How do I know if food labeled local is really local?
You don’t. With farmers markets in full swing and new farm-to-table restaurants opening every week, “local” is the food byword of the moment. And, like other trendy food bywords — natural, organic, whole — it gets bandied about with abandon.
How local is local?
There’s no legal definition of local. On Long Island, you might assume that “local” means from Long Island, but Whole Foods markets often use the label on products from New York state and New England. Five Acres Farm, a dairy company whose plastic jugs proclaim “local milk” consider local to be anything “sourced and produced within 275 miles.”
You’re at the mercy of vendors if you don’t pay attention to what is seasonal and what grows in this region. There are no lemons or oranges or mangoes or bananas or olives grown on or anywhere near Long Island. Apples around here don’t start being picked until late August — around the time that the peaches run out. Right now there are plenty of local greens and young onions and garlic, peas, squash and new potatoes being harvested on Long Island. Asparagus is on its last legs, strawberries have a few weeks left. Any local tomatoes you see have been raised in hothouses. There will be no local corn until July Fourth. For a chart that clearly indicates what is in season and when, click here.
Farmers market rules
Different markets have different rules. Bernadette Martin, who runs markets in Long Beach, Great Neck, Nesconset and Kings Park, visits every farmer who sells at her market. Most of the vendors are from Long Island, though one is from Goshen in the Hudson Valley. While some of her farmers buy local produce from other farmers who do not sell at the market, Martin is adamant that all of it be from this region. “If I allow corn to be sold here before the Long Island corn is harvested,” she said, “it harms the Long Island farmers.”
Melissa Dunstatter, who operates markets in Bay Shore, East Setauket, Sayville, Port Jefferson, Holtsville and Mount Sinai, is a farmer who sells her own produce as well as produce sourced from other local farms and from a hydroponic farm in Pennsylvania. “We are able to grow tomatoes, strawberries, beans, sugar snaps, zucchini — anything that hangs on vines or stalks,” she said.
Ideally, all farmers market vendors should display a sign indicating where all produce is from, but if there is not you are well within your rights to ask. (And if produce is marketed as organic you are within your rights to ask to see the USDA certification so noting.)
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets says that a farm-stand operator must grow at least half its produce on land that it owns or leases. Some farm stands sell only the produce that the farm grows, but many sell local produce they get from other local farms. Many large farm stands sell a mix of local and “regular” produce in order to encourage customers to do all their produce shopping in one place — so you don’t have to stop at the supermarket to pick up lemons. And many farm stands could do a better job of distinguishing among these things.
Here’s where you stand the best chance of being fooled. There’s an arms race in the restaurant industry, with chefs feeling that they have to namecheck “farm-to-table,” “local” and “sustainable” to compete with other like-minded restaurants. Again, you have to be a skeptical consumer. Corn and tomatoes are not local in February. If a restaurant tells you that it is selling local produce, ask which farm it is from. If you’re at all suspicious, call the farm. Or email me and I’ll call the farm.