A Push For Local Food Certification

February 4, 2011

A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and the Boise Weekly

Photo by Guy Hand

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Farmers markets are multiplying across the country faster than zucchinis in summer. That’s in large part because they promise consumers a personal connection to their food–a connection that chain supermarkets and faceless distribution systems can only feign to match.

That one-on-one contact with farmers–and the assumption that said meat and produce were raised sustainably, humanely and locally–is why loyal fans of farmers markets are often happy to pay a premium for those products.

But that premium price is also a magnet for fraud.

Photo by Guy Hand

An investigation carried out by an NBC affiliate in Los Angeles last summer caught several so-called farmers actually buying produce from as far away as Mexico, then reselling it at L.A. area farmers markets as farm fresh and locally grown. Markets in New York and other cities have uncovered similar scams. In Boise, such problems appear to be less egregious, but they still have occurred.

Capital City Public Market managers noticed one vendor selling peaches with branded produce stickers still absentmindedly attached to his “locally grown” fruit. Another was busted when the vendor’s children veered off script, announcing proudly to passersby that the family had harvested some of their bounty at Costco.

Notes at certification meeting. Photo by Guy Hand

In the past, the nearly 17-year-old Capital City Public Market has dealt with such incidents on an individual, informal basis. Lisa Duplessie, assistant director of the market, says in the seven years she’s been involved in the market, only three vendors–including the two mentioned above–have been asked to leave. That’s a low percentage considering that Boise’s market is Idaho’s largest, with around 50 vendors participating on any given Saturday during the season.

Still, Karen Ellis, the market’s executive director, says she wants to nip abuses in the bud.

“We have had a good reputation,” Ellis says of the farmers market advertised as selling 100 percent producer-grown produce. “And I don’t want to be made a liar. I don’t want the market to be made a liar, and I hope the individual businesses don’t want to be made into liars.” She paused, her voice quivering. “So the integrity thing is big for me.”

Without that integrity, Ellis said, farmers markets and the local-food movement could be co-opted into irrelevance. (In another type of co-optation, The Wall Street Journal reported a few months ago that Albertsons and Safeway chains in the Northwest had been posting farmers market banners over outdoor displays of produce, in essence declaring their open-air stands de facto farmers markets.)

That’s why Ellis and market board president and farmer Josie Erskine gathered a dozen local food leaders together on Jan. 11 to talk over the threats and solutions.

Erskine said at the private meeting that she didn’t want to look back in a few years and have to ask herself “Why didn’t anybody step up to the plate, create some standards, some certification? How did we all just sit back, ride the wave and just watch it wash away?”

It became clear as the group talked that the issue of integrity–of vendors growing what they sell–reached beyond farmers markets to the menus of restaurants that also tout local food. Dave Krick, owner of Red Feather Lounge and Bittercreek Ale House in Boise, chimed in.

Participants at the local food certification meeting. Photo by Guy Hand

“When we highlight on our menu things that are local, it would be better if that came with some kind of vetting,” he said. Frequently, he added, a restaurateur doesn’t have the time to do much more than take the word of the farmer delivering produce to the back door.

But trust only goes so far. In order to protect the integrity of farmers markets, restaurants serving local food, and the larger local-food movement, this informal working group decided it was time to move from the unstructured policing policy to a system with sharper, more precisely honed teeth: an actual local food verification and certification program.

To that end, the group asked Annie Berical, who does exactly that kind of work for the Organic Crop Improvement Association International, to join them. According to its website, the OCIA is one of the oldest and largest organizations in the world working on organic certification. As an independent contractor, Berical said she could apply to the Treasure Valley’s local-food movement the same verification techniques she’s successfully used to certify date orchards in the Mojave, Amish farmsteads in Iowa and food processing operations in Texas.

“One idea that I have is spending time in the farmers market and going around and looking at people’s booths and seeing what they’ve got for sale, and then going out to their farm and saying ‘show me where you grew those lovely radishes that I saw in your booth,'” Berical said.

She would also explore farmers’ records for anomalies.

“They would have to show where they purchased their seed, how much seed they purchased and how much they planted,” Berical said.

The idea would be to prove that the quantity of produce the farmer sold made statistical sense. It would also be possible to eventually expand the program to include verification of “no-spray,” “cage-free” and other common claims.

Certified organic local food at the Capital City Public Market in Boise. Photo by Guy Hand

To the uninitiated, this may sound all big-brotherish and bureaucratic, but Berical was confident she could make the program far less cumbersome than the certification process that organic growers already have to follow. All but one of the farmers in the meeting (he worried about the legal implications of self-policing) embraced the extra work as a way to distinguish ethical players from the occasional bad agricultural apple as well as protect the integrity of the local-food movement as a whole.

Krick said he also saw the process as a business opportunity.

“I think an effort like this is going to be more successful if it’s less about what’s wrong and more about the promotion of what’s right; creating a brand around those things that we think are right would have a lot of value.”

Krick suggested a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the local-food movement, where businesses that opt into and pass a certification process could then display a logo that formally guarantees the food they sell or serve meets agreed-upon, verifiable standards.

Ellis nodded with enthusiastic approval.

“Everybody is on the local movement,” she said. “Everybody is on the green movement. Everybody is on the sustainable movement. We have to put some teeth behind it. We have to really do what we say we’re doing, or we’re useless.”

