The farm-to-table movement has been good for producers, restaurants and consumers. It has helped support local economies and enabled restaurants to feature locally grown produce. Farm-to-table has also enabled consumers to vote with their forks, and patronize businesses that support their values. It’s been a win-win-win. But like every good movement, farm-to-table has been co-opted.

Troy Johnson (@_troyjohnson) writes a revealing piece for the July issue of San Diego Magazine. His focus? Deception. Fraud. And honest mistakes. While it’s a piece that focuses on San Diego specifically, there are takeaways about the practice of “greenwashing” in general. Advice to consumers? Continue to ask a lot of questions.


“The stories of restaurants deceiving their customers—or flat-out lying to them—have increased. Multiple San Diego restaurants claim to serve Respected Local, Organic, Sustainable Farm X when in fact they’re serving nameless commodity produce that could be from Chile, for all they know.

Call it farm-to-fable.

Restaurants have learned that aligning themselves with local, organic, sustainable farms makes them seem to be all those things by association. It’s the old practice of greenwashing—co-opting an eco-friendly brand in order to “wash” your own not-so-friendly brand.”


Johnson discusses the experiences of the Chino family. Chino Farms provided food to Alice Waters in the early years of the farm-to-table movement. They are an “iconic” brand, with a “cult” following. And restaurants often fib about using what they’ve produced.


At his roadside farm stand in Rancho Santa Fe, the soft-spoken, wry Tom Chino reluctantly agrees to talk about the issue. He’s obviously experienced it many times. “But I’m hesitant to say anything because, well,” he says, pausing for a long while, “I don’t want to be a horse’s ass.”

He laughs, though, at some of the more egregious examples. “Sometimes it can be very blatant,” he says. “Chefs will come look [at what we’re selling that day], write down notes, leave without buying anything, and then say they’re serving our food at their restaurants.”


Is there any relief in sight? Johnson doesn’t think so, writing this:


New restaurants are just slapping “farm-to-table” on their signage, without any clear indication of what that means. Media is also to blame, often blindly using “farm-to-table” as an adjective for food that looks fresh.


A ray of hope?


A program by the SD Farm Bureau pushed by the County Health and Human Services—called San Diego Grown 365—seeks to verify the origin of food. Restaurants can sign a contract and guarantee that any dish they label with San Diego Grown 365 brand contains at least 80 percent to 85 percent food produced locally. But it’s been around since 2004, and only 87 individuals have signed up for the labeling, says Farm Bureau Membership & Project Manager Casey Anderson. 



Related Links:

Vermont: America’s food relocalization laboratory

UC research: most Americans could eat locally