Breaking the Barriers

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A watershed event for the local food shed -- the second annual NYC Food and Climate Summit -- was convened on Saturday. Sponsored by the Manhattan Borough President, NYU and Just Food, the day was dedicated to 'creating a platform for change'.

I participated on a panel whose topic was Institutional Procurement: Buy Local and Sustainable. We were charged with presenting the barriers and solutions to buying local foods specific to our job experiences. On the panel of four, Chef Charles Kherli (Executive Chef for the Yale Club of New York City) and I represented the consumer side while Kathy Lawrence (Program Director, School Food FOCUS) and Christina Grace (Manager for Urban Food Programs, NYS Dept of Agriculture and Markets) represented the policy perspective.

Thinking about the barriers we face as Great Performances, a catering/special event/restaurant company, and outlining the solutions we have created as well as the ones we have yet to enact, was an opportunity to view our role in the food world from a wide range of angles. There are moments we view ourselves in narrow roles, focused on the day-to-day minutia of our jobs. But then there are times when we connect to the broader community -- in this case, the universe around food -- and we become something bigger.

We can respond and we can innovate. We can follow or we can lead. We can infuse our love of food with our respect for the earth. We can lose ourselves in the glorious details of the menu and flavors but, at the same time, be involved in substantive issues embracing farmers, secure food systems and even climate change. The menu is inclusive, and one can be a foodie and a food activist. In fact, really caring about food is to be connected to the political issues that surround the questions -- What is on my table? What is in my supermarket? Where does my food come from?

Years ago, before Katchkie Farm was a twinkle in our eye, our collateral proudly stated: "Our purchasers comb the world markets to bring you the most unusual foods and flavors." The greater the food miles, the greater the accomplishment, the better the meal. As our perspective shifted, we discovered that only some of our clients shared our interest in local and sustainable food. Not only that, our internal culinary and sales team did not completely engage in this reorientation of food principles. Barrier #1.

Supply, Demand and Mother Nature: Big barrier, big lesson. When we founded Katchkie Farm in 2006, it was with the goal of being able to connect our chefs and staff with the flavors that only come from the very freshest of food. Vegetables that are picked in the morning are prepared for dinner the following evening. Naively, we believed that if we controlled the food at its source, the rest would be easy. Bumper crops in August (our slowest month for business), drought, blight, hail, endless rain, unseasonal cold, short on one crop, too much on another. We thought the hardest part would be 'growing the farm', but that is not the case. The hardest part is matching what is growing in the fields with what is being sold on the menus. And what we are experiencing is just a microcosm of the challenge of connecting farmers with chefs.

Seasonality is another challenge for us in the Northeast. How do we keep our plates filled with enticing offerings when fields are frozen? If we are becoming sensitive to food miles, how do we keep the food romance going with root vegetables and storage crops? How do we create standards that are flexible yet preserve our hard-earned food credibility?

And regardless of how green this decade has become, the biggest barrier came as the movement was blossoming -- cost. Small-scale local food can be expensive; transportation is costly and not always efficient; customers (both private as well as corporate and institutional) are looking at the bottom line.

The solution list has a clarity that requires policy reform on the federal/state/city level while calling on private enterprise and individual consumers to play a critical role. It speaks to the question of where does change come from? In a time of limited government resources, the proper allocation of dollars is critical. Changes in allocation on the USDA level can have a positive effect on school lunches for millions of kids. Requirements that state-funded meals be comprised in part of locally grown food will boost local economies and aid local growers, producers and manufacturers.

The power of demand can help to solve the problems of supply. As more local food is moved within the region, private enterprise, incentivized by government, can participate in rebuilding the infrastructure that has been neglected these past 30-40 years.

We are seeing a movement in aggregate buying companies, mostly small-scale (like Basis and Angello's) attempting to cater to the growing demand for local, sometimes organic, high-quality food. These companies take some of the burden off the shoulders of farmers and bring their produce to the market and a wide range of consumers. We even see the unique and invaluable role non-profits can play - Food Banks contracting with farmers; an organization like Just Food, which establishes CSA's in a wide range of communities, connecting neighborhoods and farmers. The importance of Greenmarket and local farmers markets - in providing steady revenue for farmers and fresh local food for consumers is a form of state/city support for aggregate commerce.

The explosion of value-added products goes to the issue of both seasonality and occasional overproduction. Our grandmothers knew the value of canning and preserving, but our generation is reinventing preservation of the harvest, adding glamour and flavor to what was simply an act of prudence or necessity. We are proud to manufacture the best organic artisanal ketchup in New York State! (Our motto -- When it's gone, we wait for next year!) But this movement requires processing plants and infrastructure to grow. Tax incentives to build plants and hire workers would make sense.

Educating consumers continues to be a critical factor in increasing demand, which, in turn, solves problems of supply while creating efficiencies that can address the issue of price. We worked hard all summer to produce 100 mile-menu events. So on a day like yesterday, being surrounded by a community of passionate eaters, growers, food activists, educators, purveyors, chefs and caterers, one gets the feeling that we are on the right track -- that there is movement.

The more this discussion takes place, the more voices become involved, the more the ideas are heard. Activists say we vote 3 times a day, with every meal we eat. But every meal starts with one bite. Open wide!