Infrastructure & Environment

As Local Food Movement Grows, Who's Policing the Produce?

Many cities and states have made commitments to support and promote farm-to-table food. But few have fraud protections in place to make sure people are eating truly "local."
by | April 2017
(Shutterstock/Kelly Martinelli)

At Local 360, an airy, loft-like restaurant in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, nearly everything on the menu is harvested nearby. The oysters come from Taylor Shellfish, 75 miles north of town. The vegetables are from the organic Newaukum Valley Farm, halfway between Seattle and Portland. Wines come from Chinook Wines in south-central Washington. As the restaurant’s name implies, almost all of its foods are sourced from within 360 miles, and the staff is aggressive about ensuring that, says Director of Operations Nicole Burrows. “We like to say that we’re 95 percent local in the summer and 80 percent in the winter,” she says, acknowledging that the restaurant does “make small concessions to make things more accessible. People really don’t like to give up limes for their cocktails. We have bottles of Heinz ketchup.”

Meanwhile, at the University District Farmers Market in northeast Seattle, one of the city’s most well-established markets, farmers looking to sell their produce must undergo a stringent vetting process. Would-be purveyors have to provide things like a Google satellite map of their farm, acreage information and annual employment figures. The goal, says Chris Curtis, who started the market in 1993 and today is the director of the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, is to make sure that when a farmer says his produce is local, it’s really local. “People complain about the process,” she says, “but it’s a way for us to understand where people are farming and to make sure these aren’t part-time, hobby farmers” -- or pass-through suppliers of food grown elsewhere.

On the locavore scale, places like Local 360 and the University District Farmers Market might fall on the extreme end. But the fact is, in Seattle and in countless places across the country, they’re really not all that remarkable these days. At this point in American food culture, farm-to-table has in many places gone from revolutionary to de rigueur: Of course that porterhouse is from a nearby ranch; of course the chef grew the arugula herself out back. Restaurants know that having local foods on the menu is a big driver for customers. According to research last year by the National Restaurant Association, 68 percent of diners say they’re more likely to eat at a restaurant that serves locally sourced items than one that doesn’t.

The local foods movement isn’t limited to restaurants. Nowadays, you can’t swing a sustainably harvested canvas bag in a major metropolitan area on a Saturday morning without hitting a farmers market. Last year there were 8,669 markets across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), almost double the number from a decade ago. Community-supported agriculture programs -- which deliver shares of seasonal produce to consumers with a membership -- have grown exponentially over the past few decades, from two in 1986 to more than 6,000 today.

In lots of ways, city and state governments helped drive that change. Farm-to-cafeteria programs in schools and other government facilities have sought to create a stable market for local produce; other initiatives have tried to encourage local restaurants and businesses to source their foods from nearby farms.

Seattle has been at the forefront of this movement. In 2008, the city council passed a Local Food Action Initiative, one of the first urban policies of its kind. It outlined a series of short-term goals that would improve food access, local agriculture and economic development. The city took those efforts a step further in 2012 with a Food Action Plan that outlined four overarching goals deemed necessary for a “healthy food system,” including healthy food for all, growing local, strengthening the local economy and preventing food waste. A Seattle program allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients to use their benefits at city farmers markets has already been expanded countywide; negotiations are underway to expand it across the state. The city has overhauled its zoning laws to allow for urban gardens and farm stands just about anywhere. It even helped develop an online platform that lets small local farmers aggregate their products to better supply area restaurants and markets. In 2011, Seattle was among the first places anywhere to create the position of food policy advisor. Sharon Lerman, who has held the job since then, says her role is to implement all of the goals outlined in the Food Action Plan; for her, that boils down to improving food access and building up the local food economy.

But making sure that local food is truly “local” requires a certain amount of trust.

When a diner sees locally sourced trout on the menu, or a chalkboard list of a restaurant’s preferred local farms, she takes on faith that the chef is honest. A farmers market customer trusts that the vendor handing him an ear of corn had something to do with growing it. But that isn’t always so. Farmers market produce doesn’t invariably have the provenance it claims. Restaurants fib. “It’s rarely as locally sourced as they make it out to be,” says Ryan Pesch, a farmer and an educator on local food systems at the University of Minnesota Extension. “It’s frustrating as a farmer, because I know some restaurants bought a head of broccoli locally a year ago and want to say they’re a ‘locally sourced’ restaurant.”

