Do Farm to Table Restaurants Reduce Food Miles?

For producers, reducing food miles traveled means selling their products to a more local or regional market. While this can be an intimidating prospect for farmers who have no experience with alternative markets, the opportunities are important and diverse, and include farmers' markets, CSAs, and farm-to-institution programs, all of which are looking for local producers. The following sections briefly examine some of the markets and methods available to a producer looking to reduce the energy involved in transporting food. The chart below shows that eliminating food miles from various types of diets does little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the diet. Instead, the amount of animal products in a diet largely determines its carbon footprint.

Eating local beef or lamb has many times the carbon footprint of most other foods. The fact that they are grown locally or shipped from the other side of the world matters very little for total emissions. The ability to enjoy consistent products and exotic ingredients at all times of the year is a luxury that, according to many food system analysts, has its price. Local food predates gastronomic miles as a concept and, consequently, to a certain extent, helps to shape the conceptualization of gastronomic miles. Stacey Botsford, who grows vegetables and raises a small number of animals on the Red Door family farm in Athens, Wisconsin, told me that diversification is critical to her business.

Farm-to-table restaurants use their menus intelligently, highlighting their dedication to movement and deepening their storytelling throughout the customer journey. This is because the main determinant of the environmental footprint of any food is not how far it has had to travel to reach the plate, but rather what type of food it is and, specifically, whether or not it comes from an animal. These calculated distances do not include the distance consumers travel to buy food or the distance wasted food travels to dispose of it. Large distributors can lower the prices of imported products, forcing many small farms to export their crops as raw materials or to replace regional crops with something more profitable. The University of Montana's Farm to College program estimated that replacing the supply of conventionally sourced hamburgers and fries with local ingredients for one year saved the emission of 43,000 gallons of fuel and associated greenhouse gases. Enthoven, from UCLouvain in Belgium, has studied in detail the most common claims about local food and has found that buying food grown close to home has some benefits, but he warns that most research is correlative, making it often difficult to unravel the effects of local food systems.

In fact, recent statistics have shown that 66% of Americans would be more willing to dine at a restaurant if they knew their food was sourced locally. The idea is that, by eliminating middlemen, reducing food waste and mileage, and eliminating the possibility of commercial chemical intervention, restaurants can provide their guests with significantly higher quality dishes that meet several ethical and environmental wishes. Fortunately, statistics consistently show that customers are willing to pay more for restaurant experiences. Selling food to institutions creates a reliable market for the farmer and provides great economic and health benefits to the consumer. A New Zealand report found that exporting some food to the United Kingdom consumes less energy than producing the same food in the United Kingdom because New Zealand's agricultural system tends to use less fertilizer and raises grass-fed livestock all year round, which uses less energy than housing and feeding animals.

It would do so by revitalizing local agricultural economies, supporting small farmers, bringing more nutritious and fresh products to people flooded with fast food, and helping the planet by reducing the “kilometers” of food -the distance that food travels and the energy that the process consumes-to reach their plates.