Bridging the gap between farm and restaurant

 Many find the idea appealing, but it is also a subject fraught with complexities. The creation of national and international distribution systems over the past few decades, along with bureaucratic red tape, has made it tough for chefs and food service buyers to get local food directly from the producers, no matter how geographically close they may be. And many farmers don t have experience in marketing their own products, nor in dealing directly with anxious customers.

A summit was held Thursday at the Knox County Educational Service Center to help create a bridge between food service professionals and producers. The Chef and the Farmer program was designed to serve as an open forum and brainstorming session for food producers and food service professionals. Hosted by chef Paul Higgins, who is retired from the Summerville at HillenVale assisted living facility in Mount Vernon, the meeting allowed both sides to see what progress has already been made, and what hurdles have yet to be overcome.

The conference was attended by several farmers and several food service professionals, from buyers to chefs. Also in attendance were leaders of the groups and organizations that have laid the groundwork for dialogues between farmers and food preparation personnel, including OSU Extension educators Troy Cooper and LuAnn Duncan; Dr. Howard Sacks, director of Kenyon College s Rural Life Center; and John Marsh, project coordinator of the Food for Thought initiative run by the Rural Life Center. 

The program started with the viewing of a short educational film, Where Does Our Food Come From?, prepared as a special project by students at Kenyon College. The film pointed out the benefits of local food, including its higher nutritional values, freshness, better flavor, and support of the local community. Sacks was quoted in the film as saying Knox Countians spent $127.5 million on food and beverages last year, but that most of that money went to companies outside of Knox County. If only 10 percent of that amount could be channeled back into the community, it would be the equivalent of a new $13 million industry coming to town. Additionally, the improved sense of community and security would be valuable. As the narration of the film said, You know your doctor. You know your dentist. Do you know your farmer? 

Tom Metcalf, owner of The Alcove Restaurant, got the discussion started by asking a central question from the food service side.

 

Who has what and how do I get it? Metcalf said.

Sacks drew everyone s attention to the Homegrown project of the Rural Life Center, which is a directory of local producers of meat, eggs and poultry, fruits, produce, and specialty items, as well as a list of retailers who carry local food products.

Sacks also pointed out that Kenyon College has already undertaken the process of trying to source food locally. At this point, the college is getting about 30 percent of its food from local producers. It has worked extensively with distributor Lannings Foods of Mount Vernon to procure goods from local sources. Lannings has gathered much of its local produce at the Owl Creek produce auction on Waterford Road near Fredericktown.

The Owl Creek auction was represented at the conference by manager Kelly Brown, who was frequently referred to for commentary, as Owl Creek is one of the first such cooperative ventures to have been established for producers in the region. The popularity of the auction has been growing, drawing buyers from outside the area as well. Brown noted that as of Wednesday, he had 1,487 registered bidders from Knox County and beyond.Gwen Dugan, food buyer for the East Knox High School cafeteria, wondered how farmers would be able to deal with the buying system she is required to use.

When we re buying for the schools, Dugan said, we re buying on a purchase order system, so they have to be willing to wait. She added that such a system would require the farmers to bill the school, as well.

Lisa Rickard of Fox Hollow Farm asked about restaurants and institutions requirements for USDA inspections. Consensus was that educational institutions such as Kenyon are required by regulations to buy exclusively USDA inspected meat, while restaurants are thought to be covered by state inspections. Rickard noted that the only USDA-inspected meat processing plants in the state were way beyond Fox Hollow Farm s scope, requiring a minimum of 50 lambs per order to be processed, which would appear to remove Fox Hollow Farm from potentially supplying the institutional market.

Duncan said she would be meeting with a representative from the health department soon, and would get a clarification on what inspection restrictions apply. Higgins added he has seen local food movements happening all over the country, so there are evidently routes that can be taken to get through the red tape.

Marsh addressed the developments of local sites for produce retailing and processing. Originally, the Buckeye Candy Building was planned as an all-in-one facility, but due to the amount of room needed, it is now being touted as a future retail space for local producers, but not a processing facility, according to Marsh. He said discussions are under way about a building which New Hope Industries has on Newark Road that could be used as a processing facility for washing, freezing, cooking and canning food items.But Marsh noted that all of this can only happen if farmers combine their efforts to make it happen.

There s no cooperative undertaking on the part of farmers to work together so that there is a distribution network, a processing area, central processing as far as billing and things like that are concerned, Marsh said. I don t think that this thing will work until a group of farmers come together and do that. 

He said the impression he is getting from restaurateurs and other food service personnel is that their days are already hectic enough; they can t take on the task of individually contacting numerous farmers and working out orders, shipment logistics, and payment details with each one.

 

Chef David Atkinson of The Alcove agreed. 

It would help restaurants if you could have one location, instead of having to drive here to get my tomatoes, here to get my fresh vegetables, here to get my potatoes, Atkinson said. Centralize it. Marsh said a group in Iowa has created a real-time online ordering system for a local-food cooperative. Orders are placed over the Internet, and then delivered once or twice per week. Such a system would help ease many of the supply-and-demand concerns.

Duncan suggested a way to further draw attention to the local food issue, and a good way to create more demand, would be to have restaurants and schools start by having local food days, just to see what the response is from the community.Everyone agreed further work needs to be done, and more connections need to be made.

I have the time, I will keep connecting the dots, said Higgins. I absolutely believe that there s no reason why Knox County ought to just be sitting here looking at what s going on around them, when the opportunity really is there to move this whole process forward. I m going to continue on that quest. 

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