As the local food movement has matured, it’s gotten harder to ensure honesty about where all that meat and produce is coming from. Many cities say they don’t have any control over the claims made by restaurants and markets. If a menu says the heirloom tomatoes came from a farm in the next county, it’s up to the diner to verify. But the fact is that lots of cities, like Seattle, have enshrined local food into municipal policy. And states have spent millions of dollars on various programs to support and promote efforts to buy local and eat local. Actually policing those programs, however, is much harder. When it comes to restaurants and markets spouting farm-to-table claims, who’s making sure they’re telling the truth?

When restaurants make claims about the local sources of their food, diners trust that they're telling the truth. (Flickr/Fran)

Last year, the Tampa Bay Times in Florida decided to look into some of the farm-to-table claims being made by area restaurants and farmers markets. As longtime restaurant reporter Laura Reiley detailed in a multipart series called “Farm to Fable,” she discovered a plethora of menu mistakes, outdated information and outright fabrications, such as “Gulf shrimp” and “Florida blue crab” that came from the Indian Ocean, and “local” asparagus from Peru. Reiley tracked down the purveyors listed on restaurant menus. She visited the supposed farm sites of vendors at area farmers markets. She sneaked pieces of fish into her purse to be sent off to a lab. The bottom line of Reiley’s series was that most local food claims are bogus, and no one is checking up on them. “Government oversight regarding the word ‘local,’” she wrote, “is nearly nonexistent.”

That lack of oversight has ramifications for taxpayers. Take, for example, Fresh from Florida, a program run by the state Agriculture Department with a yearly budget of almost $10 million. In 2013, the program launched an initiative called On the Menu, which let restaurants apply to use a Fresh from Florida logo for ingredients grown or produced within the state. But as the Times series reported, the program was completely based on an honor system. Prior to the series’ publication, no restaurant had ever been demoted or removed.

After the Times articles were published, the Agriculture Department released a public service flier designed to help consumers deduce if their food is local, depending on what’s in season. Fresh from Florida is simply a marketing program, the department says; any oversight of false claims would fall to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. A spokesperson for that department told Governing via email that it has since updated its training and guidelines for food misrepresentation cases, such as instructing inspectors to pay special attention to “food descriptions ... that include specific ingredients, specific suppliers, specific farms or specific brands.” Since the Times series came out, there have been 32 cases of food misrepresentation flagged.

State attorney general Pam Bondi also reportedly began sending investigators to farms to see which were really supplying food to markets and restaurants, and which were purchasing their produce from elsewhere and passing it off as their own.

There are similar programs elsewhere. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, established the Taste NY program in 2014. Like the Fresh from Florida initiative, it’s a branding program that offers resources on how to find local farms, holds different food-focused events throughout the year and has helped set up new farmers markets. The state also established the New York State Council on Food Policy in 2007, but the website has been inactive since 2015. Other states’ programs are vaguer, promoting the general benefits of local food. Connecticut passed a bill in 2012 to establish a task force to explore how the state could encourage more buying and selling of local food. The task force was never formed. However, a bill to encourage schools to purchase locally grown foods has been introduced in the 2017 legislative session, and the state does have the Connecticut Grown program that outlines enforcement standards. New Hampshire passed the Granite State Farm to Plate program in 2014; similar to Seattle’s food action plan, it simply outlines goals and priorities around growing the local food economy.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam speaks at the Fresh from Florida summit -- a program that promotes local foods. (AP)

How much does food fraud really matter? The reaction from Florida’s attorney general and its Department of Business and Professional Regulation suggests that there is indeed a state interest in policing farm-to-table promises. But in the complex world of food policy, checking up on local food claims isn’t a top priority for governments. Many other issues -- food safety, obesity, access for low-income residents, fair wages -- are more important than tracking down the orchard where an apple was grown. “I guarantee city officials are more concerned with whether or not the employees of that ‘farm-to-table’ restaurant are getting paid fairly,” says the University of Minnesota’s Pesch.

