Local Food and the French Connection

I’ve written previously about efforts to create a Food Charter in Simcoe County. That led to the creation of The Food Partners Alliance of Simcoe County and the Food and Agriculture Charter. This summer awards were presented to “Charter Champions”. Innisfil residents will recognize some of the winners:

Popular support for local food and agriculture is a growing phenomenon everywhere. In France, where food is sacred and cooking is practically a religion, a major controversy developed over what restaurants were serving to their customers. According to some reports, 75% of French restaurants included frozen factory-produced ingredients on their menus. It didn’t take long to start a heated debate about what constitutes a “restaurant”, or how to define “home-cooking”.

“a documentary by France’s TV 5 last year, three quarters of France’s 150,000 restaurants served frozen or pre-made meals. Some establishments even offered ready-made meals endorsed by famous chefs as “house specialties… the initiative faces vocal opponents, including unions that represent France’s largest hotel and fast food outlets. They have voiced concerns that the move could result in job losses and create a gastrocracy… Others are more cynical about the whole affair. Former restaurant critic Jonathan Meades told France’s English- language newspaper that the label was a PR stunt designed to preserve “the mystery of cheffery.”
(French Foodies Fight Ready-Made Meals, June 2013)

An article from July, 2013 noted:

“A chunk of tuna cooked Provencal style with an attractive ratatouille on the side, for instance, can be bought in a restaurant-
supply factory for $4, stored in the freezer indefinitely and sold to a diner for $17 after three minutes in the microwave, according to a report in Marianne magazine. A chocolate eclair for dessert goes for 60 cents at the factory and lands on a restaurant table for a profit of several hundred percent.

The practice has spread across the country in recent years as freezing techniques improve and restaurant owners seek to maximize profits by reducing the number of chefs and assistant chefs in the kitchen. In addition, it coincides with the increasing industrialization of the food industry across Europe, dramatized this year [2013] when horsemeat found its way into frozen lasagna and experts had trouble tracing the origins.”

France’s “Homemade” Menu Symbol

A prominent chef “lamented the growing tendency not only because it cheats diners but also because it means that everybody ends up eating the same mass-produced food with the same homogenized tastes.”

In the end, a law was passed requiring French restaurants to display a symbol on their menus to indicate items that are made “in-house”. Dishes made from frozen, pre-peeled or pre-cut products still count as home-made. The debate in France continues. (French Restaurants Launch Homemade Symbol, July, 2014)

What about our corner of the world? Do we care? North Americans buy a large proportion of their meals already prepared, from either fast-food take-out, franchise restaurants, supermarkets or deli-counters:

“In 2008, a Datamonitor survey found that 44% of citizens across 15 countries feel that it is difficult to manage their daily obligations and find time to relax. A Yankelovich study conducted in 2008 discovered:

  • 70% of Americans aged 16 years or older feel that they do not have the time to do all the things they need to do…
  • 60% of American consumers do not know at 4 p.m. what they will have for dinner that night, and expect to spend a total of about 30 minutes preparing, cooking and eating the meal, including clean up.
  • Cooking at home is seen as a chore, and meal preparation is considered very time consuming. Eating alone at non-fixed mealtimes is becoming more common…”
    (Consumer Trend Report, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, June 2010)

In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that:

  • On average, Canadian households visit a restaurant for a meal or snack 520 times a year
  • More than 90,000 food services and drinking places operate in Canada—about one for every 350 Canadians
  • Canadian households spend an average of 30% of their food budget on food services, compared with 42% for American households

A CBC news reported in 2011 findings of a Heart & Stroke Foundation survey (Canadians have no time for healthy living):

  • 41% said healthy meals take too long to prepare
  • More than half (51%) said fast food outlets don’t have enough healthy choices

Is there a Made-in-Innisfil opportunity in all of this? Our corporate culture promotes an endless work schedule conflicting with family obligations, driving people out of the kitchen. Stagnant wages and income inequality are driving the average family into franchise outlets marketing a limited and predictable range of prepared meals. Could a truly, local, fresh and ‘homemade’ meal alternative compete with them? Would residents stop at a store / restaurant displaying a symbol like the one above? Could it operate profitably and sustainably? How much do you care?