” Ganzler says. “Some accounts go up to 70 or 80 percent during harvest season.”

On the wall of the Georgetown Law School cafe is a placard devoted to BAMCO’s Circle of Responsibility. It stresses the use of organic products, cage-free eggs, humanely raised meat and low-fat ingredients. The list even gets down to the nitty-gritty of stocks from scratch, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and mashed potatoes from real potatoes. The trifold brochures available beneath the placard read like the demands of a student protest movement rather than a multimillion-dollar company. The community brochure speaks of “boycotting purveyors that do not support farmworkers’ rights in regards to working and living conditions.” The environment brochure emphasizes fair trade coffee and decries net-pen fish farming, and the nutrition brochure challenges the claims of high-protein diets.

At the Georgetown challenge, however, few students had bothered to read any of the materials. “Those of us who are foodies don’t eat here,” admitted third-year law student Morgan Lynn. She dropped in that day for a juice and decided to stay for the Eat Local lunch, which she and a friend declared tasty but a little on the greasy and salty side. Lynn shops at a food co-op and prepares meals at home. The students who do frequent the cafe, still harboring a grudge over Taco Tuesday, are a tough crowd that is quick to criticize. Most days, chef Horne and his kitchen crew are like stand-up comics stuck with an audience of drunken hecklers.

But for the 800 students at Albertson College, just 25 miles outside Boise, Idaho, BAMCO is the best thing going. This year, the Eat Local Challenge surrounded students with local food. Beth Delmar, the general manager of the Albertson cafe, estimates that its food was 95 percent local that day — with local beef short ribs in plum sauce, sustainably farmed trout with cherry tomato and cilantro salsa, and even some unusual ground cherries for the salad bar. Delmar’s baker also runs an orchard, so comes to work every morning with fresh apples, plums, pears and pluots for pies and breads. But here, too, except for the environmental studies students — and the discerning faculty — her clientele has been slow to embrace the core concept of eating local, many still hung up on the ugliness of heirloom tomatoes.

Google and YouTube might have struck their recent deal at a Denny’s, but it’s a different scene at BAMCO’s five cafes at the Yahoo corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. The folks at Yahoo take their food very seriously. Executive chef Bob Hart designs menus for the five employee cafes at Yahoo, plus the executive meals and the occasional business meeting. Northern California has local products year-round, and the Yahoo cafes serve an older crowd whose interest in the origins of their food is already primed. Breakfast for the Eat Local Challenge day was two eggs, duck confit and fingerling potatoes roasted in thyme, duck fat and kosher salt from the San Francisco Bay.

Whatever the sophistication level of their audience, the BAMCO chefs clearly enjoy the Eat Local Challenge. Far from rebelling against the sourcing requirements, they relish the way the restrictions spur their creativity. At Georgetown Law, for instance, chef Horne solved the black pepper problem — there are no tropical microclimates conducive to growing Piper nigrum in the D.C. area — by adding baby arugula to his sautéed greens to give them a kick. At the Yahoo cafe, for a thickener, Hart used boiled Italian butter beans in place of cornstarch and substituted blackberry compote for cranberries with his roast turkey. Michael Anderson, the chef at the Eckerd College cafe in St. Petersburg, Fla., solved his protein challenge by devising a citrus-marinated alligator salad (though less adventurous carnivores could take refuge in smoked chicken, organic beef burgers or Florida shrimp).

“I think it’s pretty hard to co-opt local, though doubtless people will try,” says environmentalist author Bill McKibben. In 2005, McKibben wrote an article for Gourmet magazine detailing how he subsisted entirely on local food through a Vermont winter, thanks to a lot of canning, the help of a local wheat grower, the consolations of locally brewed beer, and more root vegetables than you could shake a parsnip at. He says he came away from the project with a greater appreciation for the community connections that sustain local food production. “You just keep narrowing the distance you want your food to come from — 100 miles this year, 75 next. The industrial food machine depends on economies of scale, and these simply aren’t available locally — which is good.”

Though their approaches are different, behind both BAMCO’s and McKibben’s quests lay the same economic, environmental and aesthetic rationales. Economically, local sourcing can help small farmers establish relationships with the chefs and consumers who appreciate the quality of their produce. In Northern California, “farmers could easily build condos and get rich selling land at $100,000 an acre,” Yahoo’s Hart reports, so local purchasing provides the higher profit margins that can keep farms in business and the Bay Area a diverse ecosystem.

In Idaho farm country, where land prices are nowhere as dear, small farmers still face steep competition from the state’s powerful agribusiness sector. Boise lacks the concentration of high-end restaurants of Silicon Valley, so the small farmer is often searching for buyers. “We get calls from farmers who want to sell us their excess peaches and peppers at a low price instead of letting them rot in the fields,” Delmar says. Such unexpected bounties translate into char-grilled peaches for the Albertson students and lots of cobbler.