About Guy Hand:
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.
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8 Responses to A Push For Local Food Certification

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jake Totter and Year Of Idaho Food, Northwest Food News. Northwest Food News said: Making sure local food is actually local on Boise State Radio's Edible Idaho today. http://fb.me/Kanpa9PS […]

  2. Helen on February 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Good idea, and I agree it should be sooner rather than later. Our Farmer’s Market I trust, because I have been face-to-face with you folks for years (and have either been to the farms or know I could go any time). Restaurants are another matter. As soon as the “supply chain” gets past buying right out of the farmer’s field, it could get really difficult to have any certainty at all about any claims made. Local certification would help winnow out the pretenders and allow the real deal to shine through. I would also urge the restaurateurs who are making the effort to really make it clear what they are doing and how much work they are putting into it. Please also make sure your servers can answer questions from people like our picky family who are gungho to support you, but will be expecting a high standard.

  3. farmer marty on February 6, 2011 at 10:29 am

    This misses the point of local food. Know your farmer, know your chef that’s local. A local system doesn’t need a certification body
    In a localsystem we use our own eyes. Guy hand needs to talk with more than just the treasure valley food coalition. Who is it a coalition of? No farmers I know where invited to this meeting. It’s a very small group.

  4. Guy Hand on February 7, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Marty, The meeting was put together by the Capital City Public Market, not the Treasure Valley Food Coalition and included a half a dozen farmers associated with the market. The meeting was preliminary, just an introduction to the topic and those involved will no doubt look for more community input once they’ve come up with a rough plan. And although I agree with you that knowing your farmer is a great way to know your food, as the local food movement grows beyond the one-to-one relationship of a farmers’ market, that simple connection can get complicated fast. For instance, how can a restaurant know for sure that a supplier’s eggs are all his and not supplemented by Costco? How can a hospital wanting to incorporate local food into its menu know that an apple grower’s apples come just from his orchard? In fact, how can a farmers’ market patron know for sure that “no-spray” produce is really not sprayed, even with a visit to the farm?

    Sadly, there are examples of fudging the local food system all over the country. New York and California are dealing with it. From several incidences at our markets, some people here feel like we need to too. With the premiums that can be had with local food, it’s not surprising that someone will figure out ways to game the system. The people who put that meeting together worry that trust might not be enough, even with local food.

  5. Farmer Marty on February 7, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    First, I want to say Guy Hands Edible Idaho is one of the best local reports on KBSU. I like what you do. I do however, think the choice of guests is limited to a small group of the same people. Jodi Peterson’s Green Room suffers from the same thing.

    It was unclear by your article who made up this meeting and who sponsored it. I assumed it was the Treasure Valley Food Coalition because you seem to rely on them nearly exclusively for your reporting. My concern is that your story makes it seem like all local farmers are in agreement on this issue. We are not.

    As far as trust not being good enough, good luck.

    I would argue that face to face is much more trustworthy a connection than bureaucratic oversight, even when it’s complicated. The book Omnivore’s Dilemma is a good example. It’s this book that most Americans learned what “certified organic” actually means. It also brought a huge amount of attention to the importance of local food. What this cultural critique is getting at is the disconnection our food system creates between eater and farmer (even in the so-called organic world). It is these very institutions of certification that gives consumers a false sense of trust. Nothing replaces knowing and trusting other humans. In fact, it’s as easy to lie on your application for local certification as it is to lie to individual buyers. Trusting the farmer is still crucial even in a bureaucratic world.

    As far as honesty on a restaurant menu; that is a whole different can of worms. It is common practice to lie on a menu (are you sure that blue cheese is Roquefort? How about those lamb chops are they really house cut? or the gravy, homemade?). I have worked in a number of kitchens and could name a million times the menu didn’t match what we were cooking. It is also very difficult to always get the food you order. Yes, it gets very complicated. The problem isn’t dishonest farmers it’s our food system. Local food doesn’t mean every thing’s the same, but local. It’s a whole different paradigm. Hospitals aren’t buying local food because they think the farmer is going to screw them. Hospitals don’t know how to use local food. They don’t know how to incorporate it into their system and they don’t know how to cook from scratch (who has the time).

    A local food system is an alternative to the current corporate food chain not a mirror image in a parallel universe. Wendell Berry, the Grandfather of the local movement, sees the problem as cultural. Trust being a lost virtue that can only be resurrected by local relationships and connections. Know your farmer, know your chef, know local food. If a cook can’t tell (with his own eyes) the difference between a local egg and a store/Costco bought egg I wouldn’t want to eat his food. Knowing what you’re eating goes way beyond reading stickers on apples. Compairing local and corporate food is like comparing apples to oranges (as they say) what one does in an apple orchard is not how you grow an orange!

  6. Guy Hand on February 8, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Marty, You make some excellent points. And although I’m not a member of any of these groups, nor am I interested in pushing any single agenda, all but one of the fairly diverse array of participants at the meeting I covered believed they should move forward with a plan to research the possibility of certification.

    Having said that, this is a big, important subject that can’t be fully covered in a single radio show or print piece (a longer version of the story ran in the Boise Weekly). If you and others want to voice your opinions on the issue of local food certification, let me know and I’ll put together a follow-up story.

  7. Farmer mac on February 13, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Marty you are very correct. The concept that making rules corrects a problem is wrong on many points especially when talking about freedom. A good example of this is the drug war, we have filled our prisons,revoked freedom,and we still have a drug problem.

  8. A Winter Local Foods Menu « Cast Iron on March 8, 2011 at 9:39 pm

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