Two fascinating Tampa Bay Times investigations reveal that "local" food there is often far from it. Should Seattle be worried?
An excellent investigative piece about Tampa Bay “farm-to-table” restaurants misrepresenting the sourcing of their supposedly local food blew up online at the end of last week. (I love this bit: “When reminded that Zellwood corn isn’t in season now, Ducharme said, ‘Well, we buy fresh corn from someone.”) Then part 2 uncovered a lot — a LOT — of fake-local foodstuff at Tampa Bay farmers markets.
People are asking me if I know of chicanery like this going on in Seattle now. If I did, you’d know, too. I’m going to go out on a limb — Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley did a massive, in-depth investigation (check out her note at the end of the restaurants story) that has not been done here — and say that I’d like to believe that Seattle’s chefs are much, much more scrupulous and transparent than those in Tampa Bay. We also have a much, much better supply chain for our local foods than Tampa Bay does. People here — journalists and normal people alike — visit the farms, meet the purveyors, know firsthand that certain relationships are beautifully real.
Seattle chef Jerry Traunfeld, of Poppy and Lionhead, agrees that “terms like farm-to-table and sustainable have become meaningless because of their overuse. It’s also true that customers make a leap of faith that chefs are actually using the products they claim on their menus.” He calls the findings in the Tampa Bay Times articles “shocking,” but, he says, he has “every reason to trust the integrity of Seattle chefs who have made their reputations supporting local farms and products.” He continues: “What sets Seattle apart is that, unlike Tampa, we do have many local farms and producers that market and deliver directly to restaurants. In season we get deliveries to our door weekly or twice weekly from farms like Local Roots, Willowwood, Tonnemaker’s, Collins, Kings Garden, Foraged and Found (not exactly a farm), Billy’s, Kurtwood, Yarmuth and lots of others.”
The Tampa Bay Times’ consumer guide gives good tips: Understand what’s in season, read labels, keep up with websites “that pay attention to our food supply: grist.org; foodsafetynews.com; thefoodwatchdog.com; usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com; politicsoftheplate.com.” (Seattle’s avid local-foods fans already know these things — if something out-of-season showed up on a seasonal menu or at a farmers market here, there’d be a very polite uproar.)
The takeaway from these Tampa Bay Times articles should be that “local/organic when possible” doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. And, in all likelihood, there’s a pretender or two out there in Seattle now. Remember Matthew Richter’s 2010 Stranger story about Bill the Butcher and its clincher of a follow-up? (Subsequently, Bill the Butcher namesake William von Schneidau parted ways from the company, and his later shop, BB Ranch, is under new ownership as well. Bill the Butcher went out of business after the company paid for the CEO J’Amy Owens’ Queen Anne mansion. Then Owens disappeared, with workers unpaid; she has yet to resurface.) So: Ask, apply pressure, and if you see something (or don’t see something), say something. (You can email me at email@example.com.)