“I doubt [local food fraud] is a real problem,” says Marion Nestle, one of the nation’s foremost experts on food policy and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Consumers can just ask a few questions and find out pretty quickly if the seller is really growing locally. I’m much more concerned about FDA and USDA oversight of food safety.”

Even in Seattle, Lerman, the food policy adviser, says there’s no way to be certain everyone is truthful all of the time. Her role, she says, is to draft policy that encourages local eating and to convene appropriate stakeholders at the table who would be helpful with those goals. Direct oversight simply isn’t in her purview. Instead, the city relies on various food-based nonprofits to execute the work. For example, Seattle Tilth is an organization that delivers food from local urban farms to low-income residents. Lerman says she’s aware that the organization defers to organic, nonlocal food in the winter when there isn’t much in the gardens. The city may not engage in direct oversight, Lerman says, but by making a conscious effort to align with values-based organizations, the city has a “pretty good idea of where stuff is coming from.”

King County, which surrounds Seattle, has similar good intentions when it comes to supporting local farms. But officials say it’s an uphill fight. “We’re battling against the existing food system that is not designed to support and benefit farms like we have in King County and Western Washington,” says Mike Lufkin, the county’s local food economy manager. Most farms in the area are smaller than 50 acres. The global food system favors large-scale corporate farms, he says. That means that even some restaurants and grocers who think they’re buying local goods from their wholesale distributors may not be getting what they think. “These mainline distributors, the Syscos, will claim to distribute local foods,” Lufkin says, “but their definition of ‘local’ is different, often a two- or three-state area.”

Lufkin says he’s never heard of a King County food supplier committing fraud outright. Still, King County, like Seattle, doesn’t do anything in the way of proactive investigations. When the subject came up during a recent meeting between Lufkin and County Executive Dow Constantine, Constantine pointed at him and joked, “I’m going to have you start doing sting operations.”

“No one has brought that to my attention as a problem,” Constantine says, but the county would definitely take action if someone did. “We’re not having that.”

Cities and states do tend to have more active oversight when it comes to programs that supply locally sourced foods to schools and other facilities under direct government control. One example is the Good Food Purchasing Program in Los Angeles. First developed in 2011 by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s administration and continued by his successor, Eric Garcetti, it’s a multiprong effort to ensure procurement transparency for food vendors that do business with the city. The program is based on five guidelines that vendors must prove: whether they purchase from small- to mid-sized local farms; whether the food is nutritious; if fair labor standards are in place; if they use sustainable produce systems; and if animals are treated fairly. The mayor’s office has since mandated the Good Food program for any business selling at least $1 million of food to the city. The information given by suppliers is cross-checked against publicly available data, such as federal safety compliance and pesticide records.

Without that oversight, the program wouldn’t have any teeth, says Paula Daniels, the attorney in Villaraigosa’s office who first developed the Good Food program; she is also the co-founder of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. “Verification is absolutely critical,” she says. “Otherwise it’s just aspirational.” Los Angeles’ program has been hailed as a model. It’s been adopted by the school districts in Oakland, Calif., and San Francisco, and negotiations are underway in six other cities. Daniels says she hopes it will become for food what the LEED certification process has become for building construction.

The real key, says Seattle’s Lerman, is finding the right balance. Promoting local food is a fine idea, she says, but an inflexible adherence to it would get in the way of more important policy goals. After all, a tomato from Tennessee is just as healthful as one from Washington. People have come to associate “locally grown” with sustainable production and fair labor, and that’s simply not the case, she says. In the end, it’s just a geography term. “I operate from the perspective that we want to support local farmers, but we also have a global food system,” Lerman says. “For example, I want to keep drinking coffee. I don’t want us to start growing it here -- I just want someone to be doing it fairly and sustainably.

“If implementing a farm stand or garden in someone’s neighborhood drives them to think more about what they eat and where it comes from,” she adds, “well, that’s important work that can be done on the local level.”

Discuss

More from Infrastructure & Environment