The following is an addendum response to comments made on the original post below:
In response to joezahner25 and davehoug, who both bring up very valid points and questions about energy efficiency as it relates to purchasing local food versus purchasing food that is trucked in from California, I think they are taking a rather limited view of what the issues are. Sustainability is not just about sustaining the environment and our resources. It is, at least for me, first and foremost about sustaining the people who live here. In this case, I am speaking of farmers and farm families and ultimately what they mean to all of us since they are an integral part of the region's socioeconomic web. Consequently, measuring energy inputs, which is a tricky thing from the get go, is only a small part of the picture.
First of all, if our farmers are to survive over the winter in order to be able to come back to us in the spring, they must find ways to continue to generate revenue in the off season. Some of our farmers utilize energy passive hoop houses to extend their growing seasons, but they are not able to sustain an acceptable ambient temperature during the dead of winter. Others use greenhouses. These things enable them to keep at least some money flowing into their businesses during the colder months.
Second, most of what California grows are hybrid crops that are designed to travel great distances while remaining fresh and beautiful enough to be placed on a grocer's shelf for an extended period of time. This requires that much of the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids are bred out of them since Omega-3's are notoriously unstable and reduce shelf life. Consequently, an apple grown and consumed locally in 1940 had three times the nutritional value of one today that has been bred to be consumed thousands of miles from its origin.
Third, it is true that tomatoes, for instance, taste best when harvested and canned at their peak. In addition, a tomato grown in rich soil and warm sunlight is far superior to one that is grown in a greenhouse and/or hydroponically. That is why we at Heartland begin canning and preserving in the spring and continue to do so all season long. Those heirloom tomatoes that everyone loves so much during the summer are sitting in jars on the shelves in our market. We didn't need California for that.
These issues are very complex and should not be reduced to one part or another as the end the discussion. I certainly don't have all of the answers, and it is important that people ask these questions. It is also important that people try to take a more holistic view of what it means buy and eat locally.
Fourth, in response to Biscotti who it appears might have been trying to be more of a fly in the ointment than trying to ask a valid question, your question is valid. We have a strictly regional micro brewery beer program and we have an extensive list of regionally produced spirits, the majority of which are from Wisconsin, Illinois and Canada. We also formulate and produce most of our liqueurs, eaus de vie, mixers and garnishes in house even going so far as to make our own vermouth. Wines are more difficult to source when it comes to quality which is no reflection on the wine makers. It is rather a reflection on the quality of the grapes that can successfully survive our harsh winters. Pick up a copy of the "Wineries of Wisconsin and Minnesota" published by the Minnesota Historical Society. It gives a terrific overview of the current state of local wine making. You will find many details about the great work that the University of Minnesota is doing toward developing vinifera grape varietals that are Zones 3 and 4 friendly.
Last, it should come as no shock to anyone that we serve coffee and tea not grown here or that our chocolate, vanilla beans and spices come to us from warmer climate regions. I have never claimed otherwise so pointing out the obvious is a pretty cheap way of dismissing these issues. I am not anti commerce. I am pro local commerce.
Heartland recently hosted an industry conference sponsored by Foodservice News and several local food purveyors and manufacturers. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman gave the introduction followed by some words from and a discussion led by Joanne Berkenkamp from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Afterwards, I led a brief give and take with attendees and answered questions about challenges and rewards associated with a restaurant and market that rely almost solely upon local and regional small farmers to supply our larder. In attendance were a wide variety of folks from chefs to farmers to bureaucrats and journalists including my friends Chef JD Fratzke and Chef Stew Woodman, Eric Klein of Hidden Stream Farm and Stephen Jones of Provenance Farm, Paul Sand of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and food writers Pat Lindquist and Sue Zelickson.
