What is Local Produce and how can we get it on the Menu?
by Seth Matlick · Photos by Stephanie Cameron
A seasonal late-autumn dish at The Grove Cafe & Market in Albuquerque.
“What do you have that’s local right now?” I recently asked my server at an Albuquerque restaurant whose menu prominently proclaims, “We support local farms!” The server seemed confused by the question, then excused herself to go check with the chef. “So, all of our chile is from Hatch,” she reported upon return.
Consider me unimpressed. If you’re a restaurant in New Mexico and your chile isn’t produced here, you should probably be run out of the state. I experience exchanges like this regularly at restaurants who boast local, only to discover they offer one item produced on a large-scale, conventional, monocropping operation many hours away. And often, not even that. As the owner of a small produce farm in Albuquerque’s North Valley, I find greenwashing and disingenuous advertising of local sourcing profoundly irksome. It would never be acceptable for a restaurant to advertise a local beer selection and then only carry Coors, so why do we accept this when it comes to other local ingredients?
Today, more consumers are educated about the importance of local food systems and want to dine in establishments that support local farmers, ranchers, and purveyors. There are good reasons for this. Produce is fresher and healthier when picked at its peak ripeness; shorter travel distances mean a reduced carbon footprint; products are safer and less prone to contamination with a smaller number of steps between the farm and table. Buying local can also help maintain open spaces and farmland in your community. When farmers are able to make a living, they are less likely to sell their land off to developers, keeping spaces green and potentially boosting the economy through agritourism and other events held at farms. The economic benefit of keeping our money in our community cannot be understated. By eliminating middlemen, you are keeping almost all of your money in the community, which will, in turn, be spent at other local businesses.
According to the American Independent Business Alliance, “On average, forty-eight percent of each purchase at local independent businesses [is] recirculated locally, compared to less than fourteen percent of purchases at chains.”
The definition of “locally grown” is open to interpretation. For some businesses, this means grown within city limits; for others, within one hundred miles or even five hundred miles. For me, “local produce” on a menu means grown within a couple hours’ drive. Beyond the geographic implication, the phrase also often implies messages about growing practices, the scale of operations, and the variety of crops produced. While local isn’t necessarily synonymous with sustainable, in my experience, restaurants committed to local produce purchase from small, diversified farms that use organic growing practices. I think it’s important for each of us as consumers to define local for ourselves so that we better understand what our expectations are when we see local food advertised.
To be clear, buying local is not fiscally or logistically feasible for every restaurant—especially ones with lower price points or who produce food on an exceptionally large scale. And that’s OK! Due to the scale on which many small farms operate and the added challenges of growing food chemical-free, local ingredients can cost more for chefs than buying from national food distributors. Coordinating with multiple growers throughout the week, instead of placing one large order with a commercial distributor, can also be added work for busy chefs. The kitchen staff may need extra training in how to prepare and use these products, as they might not come pre-washed or in uniform sizes like they do from large-scale conventional farms. As a farmer, I empathize with long days and hard work and deeply appreciate kitchens willing to take on any added tasks. Despite these challenges, many chefs still choose to work with small-scale local growers for the reasons mentioned above, and I believe we as consumers should reward them with our patronage. But how do we know if restaurants are truly serving the local food their menus claim or just paying lip service to an ever-growing trend? How can we be sure our food choices support our neighbors?
A seasonal late-summer dish at Il Piatto in Santa Fe.
- Ask your local farmers who their customers are. Farmers markets are a perfect venue for this. I love when customers ask where else they can find my produce. I will gladly recommend places to eat and tell them what’s in season. For Albuquerqueans, you can find a list of local farmers and their contact information in the “Find Vendors” link on the Downtown Growers’ Market’s website. Or visit the NM Farmers’ Markets Association’s website to find growers near you.
- Order what’s seasonal. The variety and availability of local products changes with the seasons. While few restaurants’ menus are 100% local, many will feature local ingredients in the special or in seasonal dishes. Customers express their values by voting with their wallets, and the more customers order those dishes, the more chefs will understand their customers’ priorities. This also means that chefs will have to restock those dishes’ components sooner, directly providing your local farms with more business. For instance, think about ordering a hardy winter green salad in February, and hold off on the caprese until July—it will taste much better then! Note: small local farms are increasingly using greenhouses and hoophouses to extend their seasons and change the traditional time of the year certain crops are available. Ask your server or talk to your farmers to better understand seasonal dining.
- Inquire within. Some restaurants proudly display the names of the farms they buy from on their menus or websites, but many others don’t advertise their purveyors. Create a dialogue with restaurant staff by asking servers who the restaurant is working with. It may not be a question they’ve received before, but having to query the chef or owners will ultimately help educate the staff about the food they are serving.
- Give feedback. Let chefs and restaurant owners know you appreciate them sourcing locally, and politely let others know you’d like to see more local food featured on the menu — especially if this is something they’ve advertised.
Make a difference: When we dine we want to be both physically and emotionally satisfied, but we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back until we have tried a little harder to make sure our money is going where we think it is. Supporting the food community supports the entire community. With a little consumer activism, you can make a big difference for small local businesses.