Navigating Food Trends: A daily dilemna

By Joshua Berman,

SBN Project Coordinator

After a four year stint living in Montreal, I returned to Boston to find a city transformed. While I knew there was a food revolution underway in the USA, even while I was spending my time in the great white north, I had never connected this cultural change with my hometown. But change is here. New upscale eateries and food-centric cafes line the streets, offering us consumers more options than ever for good, fresh, and wholesome food.

Tomatoes and Butternut Squash at the Market

Tomatoes and Butternut Squash at the Market

It is true that Americans are focused on putting healthy food into their body, but this is not new. The real underlying shift is a shift in expectations regarding the full history of the food we eat – how was it produced? Where? By whom? Americans want to develop a connection with the food that we eat, and we are increasingly willing to spend our hard-earned dollars to reward those who grant us this connection.

Jen Faigel – Executive Director of Commonwealth Kitchen and local leader – observes “a skyrocketing expansion of farmer’s markets, food trucks and urban-farming projects”, although she notes this trend remains a mixed bag while government funding for food entrepreneurship remains lacking, severely limiting access. Yet despite the lack of government funding, this cultural wave is unlikely to peter out and only continues to encourage a familiar phenomenon: a certain proportion of restaurants, farms, and other food businesses aim to capitalize on the movement without committing to the values that constitute its foundation.

Buzzwords flood our physical and virtual lives: Organic, local, sustainable, and seasonal have risen from mere descriptors to become the cornerstones of a restaurant or farm’s identity.

How do we identify and reward those committed to the values and morals inherent in these words? How do we sift through the lexical maze of food to choose products that taste great and drive the values we want to see integrated into our society?

To address this issue, I would like to share a short story.

I was running to my local market under specific instructions to purchase one dozen organic chicken eggs, a seemingly simple task. I approached the first farm stand to ask if the eggs were organic, to which the farmer responded “no, but our chickens are happy. Take a look,” she said revealing from her pocket a small pile of photographs, “look how much space they have”. But I had been assigned a mission, and I intended to fulfill my commitment. I approached a second booth to which I got the response, “Organic? No. But we probably would be certified if we could afford it and wanted it.” Again, I passed, moving along to a third vendor who greeted me with a tired grin and another assurance that the farm was well managed.

I bought the eggs. They were not organic.

My point, the organic certification plays an important role in the context of a supermarket – it guarantees that a certain set of standards are adhered to. However, none of these farmers at my local market had become certified and yet I have far more information at my disposal in the form of a conversation with the farmer than I get from an organic label prominently displaying some very happy cows in, well New Zealand for all I know.

Market-goers tasting vendor wares

Market-goers tasting vendor wares

Moreover, many farmers are ‘beyond organic’ but the certification process is so rigorous and expensive that they don’t pursue it – just ask. Knowing the farmer is often the best line of defense to ensure both responsible production and fair business practices. I would bet that the Chef of your favorite locavore restaurant feels similarly.

Converse, discuss, ask, inquire. Learn about your farmer and their principles and find a farmer that you trust. Douglas Gayeton, author of LOCAL: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, calls this Face Certification “a direct contact between farmer and consumer that creates an environment for trust and faith.”

I urge you, the consumer, to seek out Face Certification, to support your local economy, and to love thy farmer as thyself – after all, if they’re local, they are your neighbor.

P.s.

For more information on where to buy locally in the New England region, take advantage of Farm Fresh RI’s online resources, head to Mass Farmers Markets’ market list, or for wholesale info check out Sustainable Business Network’s Wholesale Local Buying Guide.

To learn more about local and regional food systems, check out the USDA’s Know Your Farmer campaign site.

Family Fun Zone at the 2015 Boston Local Food Festival

Family Fun Zone at the 2015 Boston Local Food Festival

For a day of local food, chef competitions and demos, and fun activities come by the 2016 Boston Local Food Festival and meet your farmer!

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