EAT YOUR (YOUNG) HEART OUT

New stats show that for the first time ever, young people are spending more money on food than clothing - proof that this local group of 20-somethings is among those leading the way.
~ By KEVIN THIBODEAUX ~

When Molly Richard goes out to eat, she only dines at places like Social Southern Table & Bar or other Lafayette restaurants that source their food locally.

And Richard, 24, believes others share the same mentality even if it's only because it's currently trendy and hip.

"I definitely think the farm-to-table movement is one that's pretty trendy right now, which I won't complain about at all," Richard says. "But I do think people appreciate local food and appreciate something grown in Louisiana."

Taylor Stokes agrees: "I know people will go out of their way to support a restaurant that says that they have local stuff you know. I know I will."

However, many of these locally sourced restaurants come with a bigger price tag, and a recent study by investment bank and asset management firm Piper Jaffray found that for the first time ever, teenagers are spending more money on food than they are on clothes.

The results, part of a semi-annual survey of teenagers' spending habits, also showed that more of those teenagers are eating organic foods. Teens, the survey concluded, are making more of an occasion out of eating than ever before. And more and more they want to know where their food comes from and how it's grown.

That's good news for the growing body of locally owned restaurants buying the bulk of their products from area farmers. But while many young people are beginning to eat more at restaurants and becoming more conscious of the types of food they eat, restaurant owners are also presented with the challenge of balancing prices to cater to young people.

This is a problem Nathan Stubbs, owner of Saint Street Inn near UL's campus, says he is acutely aware of as his clientele has increasingly become younger in the three years the restaurant has been open.

Stubbs says it's typically only people with money who can afford to eat healthy and poorer people are forced to eat lower quality foods.

It's something that Stubbs says he wants to change, especially for struggling college students who roam the UL campus and are often forced to pick quicker and often more unhealthy options like McDonald's.

"That's certainly something we want to be a part of changing the dynamic on," says Stubbs. "You know even if you're a poor college student, you can come get a good, fresh meal and not be broke afterwards."

Stubbs says his restaurant is working on incorporating more à la carte menu items and cheaper, bread-based options in order to be able to draw in the college crowd.

But some customers - among them 24-year-old Stokes and her 27-year-old fiance, Dustin Guidry - are willing to make sacrifices to eat healthier, locally grown options.

"Eating good, eating organic is our No. 1 priority, so we'll go without let's just say cable or something in order to eat this way," Guidry says. "Because in the end, that's what matters - not sitting in front of the TV or getting a new car or spending your money on rent at a nicer place - it's eating this way."

But it takes a certain type of person, like Stokes or Guidry, who is willing to make the commitment to local products, argues Lindsey Tharpe, owner of Astra Modern Market in Downtown Lafayette.

Astra is sort of a modern-day general store, Tharpe says, with various Louisiana-made knickknacks and products that may not have a place in larger stores. She says there is a certain type of person who seeks out her store, and she believes these specific people who are willing to spend money on local products aren't anything new.

There have always been people who are interested in locally produced items and are willing to support these local artists and producers regardless of price, Tharpe says.

And she has a point.

Guidry, Stokes and Richard are all either involved in the local food movement or have a history of supporting locally sourced foods.

Guidry, whose family owns a local seafood business, and Stokes, who sells her signature Kale chips at the Lafayette Farmers Market, both say their families were influences later in life when they sought out local products.

Richard, who serves as market manager for the Lafayette Farmers & Artisans Market at the Horse Farm, acknowledges that some people may strictly eat local foods as a matter of principle, but for others, it may be simpler than that.

Take Courtney Sykes, 24, and Miles Hesterly, 25, for example, who say eating at farm to table restaurants is more of an added bonus.

Hesterly says his family has always made an effort to eat at local places like Judice Inn as opposed to chains, and mentioned that a restaurant that also gets its food locally is a "double whammy."

Both say that price isn't a concern for them, with Sykes saying that the price makes the occasion special.

"You know it's gonna be a little more [expensive], but it's also gonna be better tasting," Sykes says.

A lot of the challenge for college students and young people who may be concerned with their budget is educating themselves on healthy food options, Stubbs notes.

Stubbs says he was surprised when he sent a chef and one of his wait staff to UL's campus to talk to students, and many of them were unaware about Saint Street Inn.

But many students, Stubbs adds, were excited to learn about the restaurant, especially since the philosophies of college students and Saint Street Inn align in many ways.

"What we're trying to offer and what they're looking for are very much the same," Stubbs says. "We're trying to be a more health-conscious, source-conscious alternative to a lot of the fast food chains that they're inundated with on campus and all over the place really."

But there's also a challenge on the business side, not just to make locally sourced meals affordable, but to make them at all.

Richard, who worked in Montana helping farmers and ranchers participate in decisions that affected their land and water after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi, says sourcing local food is difficult for restaurants, whose chefs must worry about how and where to get these ingredients on top of the stress of running a business (many of the chefs at these local establishments also manage the restaurant).

Richard says the distribution network of Lafayette isn't ideal for restaurants that want to get local ingredients, as there's no place for local farmers to connect with restaurants or restaurants to connect with local farmers.

In order to get local ingredients, farm-to-table restaurants need to work with farmers one-on-one or go to a place like a farmer's market, Richard says, which is different from how a restaurant would typically get ingredients by ordering them from a distribution service that gets food from all over the country and having it delivered to the restaurant.

That extra effort, Richard says, makes people notice when chefs go to a farmer's market to buy ingredients and it's what makes her want to continue to support these businesses.

And although Richard says she doesn't yet see everyone fully committing to the farm-to-table movement like she does, she believes that could soon change.

"People are starting to pay attention to food as not just this quick meal, but making an occasion out of eating, which you need good ingredients for," Richard says. "If you can know where it comes from and have a human face attached to wherever your food comes from, that just makes it that much more important."

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