As locally sourced food surges in popularity, foodie-innovators aim to scale up the movement and take it global, despite the inherent challenges.

Picture a lovely Saturday night in San Francisco. You’ve invited friends over for dinner and prepared your specialty dish. Between the entrée and desert, a guest suddenly asks, “Who grew those tomatoes? Were they biodynamic? Where did that chicken come from?”

Unusual to have such a probing question? No, not anymore.

More than two decades ago, the “Slow Food” movement raised red flags about “the rise of fast food and fast life,” and began questioning what good food really is. What started in just a few small kitchens, fields, and farmers markets is now a major trend. Today, the Slow Food organization boasts a membership of more than 100,000 people in 150 countries who care about the food they eat and are working to create a more sustainable food system.

As the local food movement gains steam, it faces several challenges. Proponents want a closer connection with their food-, but at the same time, the bump in popularity increases the amount of food required.

How can we overcome the challenge of scale to meet demand, while ensuring that the principles important to the local food movement remain in place? Can a system that was designed to be small and slow become big and fast? We are in the midst of a crucial shift in international food consumption, and the San Francisco Bay Area is in many ways the capital of this food revolution.

Definitions first

Important trends always come with their own lingo. Sustainability, for example, has become a term that you hear everywhere and probably use without really asking yourself what it means. It seems pretty simple, right? Well…

Here’s the definition used by the United States Environmental Protection Agency:

“Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

So it’s not that simple after all. As alluded to in the definition, sustainability has three pillars—environmental, economic, and social. Sustainable food must be environmentally sound, which is why it’s often found alongside descriptions like “organic.” Economically, it should make sense financially and shouldn’t require an unreasonable amount of labor. And increasingly, the story behind where food comes from needs to be clear, which fulfills that social requirement.

When it comes to food, those three pillars frequently converge in locally sourced products. However, the term “local” does not have a standard definition that everyone can agree on. But what distance is considered local? 50 miles? 400 miles? The answer is not always clear and can depend on many different geographical components such as population density and soil type. “Local” is all about the closest feasible option. If you live in a sprawling city like Los Angeles, the closest farm might be 100 miles away, whereas it might be only 10 if you live in Geneva. Often, it’s left up to the consumer to draw the line between what’s local and what’s not.

If I buy bread from the bakery down the street knowing that the baker purchased wheat at a fair price from an organic farmer 30 miles away, is it sustainable? In many ways, the answer is yes, but what if the farmer employs cheap, temporary labor to harvest his fields? What if the cashier in the bakery has to work many hard extra hours without overtime pay? Being a sustainable eater is not a passive status; it’s a process of engagement in which you learn to exist in “productive harmony.”

Who brings the farm to the table?

Photo Credit: Gary Yost

Local food systems are enabled by a complex network of actors working together to ensure sustainable food supplies. Say you want tomatoes for a fresh salad. Easy—take your recyclable bag and stroll to the closest farmers market to buy it directly from the farmer.

In recent years, the number of farmers markets in the San Francisco Bay Area has increased tremendously. The market at the the Ferry Plaza is operated by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), one of the pioneers in San Francisco. When they started 20 years ago, there were only three farmers markets in the city. Now there are around 30.

But what if you live far from a market or don’t like to fight the Saturday morning crowds? No worries. Just go to your grocery store. These days, grocery stores have caught on to the trend and are helping spur the uptick of sustainable food. Whole Foods Market, the world’s leading retailer of organic and local food, has more than 340 stores in the U.S.—six in San Francisco alone—and reported revenues of $11.7 billion in 2012. The local component means a lot in the retail store industry because the potential market for locavores is only continuing to grow.

Many Whole Foods Markets today look much more like a typical supermarket (right) compared to the original store in Austin, Texas (on the left in 1981).

What if you don’t even want to go out? That’s fine too. Order your tomatoes online—it’s Silicon Valley after all. Some farms have their own websites, such as Farm Fresh to You, where you can order a veggie box for delivery. Others are part of community supported agriculture cooperatives—commonly called CSAs—from which you can buy shares of the farm and get your box delivered to your doorstep all year round. The organization Farmigo is a good example.

Opportunities for engaged entrepreneurs

What’s so unique about Silicon Valley is that each identified problem or trend leads to unique business opportunities for hungry entrepreneurs (no pun intended) willing to join the cause at all stages—production, processing, distribution, and consumption. This is good news because scaling local food production up will require more disruptive food businesses and tech ideas in the near future.

Reveille Coffee Truck

Countless new chefs are sustainably feeding the Bay Area by opening new restaurants, operating food trucks, and selling their products at farmers markets or grocery stores. Others are taking on the challenge of feeding consumers without having an on-street selling location. How do they reach the hungry people?

Fortunately, there is help. Some startups create online tools to connect them with their customers. Good Eggs is one example of a startup that shortens the distance between consumers and the food vendors or producers in their neighborhoods. For instance, it connects you with Three Babes Bakeshop’s delicious pies. With a click of your mouse, you can have locally sourced apple pie delivered to your house, and it will be a perfect sweet treat after your tomato salad.

Like tech entrepreneurs, local food entrepreneurs also have their quasi-incubators to nurture and grow their businesses. The young Local Food Lab, the soon-to-be Forage Kitchen, and the 13-year-old La Cocina are three distinct examples. Local Food Lab offers a six-week program focused on business training for local food ideas. Forage Kitchen will be a co-working space for food. For $99/month, you get access to the kitchen, training, culinary support, and equipment. Last but not least, La Cocina is a well-established kitchen incubator that helps low-income entrepreneurs, especially women, from the immigrant community to become self-sufficient doing what they love to do.

A fast-food approach to slow food

Screenshot of Lyfe Kitchen homepage

The price of sustainable food is still a problem. How much more are consumers willing to pay for sustainably harvest food over that which is conventionally grown? People like fast foods because they are cheap, but is there a future for sustainable fast foods? The answer is yes, at least according to former McDonald’s executives Mike Roberts and Mike Donahue, who think they’ve figured out a solution to “disrupt the food system.” In October 2011, they opened Lyfe Kitchen in Palo Alto with the idea of applying what they have learned in the fast food industry to this new culinary paradigm. Lyfe aims to be a radically sustainable and healthy fast food chain with affordable prices.

What’s in season?

The savvy sustainable eaters reading this post have probably realized that at this time of the year, the tomato salad I mentioned earlier is a bit of a fallacious example. Why? It’s not in season, which brings up another important hurdle. Seasonality is one of the biggest challenges to sustainable food behavior, though it’s less of an issue in mild climates with long growing seasons like the Bay Area. At that moment, while a sustainable shelf in a San Francisco grocery store is still full of different varieties of fruits and vegetables, an equivalent Swiss shelf would likely give you the choice between root vegetables and root vegetables.

Well, almost—the point is that certain areas of the world just support a greater variety of produce year-round. The modern food system gave people choice; now the challenge is either to make those choices sustainable or convince consumers that having fewer choices that are healthier and better for the environment is better. It’s time to collectively think about solutions. To take a page out of Silicon Valley’s playbook, could a Swiss root hackathon help to find ways to enjoy beets through the long winter?

Story time

Beyond just being responsible eaters, the trend toward sustainability demonstrates a desire to be connected with the narrative of our food. Even if fast foods do become a part of the local food movement, this trend points to a strong willingness to slow down and take the time to learn about what we’re eating. As the scale of sustainable food ramps up, successful entrepreneurs will have to remember this tenet that was so important to the original Slow Food movement.

What’s the story of your tomatoes?