Farm to Table | HART’S MESA

Farm to Table | HART’S MESA

Joel Hart is a well-respected chef and restaurant owner. Hart’s Mesa, his current undertaking, sits in a neighborhood six blocks away from any other food venue. He frequently gets customers who have a variety of dietary preferences: the lacto-ovo vegetarians, the vegans, the vegans who won’t eat honey, etc. Joel communicates with numerous food philosophies daily.

The farm-to-table movement, in Joel’s opinion, is fairly fragmented. He seems to suggest that what we need right now is a call for thoughtful reflection rather than a knee-jerk call to arms. Just like any good philosophy professor advises their undergrad students during the first week of class: the terms of any discourse need to be thoroughly defined before they can properly be put to use.

Our titular movement, Joel feels, “is already defined by its title: farm to table. You’ve got a farm and a table, and anything between that farm and that table (or that farm and that table) becomes part of the process that introduces commerce. Any participation in that process begins to blur the lines in question”.

Instead, Joel proposes a rather literal definition as an alternative: “I have a farm and a house, and inside that house I have a table; and that’s where the food will be served — possibly to my family, and possibly to my neighbors. But to define the farm-to-table as anything else is fairly masturbatory. It’s a convenient way for people to define what they do as somewhat more accessible for their customers”.

Joel sees a clear analogy between the current state of the farm-to-table movement and the state of the organic foods movement in the late 90’s. Uneducated consumers still make selections based upon the belief that the products they purchase are more sustainable and healthy. But this is not always the case. Joel warns us that if perception is reality then “trying to define farm-to-table as anything other than farm to table is simply not kosher”.

And yet, after redefining the terms, the question remains: what can be done to improve things for our farm-to-table practitioners? To begin with, Joel feels that the movement could use some administrative support. Joel suggests an organizational effort to “put together a list of the local sources in order to create an easier solution for people who want to purchase the products locally. It’s misunderstood that local food is more expensive. In fact, it’s cheaper”. There’s certainly a demand for local food, but people don’t know where to find local food sources in order to support them.

Since it’s cheaper to distribute product through a larger distributor (i.e. Sysco, Food Services of America, Costco), it’s often more convenient for smaller business owners to obtain their non-local product through these major companies. “At the end of the day”, Joel reminds us, “you’re running a business, too. So we have a responsibility to our employees, lenders, etc. to keep the doors open and the business running”. After all, you can’t practice your farm-to-table values if you can’t keep your business running, right?

Joel obtains his ingredients, as often as possible, from smaller, local companies in order to support the community. “Supporting small, local businesses helps you realize where your money is going. The relationship is more comfortable. You know where your money is going and what it’s going to support”. Joel urges us to make sure that our part in that process benefits someone who shares our values.

Joel’s certainly onto something when he mentions that people don’t consider the source of their food anymore. “It should be more important for the general public to at least be aware of the fact that there are people covered in dirt, on their knees in a field full of seed, to harvest the vegetables that you eat off your plate”. And yet, Joel feels that the farm-to-table movement exists mostly for education rather than commerce; if the conversation concerns commercial applications, then it’s not a viable option. But Joel notes that “It’s also not popular to say anything negative about the farm-to-table movement”. The bigger question for him would be: “What’s the agenda that defines farm-to-table in a way that is digestible for somebody who’s running a business?”

Joel volunteers his time and resources to educate restaurant owners, finding ways to inform them that it’s not only possible to get their products locally, but economically viable to do so, too. Joel doesn’t want to have a certain section of the industry vilified by the farm-to-table movement. Many of us completely forget that at the end of the day it’s all about where the dollar ends up. “You vote with every dollar you spend”, Joel urges. The perfect solution is not practical – it never is; the perfect solution can’t satisfy all farm-to-table values: organic, local, family-driven, sustainable, etc. The type of produce that his restaurant uses is just not available from local farms: “Where are the local rice paddies? Where are the tomatoes and avocados?” In a way, he’s right: purchasing local product and supporting the farm-to-table movement can be conflicting prerogatives.

However, Joel is definitely not opposed to the farm-to-table’s values in general. He just questions their application and would like to correct the farm-to-table’s numerous misunderstandings in the process. “At the end of the day the only thing that we’re doing here is feeding people. It’s just food. If I feel good about serving my customers and they feel good about eating it then that’s it: transaction complete”.

 

By Todd B. Gruel