As we see the snow melt and the frost come out of the ground here in the Nasty North, growers are beginning to think about planting their crops and marketers are starting to talk to the end users to get an idea of what they hope to buy. While this discourse is useful and essential, there also exists a disconnect that we are finding difficult to bridge.
We are used to having most every produce item all of the time. I understand that mankind has lived off of stored root vegetables for eons. Then we figured out how to preserve certain foods by pickling or canning. Modern technology has given us Controlled Atmosphere rooms and High Pressure Pasteurization. But there are still crops that must be harvested and consumed within a very narrow postharvest window of opportunity.
Herein lies the problem. Some menus are planned months in advance with the expectation that a product will be available. With multiple competing commercial growing areas all harvesting at the same time that supply is all but guaranteed. For example, we consume tomatoes out of Florida all winter long; but if there is a freeze in Florida we immediately turn to Mexico for supply without skipping a beat. If we fast forward 6 months and are hoping for a local supply of tomatoes odds are not in our favor of having them available every day. Smaller farms do not have daily harvests – they might be on a weekly rotation. Then if it rains for 3 days straight nothing gets picked. But the menu that was drafted months ago is inflexible to these situations!
So that’s why I say we are spoiled. The steady stream of availability that we now take for granted came from years of supply side development to meet customer demand. The local supply chain does not have that redundancy built in yet and to source from another region defeats local all together. While the retail markets can be out of stock on an item for a day and the customer will accept that reality, the foodservice operator (and customer for that matter) has not come to the same realization yet. Without the acceptance of sporadic out of stocks, the locally sourced programs are destined to disappoint. My fear is that disappointment will lead to a retreat in using fresh produce on the menu – and please let’s not start on the inclusion of processed and frozen vegetables in the FRESH FRUIT and VEGETABLE PROGRAM (School Snack Program).