Not So Fast
On Lake George, Slow Food, Farm to Table Movement Gathers Momentum
Jeff DeStefanis wants to give kids good nutritious meals that could spark interest in classroom health and science projects, and possibly even food or agricultural careers.
DeStefanis, Lake George Central Schools food service manager, was among the dozens of chefs and farmers that took part in a March 26 networking event specifically designed to build connections between both types of businesses while promoting the locally-grown food movement.
Chefs simply don’t have time to shop for everything they need at farmers markets. Likewise, by selling produce directly to restaurants, farmers are guaranteed income they might not get at a market.
“My goal is to try to introduce students to the importance of sustainable farming,” DeStefanis said. “I’m trying to move away from heat-and-serve and do more food preparation; not buying as much pre-packaged, pre-processed food.”
Nearly 100 people from the Adirondacks to Albany turned out for the event organized by Adirondack Harvest, a program of Essex County Cornell Cooperative Extension, held at Dunham’s Bay Resort on Lake George.
The biggest obstacles to putting more local food in schools are time, money and adequate supplies. For example, peeling carrots takes longer than opening a tin can and requires more man-hours, which costs money.
Also, most North Country farms can’t provide the items schools need in sufficient, year-round quantities. But DeStefanis said he hopes to start introducing local produce next fall, in small steps, perhaps putting things like potatoes and tomatoes on the menu a couple of times per month. Promoting good food could lead to field trips to area farms, further inspiring kids’ interest in healthy eating, he said.
“Putting real food made from scratch on a kid’s plate is the most important thing we can do,” said Adam Hainer, owner of Juniper Hill Farm in Westport, in the Champlain Valley.
Who knows how healthy food initiatives can influence kids?
Cooking show celebrity and food diva Rachael Ray is one of Lake George High School’s most famous graduates. On April 2, Ray visited her alma mater to host an annual benefit cooking show. She is a strong supporter of healthy eating programs such as the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity.
The goal of Ray’s own Yum-o! initiative is to empower kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking. More than $3.5 million has already been raised to fight childhood obesity, provide scholarships and end hunger.
However, schools are just one market outlet that farms can tap into. Hainer’s farm also supplies restaurants from Plattsburgh, just below the Canadian border, to the Capital Region.
One grower asked what small farms can to do build direct connections with buyers.
“Go to smaller restaurants,” Hainer said. “Find a niche. There are a lot of smaller restaurants that will support you guys.”
For example, local farms can provide specialty products, such as purple carrots, which aren’t available from large wholesalers. The key is for chefs to tell farms ahead of time the items they’re looking for, and the quantities they need them in. This first-of-its-kind event for the region helped facilitate those types of conversations.
Adirondack Harvest Chair Teresa Whalen said popular resort destinations such as Lake George and Saratoga Springs present major opportunities for direct connections between restaurants and farms. Warren County Tourism has begun promoting restaurants that specialize in fresh food, she said.
“Our tourists are looking for locally-sourced items on menus,” Whalen said.
Typically, fresh produce costs more than processed food purchased in large quantities from wholesale suppliers. But Mike Cirelli, owner of Cirelli’s Osteria restaurant in South Glens Falls, said locally-grown food actually saves money. By traveling a few miles instead of across the country, produce lasts longer and there’s less loss from spoilage, meaning he doesn’t have to buy as much.
“Plus, the nutrition is higher,” he said.
Dunham’s Bay Resort Executive Chef A. J. Richards said he gets 95 percent of his food during the growing season from Juniper Hill and other local growers. Fresh, local greens can be used a variety of ways, which also helps reduce costs, he said.
Richards said he saved at least $500 each of the past two years by purchasing food direct from farms instead of large wholesalers.
“It’s exciting, it really is,” he said. “It’s the new trend, but it’s the way things should have always been.”
Kelly Marcantonio owns Adirondack Mushrooms and Fresh Market in Schroon Lake. In addition to steadier income, selling directly to restaurants has another important benefit.
“Sometimes when people buy fancy mushrooms at a farmers market they take them home and don’t know how to cook them,” she said. “With a chef, the end product is going to be awesome.”’
Obviously, this increases demand for her products.
Brant Lake businessman Frank Cappabianca said “farm-to-fork” initiatives also help the region’s economy by creating jobs and strengthening small business, which generates tax revenue for local government. His son owns a unique enterprise called The Hub, a combination eatery and bicycle shop that promotes healthy menus at a gathering place specifically geared for cycling tourists. “I’m a firm believer in keeping as much local as we possibly can,” he said.