Chelsea Green’s Michael Metivier Interviews Author Darryl Benjamin

September 18, 2016

Farm to Table: The Essential Guide to Sustainable Food Systems for Students, Professionals, and Consumers

MM: “Farm to Table” is a concept and a descriptor that makes sense when you hear or read about it in context, but can actually be difficult to define by itself. What is the most succinct answer you know of to the question “What is ‘Farm to Table?’”

DB: If I see Farm to Table on a menu I’m going to expect fresh, nutritious, tasty food. How it arrives from the farm to your table involves a system — a collaboration between farmers, restaurant workers, purveyors, educators, and concerned citizens. The term implies a shorter chain in the food system, food grown locally or regionally, and, once harvested, goes directly to a chef, or perhaps one purveyor, before the customer consumes it. An eagle’s eye view of the term reveals the tectonic stresses in the struggle to achieve economic, political, social, and environmental sustainability, particularly at the corporate and governmental levels.

MM: A lot of the food system technologies and practices that we now know to be problematic—to health, to the environment, to the economy—were initially heralded as advances that would help humankind. What is an example of an old idea that seemed beneficial in theory, but has proven to have terrible consequences that now require correcting?

DB: When Henry Ford took advantage of the then-relatively new idea known as the assembly line, it revolutionized manufacturing. It did so by introducing efficiencies such as interchangeable parts, division of labor, and time savings that rocketed the bottom line — Model T’s sales – to astronomical heights. The problem is, you can’t apply assembly line thinking with such blanket authority to food production for the simple reason that living things — livestock and crops, for examples — are not the same as inanimate objects.  The Green Revolution was credited with saving a billion lives through such efficiencies, increasing yields to agricultural production never dreamed possible. But the consequences of producing “more” without the attendant necessity of “healthy” caused unintended problems of sickness, obesity, and lack of access that led to the establishment of the Fresh Food Movement, of which Farm to Table is a subset. The intent is to undo the damage of excessive pesticides, genetically modified foods, foods laden with fats, sugar, and salt by increasing the availability and accessibility of unprocessed, whole foods grown locally and harmoniously with nature. The assembly line paradigm is not how nature does business. That is not to say Farm to Table advocates want to turn the clock back. Instead, they embrace new ideas and technologies that supports these goals.

MM: What food system solutions being promoted/developed right now, may also turn out to create more problems than they solve?

DB: Nanofoods — or microscopic particles in food — are being promoted and developed with the same enthusiasm and abandon big agribusiness reserved for GMOs in the ’90s. Indeed, it seems history is repeating itself as scientific rigor is bypassed in favor of political exigencies. Inadequate peer-reviewed testing of long-term health effects of nano-sized metals and chemicals designed to enhance shelf-life, for example, or injected into packaging that can leach into food, are already in the food system. The tiny size of nanomaterials permits them to pass more easily through cell membranes and other biological barriers, allowing these particles to be easily taken up into organisms and potentially cause cellular dysfunction. Disturbingly, the policy appears to be “release into the food supply first, assess risks later.”

MM: Farm to Table is most often used in the context of a restaurant experience, but in your book you describe Farm to School, Farm to Hospital, and other sectors of the farm and food economy that are taking similar approaches to sourcing and marketing meals. Can you talk a bit of the relative importance of institutional dining in all its forms to the greater food system?

DB: In many ways, I see institutional dining as key to industrial food reform. Institutional food has gotten a bad rap — school food, hospital food, prison food – much of it because of highly processed food mandated by accountants who are trying to make ends meet on meager budgets. Farm to Table proposes solutions using local resources to cut costs while improving the quality of food, contributing to the economic growth of the community, encouraging food education (including students growing their own food in the “edible schoolyard”) and advocating for increased funding of institutional budgets.

MM: A lighter question—please tell us about a favorite memorable “farm-to” meal you’ve had: when, where, what, who, and why?

DB: On August 7 of this year I had the pleasure of attending the Vermont Fresh Network’s 20th Anniversary Forum Dinner. Imagine dozens of tents housing Vermont foods of astonishing variety by the shore of Lake Champlain on the rolling green hills of Shelburne Farm. There were hundreds of hungry, happy faces milling around sampling the cornucopia.  I started with tastings of Jasper Hill farm’s acclaimed Bayley Hazen Blue cheese and (several) smoked pork bánh mì sandwiches. Although there were many tempting beverages, such as Mad Fiver Bourbon and Shelburne Farms Duet Ice Wine, I didn’t think I would make it to the dinner entrées if I indulged. Speaking of dinner, an outstanding dish was presented by Michael’s on the Hill – chilled sweet corn soup with smoked Mountain Food Farm trout. I also greatly enjoyed New England Culinary Institute’s Willow Brook Farm tomato galette. A mouth-watering treat from Taverna Khione called Spetsofai (a Greek dish), smoked ShakeyGround Farm lamb sausage seasoned with orange zest and leeks, with a ShakeyGround Farm tomato, onion and pepper stew, finished me off. I could eat no more. I did something I rarely do:  skipped dessert. It was a deeply satisfying meal knowing how much care and attention went into every bite.

MM: What are some of your hopes for the U.S. (or global, if you prefer) food system in the near and long-term future, and what are some reasons for optimism?

DB: I feel encouraged when I see the public demand for GMO labelling. I am similarly heartened when I see or hear of Edible Schoolyard programs where young people are forging connections with the food they eat. Education is the heart of change; when I see consumers demanding real food I am hopeful their voices will be heard in D.C. and beyond. I am hopeful, too, that eventually we’ll come to our senses and separate corporate interests from political policy. The government’s responsibility to support and protect its citizens is at odds with corporate goals for short-term profits that fail to see citizens as people but instead sees them as consumers, or worse, commodities.

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