Thursday, November 5, 2009

Farm to four-top

I've been hearing about CSAs -- Community Supported Agriculture -- for quite some time. Some years ago I recall my friend Yochi and I sitting on his living room floor discussing whether or not it made sense for us to split a CSA share from one of the few options in the DC area. (This was years before the Washington Post published a convenient list of CSAs in the area and back when I had a refrigerator. Ah, memories.) These days there are thousands of CSAs all around the country. It's exciting to see individuals, couples, groups of friends, and families making the decision to directly support their local farms by purchasing a share. But how about larger buyers like restaurants, that could really help boost the local farm economy by guaranteeing a market for small producers? Is it even possible to run an eatery that entirely (or even mostly) sources its ingredients locally? Well, it turns out the answer is yes. Enter, the RSA -- Restaurant Supported Agriculture.

In Chicago, I remember chatting with Derrick, of the scrumptious Lula Cafe, and learning of periodic chef visits to local farms, including the urban City Farm, and regular scouring of the city's many farmers' markets for seasonal ingredients. But the first time I heard the term "RSA" was when I was up to my elbows in bike grease from changing a flat tire and happened to walk into Julie's office where she was meeting with chef and local food advocate Dave Swanson in Milwaukee. The two were in the middle of a meeting (and, as I said, I was covered in grease) so I didn't chat for long, but the brief explanation I got from Dave was enough to inspire me to learn more about the farm-to-restaurant connection. The Milwaukee-based program fosters connections between farmers and chefs, and Dave helps interested restaurants work out the financial and logistical pieces of the puzzle. But there are also a growing number of bistrots who are independently working to source their food locally. As I've made my way westward, when I am fortunate enough to find a place that isn't too cost prohibitive for me to splurge on a meal (or, on occasion, be treated to one), I've been doing my best to learn how innovative restauranteurs connect with local growers. There are some common challenges among restaurants, but also viable models for success. In coming posts, I'll be looking into some of the innovative farm-to-table connections I've discovered along the way....

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