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Think you’re eating local food? It might be a lie.

Boxes of vegetables at farmers markets
Snow peas and tomatoes are almost certainly not in season at the same time.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

If you've ever wondered how there could possibly be enough local farmers to support all the farm-to-table restaurants cropping up across America, an investigation from the Tampa Bay Times' Laura Reiley has one possible answer: There may not be enough. At least in Tampa, Reiley found, the restaurants are lying to you.

As Reiley writes, many of the restaurants in Tampa that promise local food buy it from the same national suppliers as everyone else. The vendors at farmers markets are often selling repackaged grocery store rejects with the stickers scraped off — even at roadside stands in the country with spray-painted signs that make it seem like the produce came from the next field over.

Reiley recounts a conversation with one vendor, just one jaw-dropping example in two articles full of them that are well worth reading in their entirety:

I ask a young woman if the produce is from her farm. She says yes. I ask if it is all from her farm. She says no, they buy from neighboring farms. When I notice asparagus and apples, which generally don’t grow in Florida, I ask if it is resold produce from a broader radius. She says yes. And then I ask, specifically, which items are grown on Lee Farms.

Her answer: "We are currently replanting."

In 40 seconds, Lee Farms went from growing everything to nothing.

Even the hot sauce, honey, jam, and other locally produced products at farmers markets are often mass-produced somewhere else, on contract for what seems like a mom-and-pop company.

Reiley's investigation focused on restaurants and farmers markets in Tampa Bay. It's hard to know how bad local food fraud is in other cities. Florida grows a lot of produce, and has a longer growing season, than most other states. So in theory it should be poised to deliver on the promise of "local" fruits and vegetables better than most other places.

One reason why restaurants can dupe customers, Reiley writes, is that foodie terms of art like "local," "natural," and "sustainable" don't have official definitions. The US Department of Agriculture enforces the definition of "organic": You can't claim that a genetically modified crop, or an eggplant that's been sprayed with a synthetic pesticide, is organic and get off scot-free.

But if you're at a "farm-to-table" restaurant or buying from a farmers market vendor, it's much harder for anyone to ascertain if the halo of fresh, local food is backed up by the facts.

Go deeper:

  • This isn't the only part of the food industry built on lies. "All-natural" labels mean nothing. Your parmesan cheese might have wood pulp in it. Fish is routinely mislabeled. Don't even ask about what's really in your olive oil.
  • One farm apprentice anonymously told Modern Farmer about his experience selling mislabeled produce: "He asked me to re-package a bunch of salad greens that were from California into small plastic baggies with our farm’s label on it that were going to go to the market and be put in CSA boxes."
  • Farmers market cheating was so common in California that both Los Angeles County and the state have stepped up inspections, spending $1 million statewide on a new law cracking down on vendors who say they're selling produce they actually bought elsewhere.

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