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Is That Really Locally Grown Food You're Eating?

Mike Wajda - Proof

Chef Mike Wajda watches as one of his cooks shucks corn in the kitchen at Proof on Main. The restaurant is well-known for its offering of local foods. That’s because local food is part of its mission.

“For us it’s more than a movement that everybody is doing. It’s what we’re about,” Wajda said.

Restaurants touting locally grown foods are becoming more popular as Louisvillians’ demand for farm-to-table varieties grows. The 2012 Louisville Local Food Demand Analysis found the total demand for local foods then was $258 million among consumers and $353 million among buyers. There are now at least 159 farmers markets in the state, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

But consumers in search of local foods in restaurants may be wise to proceed with caution. Some local eats may not be local at all.

Stacy Roof, president and CEO at the Kentucky Restaurant Association, said consumers have no way of verifying whether a menu item is actually locally produced.

"They can never truly be sure because they're not in the kitchen. They're not receiving the produce or the beef or whatever it is," she said.

Unlike the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations certifying that an item is organic, for example, there are no federal or state regulations for local foods. And not surprisingly, there are restaurants and suppliers out there that falsely advertise serving certain locally produced products.

Just ask Greg Graft.

Graft is vice president and general manager of Grateful Greens, a hydroponic lettuce and herb farm in Clarksville, Ind. He said he recently received notification that a company was advertising one of his products on its website. The company is not a Grateful Greens client.

"When they purchased it, it wasn't actually our product -- it was a California-grown product. But yet, [customers] were under the assumption they were getting our product," he said.

He also said there have been instances of previous clients simply not taking the Grateful Greens name off the menu after they stopped buying from his company.

"If my name's on it, then I'm fully responsible for it and want to take care of it," he said. "But if not, I don't want somebody else to think they're getting our stuff, because that could put a pretty bad taste in somebody's mouth pretty quickly."

There’s more than a damaged reputation at stake if a restaurant is misleading about its sourcing.

Ivor Chodkowski, farmer at Louisville's Field Day Family Farm and owner of Harvest, said it could also mean farmers aren’t being paid fair prices for their crops. He said restaurants will sometimes position themselves as locally sourced but offer a limited number of local foods.

“It’s irritating for me when somebody who makes a local claim and really only has one item on their menu," he said. "They want to get whatever it is that’s out there that’s cheapest to get on their menu and have the one thing that’s their sort of token effort at supporting local producers."

The state Department of Agriculture can step in to verify where a restaurant or retailer bought their locally produced offerings. But that only happens when someone files a complaint.

“We can ask them ‘What farm families did you purchase from?’ or ‘What distributors did you get your products from?’" said Ben Shaffar, director of business development for KDA’s office of marketing. "And then from there we can follow up to ensure that those purchases did, in fact, happen. And in a lot of instances, we can trace those all the way back to the farm."

KDA operates the Kentucky Proud program, which certifies and promotes items grown, produced or processed in Kentucky. Shaffar said the free program -- with its distinctive branding -- has more than 4,000 members statewide.

And then there is the code among growers and restaurant operators to source locally and mean it. "Truth in Menu" is the simple concept that restaurants can't misrepresent what they serve to their customers.

Wajda and his team at Proof work closely with Woodland Farm in Goshen to provide produce and free-range livestock. He said the restaurant also supports other local farms and farmers markets in the region.

Wajda said customers patronize restaurants in good faith, and it's unfortunate when the wool is pulled over their eyes.

"Some [restaurants] are doing it for the media hype, and they want to put the hashtag on social media that it's local and sustainable, but they're really just getting it from Sysco," he said. "And it's a shame."

Graft said his company works with more than three dozen local restaurants. But unless it's brought to his attention, he would have no idea that a restaurant was falsely advertising his products.

Wajda said there are a few key ways people can tell if their food is local. For starters, they can ask to speak to the chef. He said customers should also be able to distinguish by the quality of the food.

"You can really taste the difference in the food and what it's really about. The texture of the food -- the flavor of it and the depth of the flavor," he said.

He also said paying attention to a restaurant's offerings can help a customer determine whether the food is locally grown. The fall means a new batch of fruits and vegetables, for instance.

For Chodkowski, it comes down to trust. And being able to put your faith in a local farm -- and a restaurant or provider that sources locally -- is an important contrast with the corporate food system.

“It’s a real trust issue," he said. "As compared with industrial agriculture, there is no way to know where your food is coming from. I would challenge you to try to figure out where the McDonalds on Bardstown Road, where their beef comes from."