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Behind the Story: Farm to Fable

Why I waited two years to write about fraud in the farm-to-table movement


Published:

Sam Wells

In this month's magazine, I helped ranchers, farmers and restaurateurs tell the story of fraud, deception and honest mistakes in the farm-to-table movement. You can read the story by clicking anywhere in this paragraph. What follows is the backstory...

“You really should do something on all this farm-to-table fraud.”

I was first told something like this two years ago by multiple restaurant insiders who knew how rampant it was. Some restaurants claim to buy fresh fruit and veggies from local farmers. When, in truth, they’re not using local farms. They’re using a semi-truck from a corporate food distributor full of produce that could have come from Chile, for all they know.

Call it truck-to-table. Warehouse-to-table. Catalog-to-table.

Not farm.

Initially, I didn’t want to write the piece. It risked casting the entire restaurant industry in a negative light because of a few ethically challenged morons. Was it really that big of a crime to lie about which farm grew your salad? How often did it actually happen? It sounded a little exaggerated.

I'm willing to report a monster, but I didn't want to create one.

That’s why interviews for this story have sat in a folder on my computer labeled “Farm to Fable” for two years. I needed more proof.

Plus, would the average eater care?

It seems so. And they should. Because farm-to-table fraud is ripping off customers, farms, farm workers and ethical restaurant owners. And it happens far more often than I originally thought. Small farmers and farm workers are not driving Porsches. Stealing from them is like pick-pocketing a hospice worker.  

Recently, a friend and restaurant lifer recently told me, “Know that story you’ve been talking about forever? If you don’t do it, I’m going to. It’s happening all the time. Everyone’s talking about it.”

Even then I hesitated.

Finally, a different friend sent me a menu from a local restaurant that was selling tickets to a “Suzie’s Farms Dinner.”

“Call Suzie’s and see if they’re involved in that dinner,” the friend said.

So I did. And Suzie’s was not involved. They weren’t even growing the fruits and vegetables listed on the menu.

It was time to tell the story.

"Farm to fable" is fraud. It preys on your good intentions as a diner. It steals from farms and their workers. It gives frauds an unfair competitive advantage over real, ethical farm-to-table restaurants (because doing it right costs a lot).

I didn’t name the specific restaurants guilty of farm-to-fable in my story. I know the names. But to call them out would’ve required multiple sources of foolproof evidence (some of which I have). It also would’ve required multiple lawyers.

That said, if I see it happening in the future, I will take the steps to report the restaurant(s) in San Diego Mag. If we let the frauds know that we’re watching this pretty closely, maybe they’ll find the motivation to be honest so that their name doesn’t appear in the follow-up story.

Honest mistakes happen. Sometimes menus simply haven’t been updated since the restaurant last purchased from the local farm. A chef told me the story of how one of his servers erroneously told a customer they were serving a Chino Farms Salad. Chino Farms wasn’t happy. “I had to go to the farm and apologize for his mistake,” said the chef. “I would never claim to be serving a farm’s food when I wasn’t.”

But after talking with dozens of restaurant insiders, I can say without question that intentional fraud is happening. Pretty regularly. And it’s not always on the restaurant side. Right now, there is a local company claiming to sell nothing but local, sustainable, organic [Product X]. No fewer than three people who know their operation have told me that they’ve seen the company buying and selling product that is anything but local, sustainable or organic. 

The solution seems to be education. Get to know your chef and restaurateur. The names of honest farm to table restaurants that came up most commonly when talking to farmers included Terra American Bistro, The Red Door/Wellington, George’s at the Cove, Mille Fleurs, even the Marriott Hotel in Downtown. Suzie’s Farm has a portion of their website that lists the restaurants that regularly buy their produce.

Those aren't the only honest restaurants buying from local farms, of course. And I feel safe in assuming most restaurateurs and chefs are honest people.

The thing I can't get over is: Why lie? There’s no shame in not being a farm-to-table restaurant. Plenty of customers don’t care if their corn or asparagus or meat is local, organic or sustainable. There’s only shame in fraud.

At this point, “farm-to-table” is a pretty limp, useless term. That’s sad. Because it used to be a meaningful way to describe restaurants and chefs who were going the extra mile for their customers and the local food economy.

This excellent article by Corby Kummer in Vanity Fair is a good survey of farm-to-table’s ineptitude. It even points to an organic farmer in Atlanta, Cory Mosser, who’s registered the website farmtofable.net to document the fraud in his area.

Ironically, the media is often to blame. Sometimes writers describe a restaurant as “farm to table” simply because the produce looks fresh.

If you see or suspect someone of fraud, please email me at tjohnson@sandiegomagazine.com

I’d like to thank the farmers, restaurateurs and others who talked to me about the story. Doing so takes guts. You should know that none of them came across as pissy, sour whiners. They simply agreed to talk with me about real fraud that happens in their industry.

Cheers to good, ethical eating.

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