The sun was shining over the Union Square farmers market on a recent chilly morning as Chris Mitchell, a 34-year-old chef at the fashionable kosher eatery Jezebel, loomed over a table of Jerusalem artichokes. The six-foot-something Georgia native carefully inspected the exterior of the root vegetable before buying a handful to serve as dried chips.
Mitchell comes to the downtown Manhattan market every morning to buy Jezebel’s produce as part of the restaurant’s commitment to purchase locally produced food.
“If you care about what you’re eating and who you are feeding your food to, you’ll want to know where it comes from,” said Mitchell. “That’s the beauty of buying locally.”
The locavore movement has become one of the hottest food trends in recent years, propelled by advocates who see it as a conscientious and environmentally friendly alternative to industrial food trucked in over long distances. Produce from local sources often stays fresh longer and helps keep dollars in the local economy.
But for many kosher consumers, both individuals and restaurants, limiting themselves to local food makes neither practical nor financial sense.
“It seems to me like another layer of worry I have to tack onto my food shopping,” said Erin Reichner, a Brooklyn mother of seven. “The price of keeping kosher means I want to pay less for my produce. I buy plenty of fruit for my children, and I don’t care where it comes from.”
Such declarations aside, interest in local food has exploded in recent years.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers markets in the country has more than quadrupled since 1994 and grew by nearly 10 percent in 2012 alone. That’s in addition to the growth of Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, in which consumers purchase a farm share for a fixed price in the spring and receive a weekly box of produce during the season. Rare in the United States in the early 1980s, today there are estimated to be more than 6,000.
“The best way to cook is to have the farm dictate what your menu should be by buying local produce that’s in season,” said Gabriel Garcia, the chef at Tierra Sur, a kosher restaurant at the Herzog Winery in California that purchases all its produce and meat from local sources.
Garcia said his restaurant’s New Year’s resolution is to procure all its food from suppliers within 200 miles.
“Food tastes better if it’s naturally available,” he said. “Like why would you eat berries in the winter from a grocery store when they are not in season if the winter veggies are hearty, delicious and available?”
In the Jewish world, the trend is manifest in the growth of Jewish CSAs over the past eight years, 58 of which now exist across the country, diverting $7 million in Jewish purchasing power from grocery stores to local farmers, according to the Jewish environmental group Hazon.
“Our traditional laws can inspire us to think how we want to approach agriculture,” said Daniel Infeld, a program associate at Hazon. “The root of kosher means ‘fit to eat,’ and eating locally should coincide with kashrut.”
The past decade has also seen the emergence of Jewish educational programs that emphasize agriculture and the environment — like the Jewish Farm School, Adamah Fellows and Eden Village Camp — all of them grooming a new generation of Jewish local foods enthusiasts.
Most kosher restaurants, however, are not on board with the move toward local suppliers. A Chicago restaurateur said he was struggling enough to cover rent, kosher certification and the organic produce; adding the additional limitation of local just isn’t in the cards.
“I’ve been told that local produce lasts longer, but I can get a much better price if I’m buying in bulk from other countries,” said the owner, who asked that his name not be used. “Plus, I’m in that category of local businesses and I need to take care of myself. I’m not in the position to spend that extra money right now.”
Others say the issue is the hassle. With all the extra requirements of running a kosher eatery, adding local-only food to the restrictions is seen as an unnecessary headache. Moreover, kosher meat from local sources isn’t readily available in many places.
“It’s just not a realistic ideal,” said Moshe Wendel, the chef at Pardes, a kosher restaurant in Brooklyn. “It’s not a feasible thing to do, and I would never recommend it to anyone who keeps kosher because it’s a hassle when you have so many other things to worry about.”
For many locavores, the impulse to shun national brands goes beyond mere environmental considerations. Consumers are increasingly conscious of their food’s provenance and knowing the grower is often the most straightforward way to ensure that what they put in their mouths comes from a trusted source.
“If you are already keeping kosher, then you know strict discipline for dietary customs,” said Jezebel’s Mitchell. “So why not aim for the best quality? If you care about kosher and organic, you should care about local.”
But that kind of approach is also limiting. For caterers, who are called upon often to provide customers with an array of options, refusing to provide tomatoes in January could have a detrimental impact on business.
“Buying from areas other than where you live will supply you with a wider range of food,” said Alison Barnett of Celebrations Kosher Catering in New Jersey. “As a caterer, I need to have the freshest produce, but I also need a secure and stable supply coming to the kitchen.”
At Shopper’s Haven, a kosher market serving the largely Orthodox community of Monsey, in Rockland County, Darren Klapper held up a package of kosher meat selling for $25.99 that ultimately would become part of his Thanksgiving meal.
“I can’t keep up with kosher prices, and then you want me to eat organic because the world is scared of a little pesticide spray, and in addition to that pay for peppers from a neighboring farm that are double the price?” Klapper said. “It’s a bit much.”