Local produce and meat are projected to be the two most popular items on restaurant menus this year, according to the National Restaurant Association.
But as more institutions like schools and hospitals look to "buy local," they're finding themselves in a bind -- large food distributors may not carry items those customers are looking for. And fragmented networks of local farms don't know how to distribute the food efficiently.
Inside the cafeteria freezer at Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital, near Madison, Wis., Amy Miller, the hospital's food service director, points at a pile of spindly thighs and breasts inside a Ziploc bag. Miller provides up to 200 meals a day, and a few months ago, she decided she'd served enough of this mass-produced poultry.
"We wanted to have a product we were comfortable with as far as not having the antibiotics -- all the additives that go into chicken today," Miller says.
Miller likes her one-truck-one-delivery-no-hassles relationship with her current supplier, Reinhart Food Service. So she asked the company if it could bring some local organic chickens on the truck. Reinhart told her that food safety regulations made that impossible.
"While these federal guidelines are voluntary, big distributors require them to minimize the risk of delivering contaminated food," Miller says.
Reinhart would not make someone available to speak to NPR despite repeated attempts. But Bob Golden, an industry analyst in Chicago, says that while food safety is a concern, it isn't the main barrier to offering more local food.
"The major distributors are trying to gauge demand, and adjust their orders and offers accordingly," Golden says. "It's very complex and complicated, adding a whole realm of locally sourced foods."
Food service distribution is all about speed, efficiency and keeping costs low. Adding large numbers of local products could force big distributors to open more warehouses and overhaul other operations to ensure timely delivery.
"If a company were going to jump in with both feet at this point, they would probably have to put a lot of upfront investment in," says Kyle Stiegert, a food systems economist at the University of Wisconsin. "That would cut into their profit margins for quite some time."
Stiegert says that for the foreseeable future, such an investment keeps the cost of local food prohibitively high.
"To me, the key is to make local food available, but also to make it price competitive," he says. "Without the price competition, it's going to be harder to get people engaged on this."
In Dane County, Wis., an innovative effort is under way to reconcile these two issues.
Olivia Parry runs the Institutional Food Market Coalition out of the county's Office of Planning and Development. It began as a program to create more business for the small and mid-sized family farms in and around Madison, and targets institutional markets
At first, Parry had to beg businesses to show up at her meetings. But by last year, the program moved more than a million pounds of local food into institutions in southern Wisconsin.
One resource that she uses is Local Dirt, a national online marketplace for local food.
"We have found a chicken farmer through them that has free-range chickens," Miller says.
Miller is expecting a delivery of 100 birds in early May.
"We've had samples already, and they are fabulous compared to what we used to be getting," she says.