Think you're dining 'green'? Menus won't always tell you.

A Founding Farmers salad last month described as a "best of the season mix" had few seasonal vegetables.
A Founding Farmers salad last month described as a "best of the season mix" had few seasonal vegetables. (Michael Temchine/special To The Washington Post)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009

At Founding Farmers restaurant, the cedar-smoked salmon is advertised as "sustainable." On its November menu, the green-certified restaurant boasted of partnerships with six small farms and dairies. "The difference between institutional/corporate farming vs. family farming affects everyone: our health, our land and our lives," the menu read. "You can trust we understand this difference."

But being green isn't always what it seems.

The restaurant serves farmed Atlantic salmon, a no-no according to seafood watch groups that condemn the pollution and other environmental impacts of salmon farming. Its supplier, Cooke Aquaculture, is one of the largest salmon farms in North America. And three of the small farms named on that November menu had not sold to the restaurant in nearly six months.

In an eco-conscious era, "sustainable" and "green" food are buzzwords that sell. Although there are no strict definitions for either, they suggest to many that food is sourced from smaller, local farms that do not use industrial methods to raise produce and livestock and do not ship it over long distances. The 2010 Zagat survey of U.S. restaurants reports that 61 percent of diners are willing to pay more for green products and menu items, up 5 percent from last year despite the tough economy.

Founding Farmers shows that the so-called farm-to-table model can be a successful one. Owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union, the 263-seat restaurant in Foggy Bottom serves more than 600 meals a day, including homey plates of Southern fried chicken, oversize salads and skillet corn bread with honey butter. In May, Travel and Leisure magazine anointed it one of the best new restaurants in the country, the only Washington eatery to make the list.

But with business models built on sustainable food, the hype can get ahead of the execution. Even when intentions are good, there are questions about whether it is possible for a high-volume restaurant to practice everything it preaches -- if it also wants to turn a profit and serve customers what they want. Small family farms don't have the quantity or consistency of huge national suppliers. They usually can't compete on price, even at the height of the growing season. And although diners say they want to "eat green," many would not be happy if they couldn't get tomatoes on their burgers in December.

The phrase "farm fresh was ruined in the American grocery store years ago. The American restaurant business is perfectly capable of ruining 'farm-to-table,' " said New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "It's called 'farm wash.' And the other term is 'B.S.' "

Dan Simons, chief executive of VSAG, the management company that runs Founding Farmers and sister restaurant Farmers & Fishers (formerly Agraria) in Georgetown, said the restaurant is delivering on its goals: It is the first restaurant in Washington to receive the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. It uses organic cleaning products and biodegradable trash bags. The restaurant strives to buy from American family farms, some of them regional. But providing great service and affordable prices is as important. And, Simons said, Founding Farmers' brand is about more than just food.

"We're not Equinox," he said, referring to the Washington restaurant that has built its reputation on a decade of promoting local farmers. "Is green [only] about what people put in their mouth? Or is it about the whole experience?"

No clear definition

The absence of an industry or government standard for "sustainable food" creates ample wiggle room for brands looking to cash in on eco-consciousness. For some diners, it describes food raised with minimal environmental impact; for others, it suggests food sourced from a local "family farm," an equally vague term.

The North Dakota Farmers Union, which became involved in the business as a way to promote family farms, defines a family farm as one owned and operated by a family that makes its living off the land. That could include multimillion-dollar companies with national distribution and farms with thousands of acres. Such farms have come under fire for their intensive use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables. They are also criticized for excessive use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock, which often are housed in crowded conditions with little or no access to pasture.

Chefs say it is a challenge to work with small local farms, especially if a restaurant serves thousands of meals a week, as Founding Farmers does. Finding sources of regional and sustainable food -- whatever the definition -- is more time-consuming and expensive than ordering from a national distributor that arrives once a day with products from around the globe. At Equinox, which has just 90 seats, chef Todd Gray has a different supplier for beef, pork and chicken, each of whom delivers at a different time and must be paid separately. The meat is pricier than that of big producers, who achieve economies of scale at the slaughterhouse and in transportation. Gray estimates that he pays his meat producers between 50 and 100 percent more than he would a corporate supplier.

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