It's 8 o'clock. Do you know where your food came from?

Photographer: Erin Lubin/Bloomberg

Dining Out on Empty Virtue

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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We all love farm-to-table food, don’t we? The freshness, the warm sense of environmental sustainability, the delights of spending your money in the local economy. Of course we all love it.

Or … maybe we just think we love it. An exhaustive investigation by a Tampa Bay Times food critic reveals just how little of the food advertised as organic, locally sourced, non-GMO fare actually fits that description. The article is a slightly painful read, as restaurant after restaurant sheepishly tries to cover for their, um, “menu anomalies” by explaining that they totally used to buy some stuff from a local producer, then they forgot to change the chalkboard when they switched suppliers, and besides, the bus was late and the dog ate their homework. Some of these claims may even be true, but given the ubiquity of these "anomalies," it’s hard to believe that there isn’t considerable calculation behind these unidirectional mistakes.

And it’s not hard to figure out why: Consumers don’t really want to buy farm-to-table food. What they want to buy is the moral satisfaction of farm-to-table food.

A consumer who is actually looking for vegetables picked no later than yesterday morning and trundled to their table at the peak of freshness probably isn’t going to be satisfied with the corn that just spent a few weeks bouncing around in the back of a truck somewhere; the products will be noticeably different in flavor. On the other hand, for a consumer who’s just looking for moral satisfaction -- well, the nice thing about selling intangible qualities is that there’s no discernible difference to the consumer between being told that they're consuming locally grown foods and actually doing so.

The nice thing for the consumer is that this moral satisfaction can be bought cheap, because actual farm-to-table food has significant drawbacks. For one thing, eating locally sharply limits the variety of foods you can consume at one time. Things pop up in their growing season, then they are gone from our tables, if not our hearts and memories. This is how my mother grew up eating in the farm country of western New York, where summer was a glorious succession of excesses: three weeks of strawberry shortcake every evening, then farewell to strawberries for the rest of the year; that loss was, of course, somewhat consoled by the onset of purple raspberry pie. But eventually winter came, and it was back to root vegetables, home-canned beans and frozen peas, occasionally varied by the tasteless yet indestructible iceberg lettuce that could be shipped from the ever-fertile fields of inland California.

It’s not such a terrible way to eat, actually. But it is a limited way to eat, and we modern consumers are not used to limits. We like to see our tables graced by seasonal vegetables, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to give up all the other things we like that don’t happen to be growing locally right now.

Food grown locally, on small-lot farms without modern chemical assistance, is really expensive. The complex modern food-supply chain that ensures restaurants and food processors can get the same consistent mix of staple ingredients year-round also relentlessly beats down the price of food, sourcing wherever supply is cheapest, redistributing temporary local abundance to a steady global diet of everyday low prices. This is also not such a terrible way to eat; it is the foundation of much of our modern prosperity. But it is not local, artisanal, organic. It is global, industrial, indifferent. It has to be, both because organic inputs are much more expensive, and because trying to separate and track all the food so that restaurateurs can be sure of provenance and process would mean abandoning many of the efficiencies that make the stuff so cheap.

And Americans expect cheap. Cheap, after all, is what makes it possible for us to spend so much money at restaurants; if we had to pay all the workers $20 an hour and ensure that all our meat and produce had been farmed in the latest and most approved 19th-century methods, few of us could afford to have weekly dining out in our budget. Restaurants might be more authentic, delicious, moral places. They would also be much emptier ones.

Reading the Tampa Bay Times article, you get the sense that many of these restaurateurs tried to provide an authentic farm-to-table experience and found that customers were not willing to pay what it would cost -- in money or variety -- to have one. People are probably willing to pay some premium for that kind of food, but the premium is probably closer to 10 to 15 percent than it is to the sky-high sums that it would actually cost to rely on those sorts of farms, those sorts of methods. So the restaurateurs inevitably sold them what they were happily willing to pay for: food from an industrial supply chain, with a side of moral satisfaction.

It’s hard to be too angry at consumers. To be sure, they probably should have known that you couldn’t really buy organic, locally sourced food year-round at just a smidge more than you’d pay for a regular meal. After all, the average American spent half their income on food in 1900, while the modern American now spends a paltry 12 percent, even including a lavish helping of restaurant meals. That should give us some sign that local, artisanal food is not going to be cheap. But most Americans are not economic historians.

But it’s not even that easy to be mad at the restaurants. They’re in a viciously competitive business where most places don’t survive. In a competitive equilibrium where so many people want to be told they’re eating farm-fresh food -- and so few people seem willing to pay for it -- many of them probably feel that their choice is “lie or die.”

I mean, yes, those restaurateurs are cheating their customers out of something, but it’s hard to say exactly what. People walked out of those meals happier than they would have been if they’d been told they were eating regular food. Forcing restaurants to be more honest about their provenance might help some small farmers at the margin, but since Americans don’t really seem to be willing to pay a lot extra for local sourcing, it’s hard to say how many. Meanwhile, more honest menu labeling would deprive diners of an artificial, but nonetheless pleasant-tasting, feeling of virtue.

In the end, I am the descendant of my rural ancestors and their simple, homespun virtues, so I stubbornly believe that we should be honest about these things -- and that restaurants should be punished if they are not. On the other hand, I also believe in their simple, homespun proverbs, most notably that “you can’t cheat an honest man.” I can't help but wonder: Are we really being taken in? Or like many a con man's victim, are we desperately trying to get in on the fraud?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net