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Chef Foster: During produce boom, the question is how much are you willing to spend on great food?

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In the midst of a summer boom of produce, we need to calculate just how far we are willing to go to shop and eat local.

Does it matter to you that most locally grown food is more expensive? Are you frustrated that most of the produce we buy at the market doesn’t last for weeks, that is actually has a true expiration date? Are you aware that most of what we grow and buy and eat from our local producers is healthier, sustainable and actually tastes really good?

There are many contradictions when we consider locally grown and they have very little to do with the high moral ground some of us claim or the fact that money grows and goes local instead of anywhere else. They have much more to do with how the main base of consumers regards farmers markets and local food; as a treat or a reward for a good deed done.

There is some basis in fact for that when we consider that the markets are full on the weekends and relatively empty the rest of the days of the week. Market day is part utilitarian, part social event and we enjoy the beauty and bounty of the best that Central Kentucky offers us. I wonder though how many people shop for the week at the markets?

I know there are some, and failing the market they finish their shopping at the Co-op. I know that the CSA movement continues to grow, adding sales to small farmers and introducing some families to locally grown product for the first time. But as said in my last column it is new territory for most people when we ask them to cook an entire meal from the market.

Consider now how large a leap it would be to ask them to cook for the week! And really that’s where local restaurants come in, as they historically pick up the slack from growers after the general public has had their market day. I know most of my producers sell both wholesale and retail. I would guess that retail remains their main profit center.

I would assume that it is much harder to deal with chefs only because we can tend to be a demanding lot. We want a certain tomato, a certain size and a certain color. That imposes some structure on the grower, but also closes the window on producer and chef alike. If there is no compromise there is no sale, and everyone loses.

There are still cultures and countries that follow a daily market ritual. There are neighborhoods in this country that still prod you into buying meat at the meat market, fish at the fish market, and on and on. This isn’t a novelty, it’s a holdover from another time, and if you want to buy in, it requires you to shop daily and in a lot of cases locally for almost everything you need.

In most cases you’ll find a better product. If it’s not local it’s at least fresher than other larger stores. Rotating stock through a small market requires less planning long term because you need smaller storage space, and there is less chance that you will run into issues with rotation of stock.

Imagine then that the name on the front of that small market is Elmwood Stock Farm or Blue Moon Farm or any other farmer’s market vendor and you see how razor thin that margin is between local market and local Farmer’s Market.

The next step is up to the consumer. Each person needs to prioritize how much they spend on food, and how much they might be willing to spend on good to great food. Planning a weeks’ worth of groceries from the market may be too ambitious, planning to feed a large family from the market will probably be too costly.

The cost will not come down until the volume of sales go up. The profit margin on food in this country ranges across a country mile, but narrows considerably when that food is grown organically (lots of regulation), sustainably, (lots of sweat equity) and locally, (too much marketing power by the national chains).

If you take another step towards locally grown, buy another meal worth a week from the markets, then the price will be affected in your favor. Buy a bigger C.S.A. basket and next season you may find it easier not only to afford it but to integrate it into your daily budget and menu.

The choices are there for you to make both at home and when you dine out. I’m very open and honest when I say I have a stake in local dining, I’ve been practicing what I preach for a quarter of a century (boy that makes me sound old) and it has produced chefs who also practice the same philosophy.

We continue to grow in number, and you can do. Try it now, in the middle of the most prolific growing season we have, you won’t be disappointed.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit, in Lexington.

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