Outstanding for whom?
A traveling farm dinner series spotlights local produce; meanwhile, a South Side farmers' market makes eating farm-fresh foods affordable.
It’s a warm night in August. Some 150 people have gathered in a field to savor a four-course, candlelit, localvore dinner prepared by a James Beard–honored chef. It’s all so ecoconcious that everybody’s brought their own plate. But in the morning, the restaurant will disappear.
It sounds like a Michael Pollan–approved dreamworld. But in fact, at Outstanding in the Field, a traveling restaurant that stops at farms nationwide, this is the reality. Diners literally gather in a field for one night to enjoy a meal made entirely from locally produced ingredients and accompanied by the farmers who grew them. Designed to boost local farmers and provide a connection between consumer and crop, Outstanding’s two sold-out dinners this week—one featuring Province’s Randy Zweiban at Growing Power in Grant Park on Wednesday, the other featuring Mindy Segal and Aric Miech from Hot Chocolate at City Farm in Cabrini-Green on Thursday—will likely live up to their name. But for $220 to $250 a plate, it provokes the question, for whom?
“The idea is to bring people closer to their food and learn about where their food is coming from directly at the source,” explains OITF director Leah Scafe. “Going to the farmers’ market and talking with the farmer is great, but this gives people the opportunity to go to the farm and see things growing in the ground and really see farmers in their element.”
Atmosphere and authenticity play a huge role in OITF dinners. During the five-hour meals, diners might conceivably chow down next to where their appetizer was grown, sit beside the person who only hours earlier butchered their main course, and go pick ingredients for their dessert. Food is prepared in front of guests, showcasing how crops literally go from farm to table.
“[Outstanding] is an incredible way to connect where your food comes from,” says Peter Klein, owner of Seedling Farms, a Michigan-based orchard that has hosted OITF events. “It’s just not the most economical way to support local.”
Cost is the major drawback. With dinners averaging $200 per person, OITF’s price point is so high critics argue it undermines the organization’s goal of putting local produce in the hands of the people. OITF counters that its overhead is significantly higher than that of traditional dining establishments. But that leaves those of us who can’t afford a three-digit meal seeking other ways to support local.
“The cheapest way is to hit up the farmers’ markets,” adds Klein, “but even that’s probably going to be a little more expensive than produce at a big-box grocery store.”
The reason, Klein explains, is that supermarkets buy in bulk from farms that pay workers lower wages and use machinery instead of hand picking. Ken Cruikshank, the regional produce sales manager for Jewel-Osco, says it boils down to timing.
“If you want produce year-round, you have to buy from places in the south and west that can produce crops when they won’t grow here,” he says. In other words, if consumers want local, they’ll have to stick to what’s seasonally available—and pay farmers’ market prices for it.
Dennis Ryan is trying to bridge the gap. The manager of the 61st Street Farmers’ Market, Ryan implemented one of the city’s first programs that rewards low-income consumers for buying local. In conjunction with Wholesome Wave—a Bridgeport, Connecticut–based nonprofit dedicated to promoting local farm initiatives—the 61st Street Farmers’ Market began offering double value redemption for shoppers paying with food stamps as of late 2008.
“Anyone who comes in with a SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] card, we will match what they spend on healthy food up to $25 on each market day,” explains Ryan. “The money goes directly to the farmer, so it improves the economy, it improves the shopper’s health. It’s a win-win.”
The Illinois legislature thinks so, too. As of July 17, the state passed a resolution that will establish a farmers’ market fund to help other area markets implement the double-value program.
“For people who can afford to buy local, we’re providing a place for them to come and get quality goods,” says Ryan. “For those that can’t, we’re trying to help them, too.”