Farm-To -Table, Local, And Organic… 8

Food For the Thoughtful

Have you heard the latest dirt on farm-to-table food?   It’s all about communication, partnership, and innovation. And Kansas City is right in the middle of all the action.

Foodies and farmers depend on one another now more than ever. Foodies want to know the source of what they’re putting in their mouths. Farmers want to engender long-lasting and loyal relationships with restaurants and their end customers. It’s a mutual admiration society.

Since being ranked number three by Travel + Leisure among America’s Best Cities for Foodies in 2015, the KC metro area has continued to enjoy the spotlight and its rightful ranking among the regions where farm-to-table food venues can flourish. Exactly what does farm to table mean?  It’s complicated and it’s not.

As defined by wiseGEEK, a compendium of clear and concise answers, “a classic arrangement for a farm-to-table restaurant is as follows:  Restaurant A contracts directly with Farms C, D, E, and F for its produce, fruits, vegetables, and animal products. Restaurateurs travel to the sites of the farms they use, meet the farmers, and see the environment in which the food is grown and animals are raised, and the farmer agrees to select products as they ripen and send them directly to the restaurant. In some cases, chefs even travel out for the harvest, selecting the cream of the crop for their establishments.”

Local expert Brad Oxandale, a longtime Kansas farmer and Head of Engineering, Maintenance, and Construction at Bayer Crop Science, further explains the concept.

“Basically, ‘Farm to Table’ means knowing where your food comes from the moment it’s planted to the time it’s placed on your table. The food goes directly from the producer to the consumer, cutting out the middleman. Today’s consumers have a much higher awareness about what they eat. They want to know the origin of the product, whether the crops are raised with added hormones or pesticides, and how the farmer’s involvement with the food supports the local economy and environment.  Farmers and their crops have higher levels of expectation than ever, as do venues wanting to reap the benefits of the farm to table status.” says Oxandale.

According to culinary experts, the first farm-to-table restaurants can be traced back to the hippie movement in the 60s and 70s, when organic, local, and natural food became trendy and more people began supporting local farmers. Still, it was not until about ten years ago, that the movement began to really take off.

As a national intersection of agricultural tradition, animal health, livestock, and agribusiness, Kansas and Missouri provide the perfect stage for showcasing both the art and the science of farm-to-table provisions. The actual geographic center of the Lower 48, Lebanon, Kansas, lies about 480 miles to the west of our area, but Kansas City is the nation’s most centrally-located big city. Its location amidst expansive farmland and major players in agribusiness translates into an abundance of fresh meat, produce, and even fish.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture asserts that the Show Me State is home to more than 100,000 farms, covering two-thirds of the state’s total land acreage and supporting many of the state’s top agricultural commodities including soybeans, corn, cattle and calves, hogs, and turkeys.

Kansas is even more deeply engaged in farming than Missouri. The Kansas Department of Agriculture cites farming as the number one industry in the state, with agriculture accounting for more than 40 percent of the total economy with more than 60,000 farms in the state, producing and raising top crops and livestock. Based on these facts alone, it’s easy to understand why the KC metro is on the map for its restaurant scene.

While the multitude of farms is impressive, not all qualify as farm-to-table sources; even fewer meet the standards of being labeled as organic farms. But, despite the fact farm-to-table suppliers may not be certified as organic, they are still more highly scrutinized by restaurant partners and subject to overall higher standards than other producers.

With increased interaction between producers and consumers, and by choosing restaurants and store items that come from local farmers, consumers contribute to the overall success of farmers that choose to raise food responsibly and at the same time, encourage the growth of a more sustainable food system. In some communities, farm-to-table speed dating occurs. Local farmers seeking new markets and chefs searching for new food sources will get the chance to find their match. By doing this, restaurants can put a face on their food source, further validating their claim as a farm-to-market venue.  And, while science has always been a part of the farming industry, connection, communication, and partnership are now more important than ever.  For the diner, it’s a win-win situation.

So, if it’s farm-to-table, is it also organic?  Not necessarily. ‘Locally grown’ is not synonymous with ‘organic’. One other mistaken assumption is that local and/or organic foods are more nutritious than those that are imported.

While the FDA does provide guidelines and national standards for what foods can be labeled organic, cage free, free range and grass-fed, they are not easily verified.  When you truly desire to eat farm to table, consumers visit farmer’s markets and restaurants that identify the farms with which they work. It’s not unusual for meals to bear subtitles citing the farm of origin.  It’s more than just for your information, it’s a promise and sign of assurance that a relationship exists.

The guidelines and standards for ‘local’ remain murky. A report from the Department of Agriculture states that “though ‘local’ has a geographic connotation, there is no consensus on a definition in terms of the distance between production and consumption.” This despite a provision in the 2008 Farm Act that stated, in part, that any food labeled ‘local’ must be produced in the “locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product.”

So, which is healthier, organic or local? Organic may be better for you, but not necessarily because of traditional nutrition measures. According to TIME magazine, a 2012 study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Health Policy concluded that organic produce is not more nutrition-dense than its generic counterparts. However, the research was widely panned for taking a narrow view of nutrition. Counterarguments insist that food grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides—which is to say organic—are by definition healthier choices.

As for the 29% of consumers who believe local food is more nutritious, they may be right. Most nutrients begin to degrade the moment a fresh piece of produce is picked; so the sooner it gets to you the better. Many studies have shown that a peach or berry picked closer to ripeness is more nutritious than a fruit—organic or not—picked before or after its peak of ripeness.

Luckily, the Kansas City area provides a wide selection of both organic and farm-to-table establishments.  We get to have it all.

For more about community supported food, farmers and recommended restaurants, visit KCFoodCircle.org.