The Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw is not trying to rip you off by charging twelve dollars for a burger, says owner Claire Haslam.
She explains that the restaurant she and her partner opened in the renovated mill at the center of Saxapahaw's development boom, the one they describe as a "central gathering place for the community," aims to build a model that's economically viable for everyone—including farmers and their staff. "We're here supporting the locals, and they come in and support us," she says.
This refrain is familiar to anyone who buys locally grown food in the Triangle. But given that inequality has grown alongside the Triangle's food scene, invocations of community at hip restaurants and upscale markets can often seem grounded in questionable trickle-down thinking—less "let them eat cake" and more "if we eat enough cake, we'll eventually create a market for bread." To ensure an equitable local food economy, the farm-to-table model must include the Triangle's low-income residents. So far, attempts to accomplish this goal have fallen short.
Eating out is an inherently exclusive activity. A national USDA survey found that households that earn above 185 percent of the poverty level spend almost three times as much at restaurants as those that receive SNAP, and almost twice as much as the working poor. That doesn't even account for which restaurants these families patronize; the difference would surely be even starker for high-end farm-to-table eateries.
According to advocates, the true community impact of restaurants doesn't stem from serving customers directly. "Farm-to-table offers a model for infrastructure development," says Ann Meletzke, executive director of Healthy Alamance, a nonprofit focused on public health and food access. "While a restaurant is attracting customers from all over the place with varying perspectives on food, it opens the door to relationships between farms and consumers."
Eliza MacLean, who is famed for her pasture-raised pork at Cane Creek Farm, says her connection to sourcing-conscious restaurants like Lantern helped provide direct sales revenue as well as a marketing boost from the farm's connection to the acclaimed restaurant. MacLean leveraged that success; she transitioned to selling whole animals to Saxapahaw's Left Bank Butchery and operating a mobile butcher shop at the Carrboro Farmers' Market—ensuring that consumers had access to her products without having to go to a restaurant.
Still, farmers markets aren't cheap, and most attract a rather homogenous demographic. One common method of bringing in lower-income patrons is a "double bucks" program, a version of which launched at the Carrboro Farmers' Market in 2010 and has since spread to farmers markets in Durham and Raleigh. It offers two dollars of farmers-market goods for every one dollar of SNAP benefits, up to ten dollars per market. A 2014 USDA report found that programs like this significantly increase SNAP recipients' shopping at farmers markets.
Nevertheless, consumers spend most of their benefits at large grocery stores, both for cost-effective pricing and the ease of buying all their goods in one conveniently located place. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), based in Pittsboro, found that in 2013 a mere .006 percent of SNAP benefits statewide were redeemed at farmers markets.
"The expansion of farmers markets is not doing anything for the poor," says Lance Barton, former eastern regional director of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina. "I would question whether it's having much of an economic impact on Walmart or Food Lion, which is where your low-income family is going to shop."
Farm-to-table advocates are looking beyond farmers markets for solutions. Food hubs, like Durham's Firsthand Foods, buy from local growers and distribute to retail outlets, creating efficiencies that allow locally grown food to be distributed more widely. The focus still isn't on getting goods into Walmart, but rather on specialty stores like the Durham Co-op, which do address some of the shortcomings of farmers markets. Along with selling non-food essentials like toilet paper, the co-op implements food-access programs that offer low-priced staple foods, benefits to SNAP recipients, and even weekly three-dollar dinners at the hot bar. "We work as hard as we can to make accessible pricing available to all of our customers," says Durham Co-op general manager Leila Woolfrum.
Those efforts make co-op prices competitive on some goods, but large grocery stores still provide the most food for the least money. In August, the featured local milk, eggs, flour, and sweet potatoes at the co-op cost 25 to 100 percent more than at the nearby Harris Teeter and Food Lion. And Food Lion's sweet potatoes were even North Carolina grown.
Farm-to-table projects like the NC 10% Campaign try to increase demand for local food by working to bring it into places like university cafeterias. But that approach does not address the underlying issue: the value proposition of locally grown food is that it is a boutique item.
"I'm producing food for an upscale model. I'm selling to people who have money," says Saxapahaw farmer and Carolina Farm Stewardship Association board member Tony Gaddis.
Gaddis, who sells exclusively to restaurants, may be more frank than most farmers, but he's not alone. There really are two distinct markets for food: a high-end one for locally grown (and often organic) goods, and a conventional, mass-produced one that provides the most food for most residents. "I don't know if I'd go so far as to say farm-to-table created that," says former RAFI organizer Kavita Koppa, "but it certainly pushed it forward."
Gaddis says the programs only go so far to address this shortcoming, and that the current paradigm requires substantive change. He advocates for more medium-size farms, which could operate on a different pricing model, and a community farming model to supplement his own.
Standing in the way of implementing such new models are obstacles far beyond the scope of farmers, restaurateurs, and nonprofits—things like food deserts, land prices, gentrification, cultural differences. Trying to ensure living wages for farmers and staff at grocery stores complicates the situation further. But the existence of these problems shouldn't be taken as an argument that current food access programs are sufficient.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mind the Gap"