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The History of the Farm to Table Movement

The History of the Farm to Table Movement

There’s no cut and dry definition of farm to table, but it boils down to this: the farm to table movement broadly refers to food made from locally-sourced ingredients, often natural or organic. Even though there isn’t an exact definition that restaurants have to adhere to in order to call themselves a farm-to-table establishment, those that self-proclaim the label can be found almost everywhere, from small midwestern locales to urban centers.

“Farm to fork” is another way to refer to the movement. As Rutgers puts it, farm to fork is “a food system in which food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place.” While most of us see the term used in restaurants, it can be applied much more broadly than that.

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A brief farm to table history

It’s impossible to talk about the rise of farm to table without discussing the fall of the processed food empire.

Packaged goods thrived after innovations in food processing and storage were created, and peaked with the ubiquity of canned food during the 1950s. Processed food continued to reign supreme until the 1960s and 1970s. At that point, the hippie movement—composed of people who were passionate fans of local and organic food—swept the States. “The counterculture is always ahead of what’s happening in mainstream culture,” says Lucky Peach’s Peter Meehan.

A timeline showing the progression of the farm to table movement.

After a few years, hippie preferences began showing up in formal food structures. Alice Waters, a champion of local, sustainable agriculture, opened the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkley, California in 1971. A few years later, in 1979, the non-profit Organically Grown opened in Oregon. The movement then made its way to Europe in 1986, when Carlo Perini founded the Slow Food Organization in Italy. 

The principles behind farm to table

The main driving forces behind the farm to table or farm to fork movement, whichever you prefer to call it, have to do with the ethics of food production. As Rutgers outlines, there are four pillars to the movement:

  • Food security. The farm to table movement increases the scope of food security to move beyond the food needs of individuals or families and looks at the needs of both the larger community, with a focus on low-income households. “It has a strategic goal of developing local food systems,” the article notes.
  • Proximity. The farm to table movement hinges on the notion that the various components of a food system (or restaurant) should exist in the closest proximity to each other as possible. The goal is to develop relationships between the various stakeholders in a food system such as “farmers, processors, retailers, restaurateurs, consumers” and more. Additionally, proximity reduces the environmental impact of transporting ingredients across states or countries.
  • Self-reliance. One of the goals of farm to table is to generate communities that can meet their own food needs, again eliminating the need for outside resources or long distance transportation of food.
  • Sustainability. The core idea here is that farm to table food systems exist in a way that doesn’t stifle “the ability of future generations to meet their food needs,” meaning that it doesn’t destroy resources in the process.

That said, the farm to fork movement includes other goals as well, such as increasing the health of a community and increasing access to food across an entire community.

An outdoor picnic table set up with a barn in the background decorated with string lights.

The farm to table movement today

The farm to table movement, with its lofty goals and ideals for how our food systems and the restaurants that operate within them, wouldn’t have become what it is today without similar progressions in separate sectors. “Five years ago, the farmer’s market wasn’t as vibrant and it attracted just nine local farmers that sold a few different kinds of veggies. Today, there’s a fourfold jump, with 36 farmers who regularly show up with a dizzying array of eggplants, blueberries, pecans, home-churned butter and meat from animals raised on the farms encircling the town,” notes NPR’s Chief Business Editor Pallavi Gogoi.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the accompanying environmental awakening that ushered in such exponential growth. It occurred in a similar way to the farm-to-table movement. The two quickly grew hand in hand, propping each other up due to their overlaps and similarities.

“Consumers who have been educated by movies like An Inconvenient Truth now pore over ‘food miles’ and ‘carbon footprints.’ The message seems to be: if you buy organic, you care about your own body; if you buy local you care about your body and the environment,” says Gogoi. She adds, “as many as 1,200 school districts around the country, from Alabama to Iowa, have linked up with local farms to serve fresh vegetables and fruit to children. Last year, Iowa’s Woodbury County mandated that its food service suppliers buy from local farmers.” 

What’s clear is that the farm to table movement is not a passing trend. It’s designed to change the culture around how we eat.

An overhead shot of a table setting with a plate full of fresh green vegetables.


What’s next: Fewer farms and a growing population

In 1900, the U.S. population was 76,212,168, and in 100 short years (in 2000) it was 282.2 million. The conundrum here is that the number of farms has actually fallen 63%, while the average farm size has risen 67%. In 1940, each farmer fed about 19 people. In 2013, one farmer fed about 168 people. Gone are the days of small scale agriculture and hello to machine led large-scale farming.

The population is growing, and more consumers are seeking organic options, and vegetable based diets, the farm industry will have to adapt. If this restaurant industry trend continues, we can expect a narrowing of the gap between farms and tables, both at restaurants and out.

The right technology can help your farm to table restaurant streamline operations, reduce food waste and more. For more information on how Lightspeed can help, get in touch with one of our experts.

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