If you've scanned the menu of a classy restaurant in the past few years, you've probably read the buzzwords "sustainable" or "organic." You've been promised that all or at least some of the ingredients come from humble local farms.
But just what, exactly, does "sustainable" mean? How can you be sure you're getting what they say is on your plate? As the movement gains momentum in the Northwest, the answers won't be as simple as you'd expect.
Marco Shaw, chef and owner of Northeast Portland foodie destination Fife, defines sustainability as sourcing products from as close to where they're grown as possible. He maintains that 11 months out of the year his produce comes from Oregon. Otherwise, he imports only from nearby farms in Washington and Northern California. All his meat comes from within the state. That means your garlic, nut-crusted cast-iron chicken comes from a farm in Scio, just outside Salem, and that kale-broccoli bread pudding you're stuffing your face with sprouted near Eugene. That way, Shaw explains, you can ensure money goes back into the local economy and to farmers who demonstrate sound ecological land use and fair labor practices. In are farmers who claim not to use harmful chemicals and pesticides or ranchers who steer away from stripping the land through over-grazing. "When you deal with local farmers, it's much easier to assess how their practices actually impact the land," he says.
Sounds simple enough, but Shaw warns that probably less than 25 percent of ingredients on most menus preaching the sustainable, organic gospel are actually what they claim to be. "Some chefs are using it as a marketing ploy," he says. "Some people are attempting to fool their customers." While he didn't call out any local restaurants, he did say that any menu that says it's organic and still uses Carlton Farms (a large Willamette Valley meat packing company) needs more research. According to a company representative, Carlton Farms uses meat from hundreds of different farms. While the company does provide some USDA organic meat, it doesn't certify every animal it processes.
Cory Schreiber, founder of Portland's renowned Wildwood, agrees that some menus are problematic. "As a diner you take the word of the restaurant," says Schreiber, who handed over the restaurant's kitchen to Chef Dustin Clark last year. "It's mostly about reputations."
Clark says Wildwood has used Carlton Farms products because of the company's dedication to sustainability—even if its meat is not 100 percent organic.
So, how can you be sure you're getting the delicious bounty of the region—and what you pay for? Shaw aims to give his promise teeth by making Fife Oregon's first certified organic restaurant through Oregon Tilth, which the USDA has granted the authority for bestowing such honors. Applicants must submit a management plan and expect both annual and surprise inspections.
Luckily for Shaw, he hasn't had to make very many changes to his already sustainable business plan. However, no body or set of guidelines now exists to certify or even define sustainability.
"We have a long way to go on that one," says Steve Cohen of the Portland Office of Sustainable Development's Food Policy and Programs division.
And as "organic" and "sustainable" become commonplace terms, we can only expect their definitions to change. From Wal-Mart to Burger King, large retailers and fast-food chains are taking notice of consumers' demand for better food. Award-winning cookbook writer Diane Morgan even helped redesign the menu of local artery-clogger Elmer's Pancake and Steak House. "I fought hard for organic salad, and now it's one of the most popular items," she proudly told WW. Though Elmer's is not completely organic or sustainable, she thinks the restaurant is now serving the best food in the casual dining sector and hopes to make it even better as the demand for sustainable food filters down to grannies and truckers.