Tim Fischer, of Fischer Farms Natural Pork, raises 1,800 head of hogs a year in rural Minnesota, which is nothing compared to the corporate hog operations that supply tens of thousands of pigs for bacon, sausage and Spam. “I raise hogs the way my grandpa raised them in the 1940s: in big open buildings where they have room to run around,” Fischer says. “It’s hard to sell those kinds of pigs to Hormel because they have more fat on them. The meat is a crimson color.” The meat of the Hormel pigs, he says, turns gray because of the stress of their confinement.

Dozens of restaurants in Minneapolis, including the BAMCO cafes at the Guthrie Theater, want this tasty and tender pork. Fischer makes a better profit margin on his meat now than he did during his days supplying Hormel. But he also works harder. “The way I raise hogs is a lot of hard work, a lot more manual labor,” he explains.

On the environmental front, eating local reduces the amount of energy consumed in transporting food across vast distances. In his book “Coming Home to Eat,” ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan reports that food in America travels an average of 1,300 miles between farm and fork, changing hands six times — a figure that, according to Worldwatch, has increased by 25 percent since 1980. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture estimates that the food system accounts for 16 percent of U.S. energy consumption. And we’re importing more fresh fruits and vegetables than ever before: According to the USDA, 9 percent of our fresh fruit came from abroad in 1985; the figure had risen to 23 percent 16 years later.

But those numbers don’t even take into account the amount of energy that goes into the industrial production of food, from the petroleum-based fertilizers to the heavy machinery. Every mouthful of food fairly oozes with oil, and it’s not canola.

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Conserving energy and preserving America’s small farms may be important, but eat-local initiatives like BAMCO’s will likely live or die by taste. Many of those who opted for the local meat and potatoes at Georgetown Law chose to do so because the food looked better and, as they discovered, tasted better too. As he tucked into his roast chicken, law student Francesco Totaro spoke glowingly of the food traditions in Italy, his home country. “When we eat local, we know what it is,” he explains. “Here everything is artificial, plastified, genetically modified.”

For Americans, the desire to recapture a lost taste may prove the most powerful agent of change in our food culture — even if, for the younger generation, the taste is not remembered from their childhood but, rather, appropriated from the recollections of their parents and grandparents. Amy Trubek, an anthropologist of food at the University of Vermont whose book on the geography of taste will be published this year, believes that force is what will determine whether eating local will endure or “be just another blip, the latest version of food activism from the 1970s — what Warren Belasco calls a ‘counter-cuisine.’”

For local eating to catch on, Trubek argues, taste must drive large-scale infrastructural change. “If it’s going to be more than the month of August or a special week of menus at restaurants, like in Chicago or San Francisco, we have to create the infrastructure for slaughterhouses, processing plants, along with food safety regulations that are not based on huge factories but on small-scale operations,” she says. “All of the policy and regulatory apparatus around the food system since World War II has just assumed the industrial model. Everything has conspired against the small and the localized.” BAMCO has no plans to reduce its 150-mile target for either its Farm to Fork program or its Eat Local Challenge. But Ganzler, the company’s director of communications, agrees with the notion of scalability. “Because we value local over organic, our system is set up so that each individual chef and manager is responsible for sourcing products locally in their own community,” she says. “Our approach is scalable because it’s managed at a micro level. Our model puts power in the hands of people closest to the food.”

If Ganzler is right, local eating can indeed go national without suffering from the industrialization and homogenization that has afflicted the organics sector. Under current organic standards, you can eat organic lettuce that was grown with sodium nitrate fertilizer on a huge corporate farm, picked by poorly paid labor, and shipped thousands of miles. As the organic sector has grown, so has the pressure on growers to cut costs. Sure, if you happen to live right next to a corporate farm, eating local might not be any better for the environment or for your taste buds. But in most other situations, local sourcing eats away at the very foundations of corporate agriculture.

Whether appreciating the bison-and-wild-rice soup at Macalester College in Minnesota or the heirloom-tomato gazpacho at the Yahoo cafe in Sunnyvale, consumers might never go beyond the sybaritic pleasures to meet the local farmer or fully understand the fuel savings behind their food choices. Yet behind the scenes, consumer tastes, the rising cost of energy and the falling prices of agricultural commodities will conspire together to replace the agro-industrial complex with a new, sustainable system.

The effects of eating local don’t stop at the water’s edge. Eating local is not the culinary equivalent of Pat Buchanan’s isolationism. We live in an increasingly global age, and our food depends on global environmental conditions, the working conditions for migrant labor, the overall stocks of fish in the sea. It’s no contradiction, then, that the local meal at the Georgetown Law School cafe was dished up at the “global station.” “This is the station where I want to do the sustainable stuff,” chef Horne explains. “It’s because this is where we can have the most effect.”

John Feffer's most recent book is "North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis."

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