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National Restaurant Association - Community gardens become restaurants’ ticket to local food

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Community gardens become restaurants’ ticket to local food

Restaurants that can’t cultivate gardens of their own are finding they can source locally grown produce by cooperating with neighbors.

Community gardens provide ways for chefs to grow, barter for or buy beans, eggplants, tomatoes, lettuce and other just-picked ingredients. The communal growing spaces typically consist of 100- or 120-square foot plots, each tended by local residents.

In some cases, as with the Kapow! Asian cafe that is to open later this year in Boca Raton, Fla., restaurants that lack on-premise garden space are eying those plots to as places to grow what they can.

In other instances, they’re arranging to use the output of neighbors’ plots. “If you’ve ever grown zucchini, you know you can’t give it all away,” says Laura Lavid, project manager for the American Community Gardening Association.  "Restaurants are saying, 'Oh, yes you can. Or we’ll give you a few bucks for it.' "

In other situations, secondary swap markets have developed for gardeners. The green thumb with too much zucchini can trade with another plot holder who’s had an especially good bean crop.

Restaurants are interjecting themselves into those exchanges. The Refinery restaurant in Tampa, Fla., sends vegetable scraps to a community garden for use as compost. In exchange, garden participants provide some of their produce.

At the same time, restaurants are turning to consumer-supported agriculture, or CSAs. Before planting, CSA farms sell shares in their future output to area residents. When a crop comes into season, the shareholders collect their allotments.

Big Bowl, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ casual Asian chain, has given the formula a twist. Chef Marc Bernard has secured the rights to the output from two acres on Heritage Prairie Farms in western Illinois. The land is planted with heirloom seeds that Bernard specified.

Big Bowl pays employees of its four Chicago stores to help farm the plot. A weekly work session is required of cooks.

“We want the servers to be able to say, ‘That cauliflower you’re eating? I picked that myself today,’” says spokeswoman Laura Yee.

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