Be Flexible to Buy Local Food

Laurel Valchuis
March 30, 2015
Buying local has amazing benefits. You are able to support your local community by keeping dollars close to home, food is fresher and when buying direct from farmers, you often have a better eye on their practices, which helps keep them honest about environmental responsibility. While this is sourcing locally is much simpler for small independent restaurants, improved infrastructure is making it easier for multi-unit concepts to begin taking advantage of local foods.   There is increasing interest among consumers and chefs for locally sourced food – which is supported by locally sourced meats, seafood and produce taking the top spots on the NRA’s Top 10 Menu Trends for 2014. Going local can provide a competitive advantage for restaurants, providing an attractive and differentiated message to consumers interested in supporting local farmers.

Eating local is challenging even for the most committed consumers – restaurants and food companies are stepping in to address this challenge.

Our current infrastructure supports individual buying for those who prioritize making the time for farmers’ markets, can hurdle the price barriers, and who know how to cook the seasonal offerings of their region. However, those are three barriers that can take buying local foods and cooking at home off the table for many consumers. Many consumers either do not have the time to visit the markets in their community or the know-how to put together a well-balanced meal with the ingredients they find there. Fortunately, there are organizations out there addressing these barriers to individual consumption of locally grown foods. These organizations showcase the multiple ways that local ingredients can be included to the mix – from home delivery to select showcased ingredients. Uncommon Feasts has a ‘Food for a Week’ program where they cook and deliver seasonal meals directly to consumers each week – all they have to do is heat. al FreshCo My own business, is committed to the delivery (literally) of local, healthy, fresh and affordable meal options to consumers. We source and prep locally grown food, and deliver it right to the consumers door. All the consumer has to do is find 20 minutes to cook, following a simple set of instructions included in the meal package. Farmers to You sources and delivers regionally grown, whole foods directly to the consumer based on their requested grocery list. Consumers are able to envision what to prepare from the ingredients on their grocery list – often turning to the internet for recipe ideas. SweetGreen A made-to-order salad concept, has a roster of locally sourced staples based on their location as well as seasonal menu items that change throughout the year, often making use of the regions in season produce. Chipotle Incorporates local ingredients as much as possible into its more than 6,000 locations. While it is not possible for all ingredients to be sourced locally, the company is committed to making local a priority, serving +15 million pounds of local produce – ranging from romaine lettuce to jalapeno peppers – in their restaurants in 2013.

Our conventional food system is not build to support sourcing of local produce

These companies exist based on the premise of flexibility, being able to take what farmers have fresh and knowing how to work with bruised or sometimes imperfect items. In most cases these seemingly imperfect items taste just as good as their conventionally perfect alternatives, as pointed out by an ingenious campaign, showcasing the imperfect fruits and vegetables, by Intermarché, the third largest grocer in France (check out the campaign here). This flexibility is not built into our conventional food system, which has been unsustainably built around a seemingly endless supply of food, regardless of the season.

Even large multi-unit chains can start somewhere when it comes toincorporating local ingredients

Many restaurants feed hundreds, if not thousands of customers each day, sourcing ingredients is only one step in that process, and making this step as seamless as possible is essential. Making a dish fast and well takes enough practice and time as it is, particularly when consistency is of vital importance, as is the case for large chains. Switching out ingredients weekly can be a challenge and may in some cases make the move to locally sourced ingredients prohibitive.  However, for restaurants that can embrace flexibility into their operations, even for one or two ingredients, it is entirely feasible given diverse regional offerings throughout the growing season, and our capability to freeze, preserve and dehydrate for the off-season.

The first step to embracing local produce is building flexibility into your menu and operations

If you want to source locally, build flexibility into your menu. No tomatoes yet? Why not shaved rainbow carrots instead? No zucchini? What about kohl rabi? Try dried mushrooms instead of fresh, sauerkraut instead of fresh cabbage. Once we accept that taking advantage of the produce that farmers have available is going to have positive impact on our community, health, and taste buds, versus the alternative, being flexible will become a part of our food system ethos. As demand for locally and regionally grown food grows, so will capacity, allowing the system to fill our expectations of convenience and availability.

About the Author

Laurel Valchuis

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