Just as “all natural”, and “farm fresh” emblazoned on egg cartons and juice boxes have come to mean very little to the marketing savvy, ‘Farm to Table’, a phrase long used by restaurants advertising local ingredients, seems destined to join their hollow ranks.
In a recent Vanity Fair article titled, “Is it Time to Table ‘Farm to Table’ ?”, the author (Corby Kummer) traces the phrase back to the early 70’s when local food advocate and poster child Alice Waters opened her locally
sourced restaurant, Chess Panisse.
He then, justifiably, goes on to decry how the once meaningful words have since been shamelessly usurped by every restaurant with a rustic chalkboard menu and a tractor painted on it’s door trying to cash in on the movement. He even accuses the always convenient public enemy #1, ‘ol Ronald McDonald himself, of blurring the lines by claiming the notorious fast food chain’s connection to local farms. Although the phrase has clearly lost some of it’s flavor since first uttered by Alice Waters from her sun dappled veranda at the Chess Panisse, it in fact has a much older and arguably more practical origin that just might change your perception of it.
The year was 1914 and the source was the United States Postal Service. It was a time when horse-drawn buggies competed with Model T’s for road space and the first World War was looming just around the corner. The US Postal Service decided to implement, what at the time was, a bold new experiment.
It was an initiative that enabled rural farmers to get their fresh produce directly to the city more quickly and affordably. They called it, Farm to Table Parcel Post. The innovation it implemented we take for granted now, namely, having a mail truck actually drive to rural locations (in this case farms) and pick-up packages. Before this, if a rural resident wanted to mail anything, especially large packages of food, they had to cart it to the post office themselves which was often many miles away down unforgiving dirt roads. As you might imagine, the new initiative quickly proved to be a game changer for small farmers and city dwellers alike.
The Postal Service’s ‘Farm to Table’ program operated a lot like CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) do today. Someone in the city would get a list, distributed by the USPS, of registered farmers and their goods, and they would put an order in for eggs, vegetables, chicken, butter, or whatever the farmer had to offer. The farmer would then package up the order and ship it back, all within a couple of days. By having an efficient, low cost way to get their goods to an urban center where the demand was high, small farms could sell more of their produce at a reasonable price which was a win for everyone. The program grew quickly and as America was eventually pulled into the escalating conflict in Europe, it became more popular, even gaining the praise of president Woodrow Wilson who declared [the ‘farm to table’ program] an integral part of winning the war effort on “the homefront”. ‘Farm to Table’ may have just been a slogan to get more people into the program, but it had real meat on it’s rhetorical bones.
Is the once meaningful parlance destined for the lingual compost heap? Perhaps. However you feel about it though, it may do us all good in our current effort to obtain a healthier more sustainable food system, to look back at that first utterance of those three words. They had very little to do with branding, romanticizing farm life or trendy restaurants. They simply meant fresh food that got to you quicker and cheaper. It was a system set up to move food efficiently to the people that needed it. Period. If you want to put the axe to ‘farm to table’ that’s fine but make sure you don’t axe the intent it was originally tied to. Fresh local food? Yes of course, but just as importantly, fresh local food that’s accessible and affordable to everyone.
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