“Slow food” – A cute slogan designed to represent the antithesis of fast food, aka junk food.
“Locally sourced” – A slogan that imparts a message of environmental friendliness.
“Farmers’ Markets” – They’re promoted as places to get fresh, local and organic food products.
But are they really what they seem, what is implied? Or do we add our own hopes and wishes to the mix?
We are attracted to “slow food” because we know how unhealthful fast food is and we assume slow food must be the opposite. Why else would they call it “slow food.” Recently I saw a newspaper ad with a headline that read: “I don’t eat fast food. I eat El Pollo Loco.” The restaurant chain claims “Our chicken is not fast food.” It conjures up an image of some marketing maven telling a client to instruct the staff to take their time serving the food so they can claim it isn’t fast food.
To label “fast food” based only on content, however, is questionable. We assume fast food is unhealthy because of the fat, sodium and cholesterol content. But those are sins that infect all too many meals served at middle to upscale restaurants that have no drive-thru windows.
We are drawn to restaurants that offer “locally sourced” food because of our desire to be responsible stewards of the plant and our belief that any restaurant that is environmentally responsible must also believe in healthy eating.
We flock to farmers’ markets because they are not super markets and the merchants display signs assuring us products are organic, or pesticide free, or gown locally by small farmers and we trust that what we are buying must add up to a healthier way to eat.
But in our desire to be noble and responsible, are we fooling ourselves and allowing others to fool us? How much of it is just good old American marketing – sometimes bordering on hucksterism.
From the standpoint of healthy eating, does it matter where the food is sourced? Isn’t it really how the food is prepared that determines how healthful it is? If it’s loaded with salt and fat does it matter where it’s grown or grazed?
The answer to each of these questions is “no”. Locally sourced certainly offers benefits for the environment and carries a promise of freshness. But consider the “Ultra Hearty Burger” with Jack cheese and smoked bacon that adorns the menu of one restaurant that boasts of “locally sourced” food. It isn’t going to be healthy dining whether the cow grazed in the field behind the restaurant or in Argentina. Roasted free-range chicken on the same menu should be OK. Then they add melted fontina cheese, wilted spinach with a dose of salt “for texture” and a rub that brings another dose of salt. Each of these dishes may be delicious. But healthy? The restaurant doesn’t claim that. We allow the words “locally sourced” to seduce us.
Another new bistro boasts of a menu “inspired by the seasons and utilizing fresh local ingredients.” Like a chopped salad with locally grown lettuce and salami (salt and fat), olives (salt), goat cheese (salt and fat) and a creamy (fat) dressing? I suppose a local cow may have donated the hanger steak that is served with brie cheese on ciabatta. Does it matter where the cow came from when you’re eating steak tartare and beef carpacccio from the same menu?
Let’s take a look at another “lounge” menu. Here we find organic beef and pork meat balls. I presume the fat is organic too. They boast “we serve local products from farms, ranches and fisheries guided by principles of sustainability.” Cured meats with artisanal cheeses? A nice salty olive vinaigrette on your locally grown salad? Nice, fatty lamb ribs from just over in the next county? It may not be a McAnything, but if it comes with enough cholesterol, fat and salt to do plenty of damage on its own, it isn’t healthy food.
These and similar offerings fill the menus of “bistro” and “small plates” styled restaurants everywhere. Most likely they are absolutely delicious. The restaurants don’t offer it as healthy eating. We bring that into the equation ourselves.
I don’t intend this to be an anti-meat eating screed or some appeal to vegetarian apostasy. I’ve had a quadruple coronary bypass. I’m supposed to be on a low fat, low sodium, low cholesterol diet. Yet, I still find many of these items appealing and with what is probably too much regularity I journey into the land of fat and sodium. But I do it in moderation and I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s healthful eating.
Neither is this an attack on the restaurant industry. They are not misrepresenting anything, as long a locally sourced really means locally sourced. They are just trying to make a go of it in a very difficult economic climate.
One cannot be so generous, however, when considering what has gone on at far too many farmers’ markets. Investigative reporter Joel Grover at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles recently aired an excellent multi-part expose of the practices of several markets and their vendors.
Grover in Los Angeles visited farmer’s markets throughout Los Angeles the area and found repeated incidents of big time fraud. Places buying produce from Mexico and selling it as grown locally. Places selling produce as pesticide free that is found in a lab to be loaded with pesticide. Places that have been suspended twice in the past for misrepresentation and fraud but back in business again, advertising that stuff is grown on farms that are found to be non-existent.
So, what’s the poor consumer to do? The answer: use your head. Remember, there is no such thing as “slow food”; it’s a harmless marketing gimmick as long as you apply common sense in evaluating what’s on the menu. Remember, “locally sourced” has definite environmental benefits. But if you think that necessarily means healthful eating, you are adding that assumption on your own. And if you want to shop at farmers markets, as I do, then get to know the vendors, chat with other shoppers and develop some knowledge of the products on offer.