Novel and thrilling in earlier days, today's farm-to-table restaurant menus have scaled new heights of supposed transparency. The specificity can be weirdly opaque, much like an actual menu item that recently made the rounds: Quail Egg Coated in the Ashes of Dried Sheep's S***. Farm-to-table fatigue is most evident in those of us who cook in farm-to-table restaurants — Even We Are Sick of Us.
In the 15 years since Lantern opened, guests at my Asian-influenced farm-to-table restaurant have only rarely asked why a white girl from New Jersey is cooking fried rice in North Carolina alongside a kitchen crew mostly born in Mexico. The food we cook is openly and inherently inauthentic. But guests are sometimes surprised to learn that every single thing we serve isn't both local and organic, that our relatively expensive menu yields only slim profit or that we can't afford a group health plan. Diners occasionally comment that our use of Alaskan salmon or California cilantro has detracted from a truly "authentic" farm-to-table experience.
The ubiquity that makes farm-to-table meaningless also gives it its power. It has come to signify authenticity on almost any level, suggesting practices as complicated as adherence to fair labor standards, supply chain transparency or avoidance of GMOs. As farm-to-table has slipped further away from the food movement and into the realms of foodie-ism and corporate marketing, it is increasingly unhitched from the issues it is so often assumed to address.
Farm-to-table's sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.
Inequality does not affect our food system — our food system is built on inequality and requires it to function. The components of this inequality —racism, lack of access to capital, exploitation, land loss, nutritional and health disparities in communities of color, to name some — are tightly connected. Our nearly 20-year obsession with food and chefs has neither expanded access to high-quality food nor improved nutrition in low-resource neighborhoods.
Only an honest look at how food gets to the table in the U.S. can begin to unwind these connections.