RED Food wants the “local” food movement to mean what it says

Vegetables from one of RED’s farmers at the Tiny Diner farmers market

Vegetables from one of RED’s farmers at the Tiny Diner farmers market Sasha Landskov

A typical dining experience in Any City, USA can easily go like this:

You ask a server where the potatoes come from. The server may say, “I’m not exactly sure, but everything comes from a small farm right outside of the city.”

You ask which one, and again, the server isn’t sure. So he scurries back into the kitchen. When he returns he rattles off the name of the farm.

Katie Myhre says this very scenario has happened, and when she looked into it, the farm didn’t exist.

“And anyway, how could ‘everything’ come from one farm? It couldn’t. That’s a near impossibility.”

A recent article out of the Tampa Bay Times made national news after food writer Laura Reiley audited dozens of restaurants in the area and found that the menus were packed with oversights, falsehoods, and downright lies designed to tell a feel-good story about local agriculture and food provenance. And what we know is, that article could have come out of almost any city in America.

Myhre with one of RED’s participating farmers at the Tiny Diner market

Myhre with one of RED’s participating farmers at the Tiny Diner market Sasha Landskov

“‘Local’ can mean a lot of things,” says Myhre, “and consumers have been fed a lot of bullshit and brainwashing around that term.”

Myhre stresses that she’s not trying to call out restaurants for such behaviors. They’ve identified that customers want “local” enough to use it in their branding.

“Now,” she says, “we just need to get them to reframe the ‘local’ to ‘direct’ and understand the real way to support farmers.”

With RED (Restaurants Eat Direct) Food, that’s exactly what Myhre aims to do.

Essentially, she’s asking chefs to buy directly from farmers, and to act as good-faith stewards between producers and us, the diners. And yes, she knows how busy chefs are. That’s why she created RED. If anything, she says, it should make their lives easier, not more difficult.

The interface of the RED website displays two red boxes. One reads, “Farmers — Sell your harvest.” The other, “Restaurants — Find local ingredients.”

An accompanying video on the website shows farmers in the field doing what they do, and a chef in a restaurant clicking on an interface that works as easily as ordering a book on Amazon. A farmer then drops the product at the door. Cut to a bustling dining room.

It almost seems too easy.

Myhre currently has about 50 farmers on board, many of whom create a list of what they can deliver, this week, to any given restaurant. All the restaurant has to do is get online at the end of the night, see what’s available, and order. They could build their menus around this product. The farmers pledge to get it to the restaurants in the time frame needed.

But very few chefs have signed on locally. Myhre figures it’s because of the culture surrounding “local” food as we know it.

“The chefs want to see those farmers, shake their hands, and make those connections,” she says.

The problem is, that’s not happening.

“It’s a full-time job to have those kinds of relationships with 20 different farmers,” she says, so they don’t. They may have that relationship with one farmer, and buy a couple of bags of greens or a couple of flats of tomatoes from him. They may name a dish after him, like ‘Farmer Ben’s tomato salad,’” she says, by way of example, and then move on with ordering the remainder of their food from big distributors that deal mainly with large farms.

“And you’d be surprised how much of that product comes from outside of Minnesota.”

If you’re the sort of discerning diner who is concerned about eating food from around Minnesota, Myhre says you can look for these tells. If a particular farm is called out, say, on a cut of meat or a tomato, it probably means that particular item is the only one being sourced from a small-scale sustainable farm.

“This is an incredible first step,” she says. “The restaurant understands that consumers are looking for locally grown product, which is half the battle. What’s next is doing more of that, working directly with providers.”

Our current food system doesn’t make it easy to connect them. Distributors often don’t work with farms below a certain threshold of production because it doesn’t make financial sense. Yet farmers who want to reach that production level and are working to get loans to expand their farms are essentially asked to prove that they have access to markets. It’s a catch-22.

And, as smaller farmers attempt to bring their products to markets in traditional pathways, middlemen such as Bix, Sysco, and US Foods can chew up many of the profits along the line.

RED’s prices are competitive for shopping chefs, and the money saved on middlemen goes directly to the farmer. The company isn’t currently trying to turn a profit. They operate on funding from awards they’ve won, including second place in the Carlson School of Management MN Cup.

Whether or not the survival of the small American family farm sounds important to you, getting the food you love probably does.

We don’t want to see our meat (or our eggs or our salad greens or our tomatoes) go away. And they could. Or at least the diversity of those things could. Small farmers grow a larger variety of crops on smaller land plots, while large-scale commodified farming often pushes high-volume production of one or two crops. As small farms are squeezed out of the market, you could be forced to say farewell to the 80 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes you love.

As real a threat as this is, Myhre doesn’t like framing the RED Food mission with doom and gloom. “I’d rather think of it as an opportunity.”

The opportunity she sees is this: to get small and midsize farmers the living wage they deserve, to get a better diversity of product into the hands of chefs in an efficient manner, and to ensure the continued stream of good delicious food onto our plates.

So, how do you, the consumer, avoid the storytelling, bullshit, and brainwashing around local food? It isn’t easy. Nobody wants to be “that customer,” the oft-lampooned Portlandiaesque diner asking for the first and last name of the pig on their plate. Myhre says her mom didn’t even want to send back a cold omelet at a recent dining experience.

“If she feels funny doing that, how is she, or the average diner, going to begin to ask these other hard questions?”

Myhre adds that most consumers aren’t holding chefs accountable for those “local” messages, and so the status quo of farmers not making living wages, and chefs not getting the diversity of true local product into their dishes, continues.

RED’s got a clever logo that restaurants can choose to put on their menu or window indicating that they’re now buying “direct.” It’s a dinner plate/tractor wheel hybrid and it’s bright red.

Why red and not green, which is the hallmark hue of virtuous foods? The green movement, like local, has been co-opted, Myhre says, and the symbolism is meant to get people thinking about food in a new way. In other words, don’t eat green, eat red. Don’t buy local, buy direct.

As Myhre continues to pound the pavement, a number of restaurants are signing up, including the Birchwood, long a progressive leader in farm sourcing. Others include Blackbird Cafe, Cafe Ena, Costa Blanca Bistro, Breaking Bread Cafe, Prairie Dogs, Honey and Rye Bakehouse, and Salty Tart Bakery. Myhre continues to have meetings with chefs and farmers.

Maybe soon, you’ll start to see that big red logo in restaurant windows. Maybe it will serve as an eye-catching, comforting replacement for what “local” has ceased to mean.

Restaurants Eat Direct Food