ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – For every legitimate farm stand or farm-to-table restaurant, there are a handful that aren’t serving what they claim to be.
The problem gained much attention in 2016 following a Tampa Bay Times’ investigation, “Farm to Fable,” by food critic Laura Reiley. The seven-part series, which went viral internationally, exposed widespread misrepresentation and a lack of oversight in Florida’s food industry.
“It was really hilarious that I did this hyper-local investigation that made me briefly huge in Canada,” Reiley said. “But I think it came at a moment where we all started wondering the same things. We’d all gone to those farm-to-table restaurants with the hay bales and the pitch forks and mason jars and started thinking ‘is this just a story?’”
Reiley believes her series led to more people thinking about where their food comes from.
“I think that food is a uniquely trust-based part of commerce, there are very few other things where we just believe what someone says to us hook, line and sinker and I think it caused people to be a little more skeptical,” she said. “If it caused some people to be more skeptical of the story they’re being told, that’s unfortunate, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I do think it’s good if all of us ask harder questions about where our food is coming from.”
Here's more from Reiley's interview (we didn't show her face because she's the newspaper's restaurant critic):
Reiley's series was an eye-opener to restaurant owners like Greg Seymour.
“I wasn’t aware of the dark side, the label-switching, the misrepresentation," said Seymour, owner of Pizzeria Gregario in Safety Harbor. "I understood there was green-washing occurring but I didn’t understand it was happening to that level."
Seymour goes out of his way, sometimes at great expense, to use local ingredients at his restaurant, he said.
“It’s constant emailing, phone calls, visits,” he said. “This time of year it doesn’t matter how strict you are, only a handful of things grow here in the state.”
Here's more from Seymour's interview:
Gail Eggeman helped start the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market 15 years ago and has watched it grow into one of the region's largest outdoor markets.
Eggeman kicks out vendors claiming to be farmers but weren’t growing the produce they sold.
“We said ‘you can only bring what you grow, if you want to be a farmer you have to only bring what you grow’ and he had an assortment of stuff, but he couldn’t do it,” she said, remembering one particular vendor. “He said ‘oh, the customers wanted more so I had to go get the stuff and re-sell’, so we kicked him out. He cried, but it was real important to me.”
Enforcing the policy has taught Eggeman a few things.
“If we said somebody was there and a farmer we wanted them to be a farmer,” she said. “I had to learn a lot, but I did know that we don’t grow asparagus in Florida.”
When someone wants a booth at the Saturday Market, Eggeman inspects their farm in person.
“It takes time to drive to a farm, it takes time to spend a couple hours talking to the farmers,” she said. “We never said we were a farmers’ market because we didn’t have any when we started, we were a green market, a fresh market. But if we said somebody was there and a farmer we wanted them to be a farmer and so I started going out.”
Here's more from Eggeman's interview:
Reiley, the Tampa Bay Times reporter, said Eggeman's efforts legitimizes her market.
“In the state of Florida, in the grocery store, produce has to have a country of origin label on it," she said. "Every shelf topper for every piece of produce in the grocery store has its country of origin. You don’t have to have that on produce at the farmer’s market. It’s perfectly legal for an outdoor market to peel off those Honduras melon stickers and pass them off as whatever.”
Pealing off food stickers serves as a disservice to customers, Reiley said.
“Florida’s backwards, we’re really behind a lot of other states and there are reasons for that,” she said. “I think that we, as consumers, are less sophisticated in some ways and don’t know to ask those questions. We say we want local, we want to understand the provenance of our food, and on the other hand we want everything all the time. We want asparagus, we want raspberries, we want morel mushrooms, we want things that are fleetingly grown in a particular part of the country and I think that we have to be more accustomed to going without.”
Reiley’s investigation caught the attention of a handful of state officials, but said she’s not holding her breath for any major changes in the way the state processes claims of food provenance.
“It doesn't keep me up at night that they're eating Washington or North Carolina apples at a Florida farmers market,” state Commissioner of Agriculture and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam told Reiley regarding false farmer claims at outdoor markets. “I'm excited about people taking an interest in fresh fruits and vegetables.”
As for Reiley, she’s hopes better information and oversight may come out of the private sector which will, in turn, feed people’s curiosity about where their food comes from.
“I think that we, as consumers, are less sophisticated in some ways and don’t know to ask those questions,” she said. “You need to know what grows where you are at a particular time of year. It is unreasonable, if you want to eat locally, it is unreasonable to expect a tomato on your hamburger twelve months out of the year.”