Every week I navigate a triad of farmer’s markets in Venice, Mar Vista and Santa Monica primarily purchasing local, organic, and pastured food. My husband’s company, Nemco Foods, distributes a more conventional food supply to restaurants and other institutions. We recently hosted our 25th anniversary party catered by an amazingly talented chef and family friend, Troy Avitia of T’s California BBQ. As we planned the menu and sourced the ingredients (albeit not the typical arrangement with a caterer) we foraged the two food worlds, confronting values every step of the way.
Frank acknowledges that produce from our local farmer’s markets trumps most of what he can purchase. The primary issue is cost. It can’t be easy to watch me pay $5.00 for a dozen eggs when he can source 15 dozen for less than $18 on a good day. Still, how can I expect any restaurant or other food venue to step up and purchase local, organic, sustainably raised food for the masses if I am unwilling to foot the bill myself? So, I pressed to source as much of our food as close to the earth as I dared.
MOSTLY ORGANIC, LOCAL, SUSTAINABLE SOURCES
Frank purchased the grass fed tri tip at $3.79 a pound. Conventionally raised tri tip is available for $2.95, but compared to retail prices for grass fed beef, this is a bargain. Frank sourced Alaskan wild caught salmon on special at $36.50 for 10 pounds. Frozen in 6 ounce portions, it was perfect (and we were lucky). Troy sourced Mary’s pastured chicken thighs from Premier Meats at $ 2.37 per pound. That is about 50% more than the $1.50 he pays for conventional chicken thighs; and more than double if he buys them on sale at 99 cents per pound.
Troy tapped his usual sources for cowboy beans and grilled garlic bread, using the fresh baked loaves from Bay Cities Deli in Santa Monica. I did ask Troy to purchase compostable paper goods from Frank’s suppliers. Restaurant Depot recently discontinued his favorite plate and he willingly experimented with environmentally friendly options for me. Using too much plastic just makes me cringe. I was impressed that T’s California BBQ uses real knives and forks at catered events–a prudent move considering that the marquee entree is barbequed tri tip.
I picked up beverages, careful to purchase sparkling water in glass and flavored Pelligrino beverages using real cane sugar. Frank trumped me and purchased diet cokes sweetened with aspartame, but even I balk at the cost of Virgil’s Zero ($5.99 per four pack) when purchasing for the masses. We served beer and wine bottled in conventional glass containers.
FRANK’S FINAL STAND AT THE PRODUCE STAND
The final battle took place at the produce stand. I intentionally planned a plant based meal featuring mostly protein and produce. I tried to to adhere to the spirit of sourcing food that is local, organic, and sustainably produced without damaging the marriage. For our party, I asked Troy to grill corn on the cob and prepare two salads, a favorite tangy cold slaw and a tomato and cucumber salad with feta cheese.
Frank dug in his heels. He did not want me carting off cases of produce at retail+ prices from my local farmer’s markets. He pulled out the stops and asked about local and organic from a favored supplier, Chasin Foods. The program is still in the works, but the owner offered to send Frank samples. We found ourselves buried in an assortment of delicious heirlooms, Romas, hothouse cluster tomatoes, and even a few local and organic varieties. We taste tested on Thursday night. They were as good as what I buy from my favorite farmer’s market vendors.
We ultimately sourced grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers and corn from Chasin Foods, and Frank purchased the carrots, cabbage, and red bell peppers from other conventional sources. The grilled peppers were delicious, and I overheard compliments for both salads. The corn definitely disappointed. I am used to tender and sweet kernels, not the tough and starchy ears we served on Sunday. At the end of the day, reality hits hard. My farmer’s market prices can be more than 4 times Frank’s wholesale prices. At the same time, conventional farming is impacting the the health of our environment and all living creatures in ways we have yet to calculate.
ARE WE WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE?
Overall the meal–and the party– was a fabulous success. We served mostly whole fresh food with just a touch of indulgence. The incredibly delicious food made eating well the easy choice. I only heard one guest lament that there weren’t more desserts. We paid more for all the grass fed meat, pastured chicken and wild caught salmon. We paid more for the fresh fruit and vegetables–not the typical BBQ fare featuring mostly sugar, starch and fat. And I know I would have paid much more had I sourced every product from a local or organic purveyor.
We are indeed living in two food worlds. Each food venue is challenged to offer more whole food, more fresh fruits and vegetables on every plate served. I wonder if I will see the day when all restaurants, caterers and institutional food venues are similarly challenged to serve local, organic and sustainably produced food. And how many customers will be ready and willing to pay the premium?