The discussion touched upon many subjects not the least of which was what defines locally grown and produced food. Heartland is a Midwestern regional restaurant , and as such its food shelf extends as far east as Ohio, south to Missouri west to the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska and north to Canada and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In other words, we draw products from the entire Midwestern portion of North America. While the vast majority of our ingredients are sourced within a 200 mile radius of the restaurant, there are some who would not consider much of what we serve to be local food. We certainly wouldn't pass muster with the St. Paul Farmers' Market whose members define local food as that which is grown and produced within 75 miles of the market. The Farmers' Market, by the way, is located right across the street from us.
In addition, when most people are talking about local food they are usually referring not only to the locale but also to such issues as traditional and sustainable farming practices, heirloom vegetable crops and heritage breeds of livestock as well as the humane treatment of farm animals. Is Hormel local? They are located in Minnesota. What about Gold'n Plump and Land O'Lakes? Land O'Lakes is the oldest dairy cooperative in the country, and Gold'n Plump has a new ad campaign touting their locally raised free range chickens. For that matter, are Cargill, General Mills and Pillsbury local? The answer is yes by some definitions. To be sure, all of those companies employ many people and contribute greatly to the tax base of Minnesota. For that, we should all be thankful. Do I believe there are better and more socially and environmentally responsible ways to do business? Yes, I do, but that is why we have a free market. It is up to the consumer to send that message to them when he or she decides what to buy. If we keep on buying junk food, they will keep on making it for us. If we tell them through our purchasing power that we don't care about the environment or animal welfare, then they will keep on ignoring those issues. That might be overly reductive, but it's really not that complicated. As a member of the St. Paul-Ramsey County Food & Nutrition Commission, these are questions I am seeking to answer with the aid of my colleagues on the board.
A few months ago, I had two interesting conversations. First, my buddy Andrew Zimmern called me at home with some very pointed questions and valid concerns about restaurants and chefs that claim to be serving locally grown food and/or portray themselves as proponents and supporters of the local food movement. He wasn't shy about mentioning many of these people and businesses by name, and I know he was seeking a provocative response from me. After all, when it comes to provocations I certainly own more than my fair share. As someone who has been purchasing and cooking that way for over 30 years, he figured I would be pretty upset with a bunch of charlatans jumping on the local food band wagon because they saw an opportunity to con the public and make a quick buck. He also knows that while Heartland stands for a certain set of values, it is not marketed in that way. We just do what we do because we feel those are the right things to do and not because we think we can get rich in the process. Unfortunately for him, all I could say was that without seeing their invoices I had to take their claims at face value. I explained that it was simply a matter of buyer beware. I feel it is up to consumers to educate themselves by asking pertinent questions. If we get cryptic answers, then we should assume that the messages come from false prophets.
The other conversation was actually a series of conversations with Muir Glen, the California producers of organically grown canned tomato products. They approached me with a very flattering and lucrative proposal. As a chef who is very vocal about organically and sustainably grown produce, they asked if I would be interested in becoming one the public faces of their new advertising campaign. As part of the remuneration, they offered to fly me out to California for the harvest and then to New York to prepare a dinner with a bunch of hot shot chefs. They also proposed to promote both my name and the name of our restaurant through their national ad campaign and to send us a constant supply of Muir Glen products to be used in our restaurant. To say the least, my head was turned by that, but my initial response was no. I explained that as a de facto leader in the local and sustainable food movement that I couldn't very well promote tomatoes that were being grown, harvested and processed in California especially since all of the tomatoes we use at the restaurant are from Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. In all honesty, I tried with all my might to persuade myself that it would be perfectly fine to accept their offer. After all, what do people do in the winter? Well, Heartland cans tomatoes during the season and uses local greenhouse growers once the snow begins to fly. Do we a have a gap in our supply of tomatoes? We sure do, but that comes with the territory. At the end of the day, I just couldn't square accepting their offer with our socioeconomic imperative. I felt I would be selling out, and I had to leave that money on the table. In further conversations with them, I asked if any other local chefs had been contacted, and they said they had. They also said that they had received pretty much the same response. Thank goodness there are still some of us out there whose integrity is worth more than a buck.
In the end, I think it is really up to consumers to decide these issues for themselves and to allow the free market to adjust to the demands we place upon it. Is your food local? You decide.