Column As the farm-to-table movement grows, so does farmwashing. What can we do about it?
I have always been pulled to restaurants that promote a farm-to-table ethos. What’s better than making a connection between the food that you are eating and the people who produced it?
So when Vanity Fair recently ran an article titled “Is It Time to Table Farm-to-Table?” I immediately thought, “of course not!” But as I read the article, I realized that journalist Corby Kummer was talking about tabling farm-to-table not because of the concept behind it, but because of how it’s currently practiced. Kummer writes, “It feels particularly misleading when excessive earnestness is a cover for fatally unimaginative, formulaic food.”
Personally, I would rather take unimaginative food that is made from seasonal, local ingredients than a crazy meal made with ingredients sourced from all ends of the earth. However, if a chef can’t take those seasonal, local ingredients and do them justice, it’s disrespect for the producer that took time and energy into growing them in the first place. The ingredients deserve to be valued. But the point here is that the branding and marketing value of declaring a farm-to-table operation is more valuable than actually making good food. “It’s time, then, to retire ‘farm-to-table,'” writes Kummer. “The term has been drained of any real meaning it may have once had.”
He’s right. Farm-to-table has gone the way of other terms that have become so popular that the things they definitions seek to separate themselves from end up appropriating them. Like Domino’s and “artisan pizza.” Kummer gives a nod to “farmwashing” which nowadays can be found in a variety of supermarkets and fast food chains. Like greenwashing, farmwashing is companies focusing on a marketing message that implies that they are small scale, environmentally minded, and really care about the people who grew their food. You’ve seen the huge posters in the grocery aisle, the happy farmer with a big smile, holding a bundle of kale or whatever the trendy green du jour is. McDonald’s nailed this one with their “From Here” campaign. Because fast food is the new locavore frontier, right?
There’s one thing that we tend to overlook: farm-to-table isn’t a modern concept. It’s how we used to eat. As such, farm-to-table as a trend is a response to an over industrialized system that has made mass-produced food from far away the norm, and real food from close to home a luxury. Farm-to-table shouldn’t be a trend, it should just be how we live, in fact, it’s exactly what we used to do only a few generations ago.
We need farm-to-table, in the sense that we need more direct relationships between consumers, chefs and producers, ensuring that we put value on independent production and ensure that we support a sustainable food system. But what we don’t need is farm-t0-table in the trendy sense, as a concept that larger, industrial scale stores and restaurant chains can appropriate and make their own, entirely diluting the message in the process.
When you buy your vegetables from a farmer, or take part in a CSA, take that produce home and make a meal, you too are technically doing a farm-to-table meal. But you don’t need to call it that. It’s simply eating and preparing real food.
Some of the best “farm-to-table” restaurants that I have ever been to are the ones that haven’t flaunted it. They just sourced good ingredients and cooked it well, because that was the right thing to do. The same goes for eating at home. Real ingredients, real food. No processed microwavable dinners, no fast food. Because as many marketing dollars as the fast food chain puts into telling you that your French fry was made from a locally sourced potato, we do not need to be going in the direction of more French fries.
We need to be going in the direction of a more sustainable, and just food system. One that makes real food accessible to everyone, not just the 1 percent.
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Image: Andrew Malone