The farm to table movement is here to stay!
You can dine “farm to table” when you purchase seasonal foods from farmers you know or when you visit restaurants/stores that promote local foods and develop relationships with local farmers. Farm to table has been around since the 1960s. Originally viewed as more of a "hippie thing," farm to table has become more popular in the last 10 years thanks to the start of the locavore movement. The word "locavore" comes from three women who challenged residents of the San Francisco Bay area to eat only foods grown within a 100-mile radius during August 2005. The idea caught on, and the word "locavore" was selected as the Oxford American Dictionary 2007 Word of the Year. In 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack laid out a five-year strategic plan for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that included the development and support of regional food systems. Through the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, the USDA furthered a national conversation about where our food comes from, encouraging consumers to learn more about the people behind the products and the role of agriculture in our economy and communities.
Farm to table isn’t a fad; it’s a growing movement that is found throughout the country, in homes, hospitals, schools, and communities. In 2011, over 85% of customers polled by the National Grocers Association said that they chose a grocery store based in part on whether it stocked food from regional producers. Over 2,000 schools across the country developed farm to school initiatives to source food from local farmers, ranchers, and food businesses, and over 7,000 U.S. cities and towns host farmers’ markets.
Farm to table programs provide three major benefits:
Benefits to Farmers:
Between 1992 and 2007, the number of midsized farms in the U.S. fell by over 100,000, or 21%. This shift has transformed the rural landscape and impacted related farm businesses. Lacy Davidson, MS, RDN, LD, CDE, RYT, a registered dietitian/nutritionist who lives and farms in southern West Virginia in an area that used to be very active in coal mining, shares that she’s “watched a depressed and poverty-stricken area, with some of the worst health statistics in the country, find hope and prosperity through the burgeoning, local food economy.”
Demand from institutions, local distributors and local grocery stores provides an opportunity to keep midsized farmers on their land and rural communities thriving. According to the USDA Local Food Marketing Practices Survey, in 2015 farmers produced and sold $8.7 billion of fresh produce and locally-processed foods like bottled milk, cheese, meat, jam, cider, and wine. 35% of the sales were directly to consumers, 27% to retailers, and 39% to institutions including schools, colleges, universities, and hospitals as well as intermediary businesses such as wholesalers, distributors, processors, etc. More than 80% of farms sold all of their directly-marketed food within a 100-mile radius of the farm. Farm to table restaurants rely on local farmers for the freshest vegetables, fruit, eggs, poultry, cheeses, meats, and even breads. Developing an ongoing relationship with a restaurant gives farmers more economic security, and encourages increased food production.
Benefits to Consumers:
With the growth of farm to table, more consumers now have access to fresh, locally-grown foods. The number of farmers’ markets nationwide increased by 54% between 2008 and 2011, providing over 7,000 venues for farmers to interact directly with consumers. Winter farmers’ markets are also on the rise, even in northern states where cold, snowy weather doesn’t deter farmers and consumers from meeting together weekly. Over 1,200 markets operate through the winter nationwide, an increase of nearly 40% since 2010. Consumers who live in urban areas can go to a farmers’ market, meet people who grow and produce food, and learn more about the food too.
Fruits and vegetables taste their best when consumed as quickly as possible after harvesting, and eating at a farm to table restaurant means that you’re not eating food grown hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Access to locally-grown foods has a strong impact on health. Davidson notes that local farmers’ markets and the growing local food production in her community enables people to consume more of the vegetables and fruit that are the cornerstones of a healthy diet.
Benefits to the Community:
Locally-grown foods require far less transportation, which leads to lower gas emissions for our environment. On average, food in the United States travels 1500 miles from farm to consumer, according to Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Food produced and consumed locally travels an average of 45 miles. Pirog’s team calculated that transporting food uses 4-17 times more fuel and emits 5-17 times more carbon dioxide than using local foods.
When schools develop programs with local farms, students participate in school gardens, learning how to plant, grow, harvest, and prepare foods themselves, which encourages them to consume more healthful foods. The number of schools known to be participating in farm to school programs jumped from 400 in 2004 to over 2,300 in 2011.
Foods grown locally create more jobs, not only working on the farms that grow the food, but also for processing and distributing the food. A 2010 study by the USDA’s Economic Research Service shows that nearly all the income from locally grown foods is retained within the local community.
Local farms also help preserve open space, especially in metropolitan areas, creating more enjoyable communities.
As with every program, there are cautions and even potential negatives associated with the farm to table movement:
Locally-grown foods at farmers’ markets are often more expensive than foods purchased at grocery stores. In 2010, the USDA helped nearly 900,000 seniors and 2.15 million WIC recipients access fresh fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers at farmers’ markets. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of farmers’ markets and farm stands authorized to accept EBT grew by 51%, to over 2,400. Kathleen Searles, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD shops for fresh produce and food products from a variety of nearby New Hampshire and Vermont farmers in the co-op in Littleton, NH, which makes local foods more affordable.
Not all farmers’ markets are more expensive than grocery stores, however. Davidson notes that “In our area, people can't and won't pay prices that are higher than Walmart and most farmers find that they can still make a decent profit matching or selling below. If they trucked their goods into the city, it’s likely transport costs would increase the price. But, that’s the beauty of truly local; most farmers barely have to leave their farm.”
Decreased Availability of Foods:
We’re used to shopping at grocery stores that feature a wide variety of fresh produce from around the world, year-round. Locally-grown foods are available only seasonally, and depending on the weather, may not be available at all. One summer when I lived in Vermont, the local tomato crop was wiped out by blight, so if I wanted tomatoes I had to purchase them from the grocery store instead of the farmers’ market.
If we only purchase foods produced within a 100-mile range of our home, people in much of the country would never enjoy oranges or grapefruit, and the only people who would be able to use maple syrup are those in the northern parts of the country where sugar maple trees grow. We’re able to enjoy a wider variety of foods, which provide an extensive range of nutrients, year-round, by shopping at grocery stores.
Even with the negatives, more and more consumers and institutions are choosing to purchase at least some of their food products locally. Davidson is passionate about the positive influence of local farms, and sums up her feelings this way: “From my perspective as an organic farmer and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, small scale, organic, local and sustainable agriculture isn't just a benefit to a community, it's the glue that bonds communities together and is the only way to improve the health of our soils, our health, and our pocket books.”
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC
- What is the farm to table movement? http://www.culinaryschools.com/farm-to-table-movement Updated 9-9-13. Accessed 11-5-17.
- The Local Foods Wheel. http://www.locavores.com/ Accessed 11-5-17.
- Is Local Food Better? World Watch Institute. Sarah DeWeerdt. http://www.worldwatch.org/ Accessed 11-5-17.
- USDA. Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/KYFCompass.pdf Accessed 11-7-17
- Direct Farm Sales of Food. 20012 Census of Agriculture Highlights. ACH12-35 December 2016. https://agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Local_Food/LocalFoodsMarketingPractices_Highlights.pdf Accessed 11-7-17
- Email conversation with Lacy Davidson, MS, RDN, LD, CDE, RYT firstname.lastname@example.org
- Email conversation with Kathleen Searles, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD. email@example.com
PDF Handout: Farm to Table Handout
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.