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Farms, restaurants are reaping the rewards of local sourcing

| Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ten years ago, Art King inquired about selling produce to restaurants in fast-growing Cranberry and Mars.

"The restaurant owners looked at me like I was crazy," the Middlesex farmer said. "It did not go well."

What a difference a decade makes.

Nowadays, King can hardly keep up with restaurant demand for his produce, and he's not alone.

From lavish hotel restaurants to university cafeterias and even nursing homes, the push toward using local food is reaching something of a fever pitch.

"The trend of local sourcing has grown across the board over the last several years," said Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C. "Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in what's on their plate and where it comes from, and, in response, restaurants give them what they want."

The association's research shows that 69 percent of consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food.

That popularity is reflected in membership at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, a Centre County-based organization that has 6,000 members, up from several hundred in the mid-1990s, said Alissa Matthews, the association's Western Pennsylvania coordinator.

"Buying local is not entirely new. It's bigger than it was, and restaurants that buy local now really want to use it in their marketing," she said.

King's Harvest Valley Farms is one of about 15 local suppliers for Big Burrito Restaurant Group, an East Liberty-based chain that includes Mad Mex, Soba and Eleven.

"People believe that local food is healthier and that local food tastes better," said Craig Fuller, Big Burrito's executive chef.

Big Burrito buys lamb from Elysian Fields Farms of Waynesburg in Greene County and peaches from McConnells' Farm, a 200-acre peach farm in Beaver County's Hopewell Township owned by the same family since 1787.

Andrew Morrison, executive chef at Habitat restaurant at Downtown's Fairmont Hotel, has a side of beef delivered weekly from Burns Angus in Lawrence County.

"We cut all our own steaks, make ground beef, soup stocks and sauces and use the fat for frying," Morrison said.

Local produce, meat and fish are not just for tony restaurants.

Eat 'n Park in 2002 launched FarmSource, its local purchasing program.

"There is a consciousness about eating high-quality and clean food," said Jamie Moore, the company's director of sourcing and sustainability.

Restaurants and consumers also believe buying local boosts the local economy.

Aaron Schwartz of Clarion County feared going out of business before becoming one of the first farmers to sell to Eat n' Park in 2003.

"The United States is set up for mass production," said Schwartz, who is part of Clarion River Organics, a cooperative of 10 family farms whose clients include Whole Foods and Giant Eagle. "Local farmers have much more trouble getting products to producers."

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