When Dr. Uday Jani and his family go out to eat, they choose restaurants featuring local ingredients. “I know I’m getting fresh food straight from farm to table,” explains Jani, who specializes in integrative and internal medicine.
Jani says fresh, local foods provide notable health benefits. What’s more, the practice supports the environment and economy. But although the phrase “farm to table” is well known, not many understand the concept.
What is local food?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines local fare as food sold directly from producers to customers at a farmers’ market or farmstand. Others maintain that the food must originate within a certain radius, typically 100 miles, from the purchase point. However, the 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act puts the total distance at less than 400 miles from the origin — or anywhere within a state. The latter definition makes sense in Delaware but seems a stretch in places like Texas or Alaska.
For Delaware beach visitors and residents, “local” might mean the Delmarva Peninsula, South Jersey and Maryland. You, as the consumer, can make the call.
Is local food better for me?
In a word, yes. “Produce grown in your region will be picked when it’s ripe, which means there are more nutrients,” explains Jennifer Cohen Katz, a dietitian and nutritionist in the Bethany Beach area. She says local fruit and veggies are packed with more disease-preventing vitamins and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients than those shipped overseas.
Because local food is picked at its peak, chemicals that hasten ripening aren’t required, Jani says. Plus, the produce isn’t refrigerated for long periods, which can diminish the nourishing properties — and the flavor.
“Local foods tend to taste better because they are fresher,” says Carmel Monfiletto, a Dewey-based registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist. “Eating fresh, seasonal foods adds interest to meals and a wide variety of nutrients.”
What’s more, a locally grown item hasn’t passed through a series of “hands,” from grower to shipper to store employees, notes Matt Kern, owner of One Coastal in Fenwick.
“Local foods tend to taste better because they are fresher. Seasonal foods add interest to meals.”
Do chefs like using local ingredients?
Yes. Kern refers to items representing the mid-Atlantic and the seasons as “pure joy.” Doug Ruley would agree. “Seasonal is what I like to think of as ‘something to look forward to,’” says Ruley, vice president of culinary operations for SoDel Concepts, a Rehoboth Beach-based hospitality group. He maintains that slicing a ripe beefsteak tomato in July and cracking local crabs toward summer’s end makes Delmarva unique.
The cycle starts with spring crops, including asparagus and strawberries. In summer, chefs move to squash, peaches, cucumbers, beans, blueberries and tomatoes. By fall, they’re ready for squashes and apples. “This represents Delmarva,” Ruley says.
Seasonal isn’t limited to produce. Kern, for one, loves using local elderberry flowers and marigolds as garnishes. “It’s like magical fairy dust you can put on a plate.”
How do you source local foods?
Ruley approaches local vendors and farmers to discuss what the restaurants may need in the future. “They will either grow them for us or bring that product in and have it stocked on a regular basis,” he explains.
Kern also builds relationships with farms, including Chesterfield Heirlooms in Pittsville, Maryland. “They’re magical,” says the James Beard Award nominee. “They grow so much biodiversity on the farm and things that I can’t find anywhere else — even from a produce store.”
He’s also friends with the folks at East View Farms in Frankford, the only grower in the area offering mushrooms. However, Kern willingly gets dirty to supply his guests with fresh food. For instance, he digs up spring ramps while visiting relatives in Pennsylvania. “I brought home about 15 pounds,” says Kern, who says the going rate was $15 a pound in May. He’s also picked dandelion greens.
How does the consumer know an item is local?
A restaurant devoted to local goods typically uses unlaminated paper menus that they print daily to showcase fresh ingredients. Many eateries pay homage to the source in the text. Look for Baywater Farms, for instance, or Fifer Orchards. Of course, you can always ask about the food’s origin.
For his own kitchen, Jani frequents area farmers markets. The Historic Lewes Farmers Market, for one, only allows producers to sell their own wares. So, a vendor who buys produce in Philly and brings it to market could not participate.
Jani suggests bringing children to the farmers market to learn the fresh difference early. “I let them run around and taste something new,” he says. “If they taste it and like it, then they will eat it at home.”
But why are some local foods more expensive?
Given that local produce and meat travel a short distance to reach the consumer, you might expect them to cost less than well-known international brands. However, those brands are mass produced, Kern points out. Area boutique operations don’t have the same buying power for feed or fertilizer as a corporation.
Admittedly, food prices have gone up across the board. A year ago, frying oil was $35 for a 5-gallon container, Kern says. In May, it was nearly $100. Why? Agriculture has suffered labor shortages, Ruley says. Weather also plays a part. Restaurants adapt by taking inflated items off the menu or by substituting a more plentiful lettuce for an expensive variety.
Regardless of the price, buying from local farms and the restaurants that support them is good for Delmarva’s economy, advocates many. And since transporting food generates significant greenhouse gas emissions, buying local is a healthy, tasty way to protect the planet.