Milwaukee Collective Helps Put Local Ingredients on Restaurant Menus

Aug 8, 2017

The tang of a freshly picked tomato, the crunch and sweetness of a recently harvested carrot, the crisp floral flavor of a just-picked cucumber. Chef Dave Swanson wants to facilitate restaurant-goers' ability to taste these items, and pretty much anything else that can be produced or foraged in Wisconsin.

He is the owner of Braise Restaurant in Milwaukee, and in 2008, he put together the country’s first RSA, or Restaurant Supported Agriculture. It’s like a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, where farmers deliver a package of fresh produce to individuals. Except in the RSA, restaurants, food trucks, caterers and cafes order produce from farmers, who deliver to a hub in the city.

"I just didn't want to bring a red wagon to the marketplace and fill a couple things up and bring it back to the restaurant. I wanted to source on a different level."

For Lake Effect's Full Plate series, Swanson explains what he was going for in setting up this collective. “I just didn’t want to bring a red wagon to the marketplace and fill a couple things up and bring it back to the restaurant. I wanted to source on a different level,” he says. “To do that, I needed to have access to hundreds of pounds, thousands of pounds of ingredients. So that’s where I created this RSA, to be a mechanism to bring things in from farms that are located outside the urban area and bring these products into Milwaukee.”

He says it comes down to logistics. “I work with farmers on a number of different levels to bring food in from point A to point B. We basically are a small distributor working for local farmers.”

According to Swanson, the program helps with communication. “There’s farmer-speak and there’s chef-speak. I look at what the RSA does as a translator." He adds that there are also economic incentives. “It’s what’s needed not only for the food scene, but also for the agricultural scene, to make sure that the more farmers are supplying to more restaurants."

A chalkboard at Braise Restaurant lists farm sourced products.
Credit Maayan Silver

Swanson points to one other advantage: "There’s a lot of carbon footprint that’s being exerted on our environment. If we can just have one truck do that, and one coordination of that [all the better].”

Currently, the program is leasing space from Feeding America, where the RSA receives its deliveries and has access to Feeding America’s infrastructure of trucks and reception areas.

Additionally, Swanson says, “If we need to donate items…that are going to go bad in the field, [farms] can donate to Feeding America and get something for that product rather than tilling it in their soil.”

He says that restaurants can also take advantage of this pooling of resources. “There was never any competition with that. High tide floats all boats, and that’s what we wanted. We want to showcase what these farmers can do, what good food is, and really help Milwaukee’s food scene improve.”

Help us shape our Full Plate series, what questions do you have about food and its production?

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