How did it all start?
The first farm-to-table restaurants can be traced back to the hippie movement in the 60s and 70s, when organic, local, and natural food became trendy and more people began supporting local farmers. Pioneers in the food to table movement
include Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Jerry Traunfeld of Herbfarm in Washington State.
Though this trend is not all that new, we have observed that in recent years, Asian cities (including Singapore) have begun to embrace it. With rising affluence and greater demand for nutrition and environmental consciousness, Asian food consumers has started on a quest for fresh food sourced from responsible farmers.
How does this movement benefit us?
Fruits and vegetables are often harvested before they fully ripen since they will have to endure long shipping distances. This means that the amount and quality of nutrients may not have been fully developed. Because local food doesn’t have to travel long distances, it is grown in order to taste better and be healthier rather than to be resilient to long travel.
Since the restaurants are cognisant about the quality of food sources, they are able to provide assurance to their customers. This results in customers being able to enjoy their meals without worrying that their food is laden with pesticides or had been injected with growth hormones.
Farmers are also the beneficiaries of this movement as they are now able to focus on producing the best quality harvest without having concerns about making ends meet. In the past, farmers are at the mercy of large and powerful food corporations, as they will buy their harvest in bulk, resulting in lower prices. With their survival in question, many small local farms have found it difficult to operate and there is often no incentive for them to ensure that their produce is of the greatest quality.
A Community Movement
The concept of restaurant sourcing food directly from farmers is starting to pick up all over the world. The community is tired of dealing with faceless and greedy corporations who would squeeze every inch of profit from farmers and consumers. The farm to table movement is creating a wave where the community is creating a sustainable way doing business, where deep relationships are forged through trust and each party mutually benefits from the value chain.
Farm to Table Movement is Going Mainstream
The term “farm-to-table” used to be attached predominantly to smaller, chef-driven restaurants where local farmers’ freshest determined the night’s menu. Restaurants like René Redzepi’s two-Michelin-star Noma, in Denmark, have been praised for their use of local and seasonal ingredients foraged from the forest and seashore. Just recently, seasonal and sustainable food is finding its way to the menus of chain restaurants.
Casual dining chain, Chipotle stands by a mission statement called Food With Integrity, which highlighted Chipotle’s efforts to increase their use of naturally raised meat, organic produce, and dairy without added hormones. They are committed to buy extensively from local purveyors, as high as 85 to 90 percent for some ingredients.
Many signs are pointing to the fact that the farm-to-table food has gone from a fringe idea to a mainstream social movement.
Challenges faced by Restaurant Owners
Many restaurant owners believe that getting fresh, organic food materials will increase running cost. They are definitely correct since food cost typically accounts for around 30-40% of the gross margins. After all, apart from manpower, the cost of raw materials is one of the biggest cost components in running a restaurant. Another key concern that owners will need to mange is the area of sourcing for supplies. Finding fresh ingredients from multiple farms or sources will not only require extra time, it requires additional effort in maintaining inventory and working with a larger pool of suppliers would also create more uncertainties.
The Future of Farming
For a long time, we have depended on large mechanised farms to feed our hunger. The agriculture industry has been driven to produce more and more food, with the demand that it be increasingly cheap, with larger agriculture firms roping in farmers with promises of higher profits, persuading them to grow cash crops like corn or wheat in massive quantities. The practice creates what ecologists call a monoculture, which strips the soil of its nutrients, slowly reducing yields and ruining the land.
The rising farm to table movement has revived hope for small farms to be financially sustainable again. The possibility of feeding an entire urban center may still be far fetched at this juncture (on average local farms only feed 2-4% of the entire urban population in the United States). However, with the rise of urban farming and the advent of more sophisticated farming technology that increases yields significantly, perhaps we are going full circle, back to the times when food is grown at the back of our gardens.