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Friday, September 5, 2008

The End of the Twin Cities Food Scene?

My phone rang this morning: It was a frantic local chef, one of the founders of Minneapolis’ restaurant culture. Inspectors had been in her restaurant four times during the Republican National Convention, while there, informed her that it was illegal for restaurants to buy food directly from farmers, or from farmer’s markets. “He said we could not go to the farmers’ market, period. I didn’t then tell him, ‘Well I also have farmers delivering to my door….” He said: You have to get your food from a distributor. Nothing can come from anywhere but a distributor.”

Yes, it’s apparently now illegal for restaurants to buy food from farmers. Any of it. Vegetables, herbs, apples—anything and everything. All foods in restaurants must be purchased from distributors.

If this is in fact true, restaurants that may as well just close their doors include: Alma, Porter & Frye, La Belle Vie, Lucia’s, Heartland, Firelake, Craftsman, Spoonriver, Café Brenda, Cosmos, the Corner Table, Saffron, the Dakota, and the rest of them. Oh, and just about every Hmong and Vietnamese restaurant would need to close too.

Why are they doing this? Because the Republicans were here? Because the city and state hate us, and want us to eat only unhealthy packaged foods? Because the city and state hate farmers, and wish to end their free access to markets?

I’m trying to track down the answer. As of right now, I’ve put in calls to the mayor of Minneapolis, the mayor of St. Paul, the governor, Minneapolis’ health department, and the state health department. Of course, everyone worked all last week, all last weekend, and up through today on RNC stuff, so everyone seems to be taking the afternoon off.

So far the only person I’ve heard back from is Mayor Rybak’s spokesman, who said: “The mayor and his wife are huge supporters of locally grown food. If anything, the mayor believes we should have more locally grown food, not less, so I think he would be pretty upset by this.”

Well, yeah. He should be. I am.

I’ll post more as, and if, I hear back from people, but for now: Is this the end of life as we know it?
 

Posted on Friday, September 5, 2008 in Permalink

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Comments, page 1 of 2 1 2 Next »
Sep 5, 2008 01:59 pm
 Posted by  Erin

Yes, this would be horrible if it is true. I can't wait to hear what you find out...

If this is true, please let us know who to write or call to try to change this!

Sep 5, 2008 03:00 pm
 Posted by  pinecone

Sysco must have some powerful lobbyists!

Sep 5, 2008 03:23 pm
 Posted by  Steve S.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture website contradicts the "inspectors".

http://www.mda.state.mn.us/food/business/safelocalproduce.htm

Sep 5, 2008 03:37 pm
 Posted by  Dara

Hey, that's a great point! Nice work, Steve S. I am going to use this as I keep going.

So far I've heard back from a few people in city and state government, most directing me towards the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. I'll get to the bottom of this!

Sep 8, 2008 12:29 pm
 Posted by  Y.C.

Just so you know I have been getting mixed signals about this. We had 2 inspections before the RNC and heard 2 different storiesfrom 2 different inspectors not just about that but about lots of things. It seems like the "new" system they have in place needs an overhaul.

Sep 10, 2008 09:42 am
 Posted by  Kingsford

calling it a 'system' is quite a compliment.... were these inspectors saying local food was illegal from st. paul or minneapolis?

Sep 15, 2008 10:42 pm
 Posted by  Sam

So, um, any news on this? It seems sort of important...

Sep 16, 2008 07:49 am
 Posted by  keg

This is lousy journalism. Check facts, then publish. There are federal, state, and local requirements (USDA, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Health) regarding the production and distribution of food. If there's a new requirement regarding farm direct unprocessed foods, it has not been communicated. Please publish your findings ASAP.

The new Traditional Foods "club" warehouse is an attempt to sidestep legal requirements for producer to consumer transactions. Complying with state regulations for processing foods for wholesale distribution and direct retail is potentially expensive. The club allows producers to process and add value to their products without the expense of State licensing. I wonder whether the restaurant you are speaking of is part of the club, and therefore the inspector is testing the law and status of this new type of distribution. Centralized distribution is a huge advantage to producers, many of whom discover too late how inefficient it is to drive all over "hell and gone" to sell small volumes of product. Lenny Russo has flirted with a year round centralized distribution scheme in St. Paul. Traditional Foods is focused on the same gap. Co-op Partners is already fully in the game with a USDA Organic Certified warehouse, and full compliance with all legal requirements.

Sep 16, 2008 07:56 am
 Posted by  keg

So was it Brenda or Lucia?

Sep 16, 2008 10:56 am
 Posted by  Dara

We actually go through an editorial process with this and I filed a follow-up with my editor more than a week ago, but it's just taking a really long time to get through the system. So, a quick update.

The good news: It is totally fine for restaurants to buy from farmers, and licensed foragers, as long as everyone is selling unprocessed produce from land they own or lease. So, stand down, everything is fine and we can go back to business as usual.

So, what happened? There seems to have been one inspector, and his supervisor, in Minneapolis, who were enforcing a belief that you could only buy produce from distributors. They now have the correct information, so that's done.

As to it being lousy journalism? Yeah. You're probably right: Sorry. I took a couple of trusted sources at their word and got led down a primrose path, however, writing about it managed to get that one inspector and his supervisor the correct information, so it wasn't a total loss. The process of reporting this was very sticky because restaurant-people are terrified of upsetting their inspectors, because they feel that there are a thousand little nitpicky things inspectors can go after if they choose to be unreasonable. But, the inspectors see no up-side to talking to the press, so they won't call you back. (And they're right, for them there is no up-side to talking to the press.) And so: What would you do? You've got a couple sources who you trust telling you terrifying tales, and inspectors who won't call you back. (I still haven't heard from them.) So, I blogged about it. Maybe it was a bad call. Frankly, all in all I find it kind of embarassing, and I'm not sure how I would handle it differently if it happened again.

I don't know. All in all it's been a learning experience for me, and I'm not sure what I've learned. If I've wasted your time I'm sorry. If I've lessened your opinion of me, sorry again. I made what I thought was a good call, but now in retrospect maybe it wasn't.

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