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Food Fight! 

A battle for the fresh-food market.

Cleveland may soon be ground zero in a food fight with national implications. The potential prize: a profitable distribution system linking local farmers and producers to area chefs and diners.

On one side, find Fresh Fork Market (www.freshforkmarket.com), launched by five CWRU students. On the other, find Local Crop, food-service pro Steve Schimoler's (Crop Bistro) project, shaped by decades of work as chef, restaurateur, and product-development specialist. Both systems use online "virtual marketplaces" to link local farmers and chefs, and both hope to bolster the survival of small family farms.

But while the projects share similar goals, they differ in at least one important aspect: how they move food from farms to restaurants. Fresh Fork plans on using a fleet of leased trucks. Local Crop will partner with food-logistics giant SYSCO Corporation.

The Big Business involvement makes Fresh Fork's co-founder Trevor Clatterbuck sneer. "We're working with restaurants that won't want a SYSCO truck parked in front of their business," Clatterbuck says. "These are real chefs we're talking about, not places like Applebee's."

Smell that? It's the optimism of youth, and it smells nothing like cash.

"Call me crazy, but I think I'm a 'real' chef," Schimoler says. "And I pray that we can sell to Applebee's!" For him, the bottom line is that "to help farmers succeed at sustainable agriculture, you have to help them succeed as a sustainable business." Partnerships with national players like SYSCO can go a long way toward doing just that.

Chef-restaurateur Jonathon Sawyer (Bar Cento) is one sustainability advocate who has no problems with a SYSCO truck in his loading zone. A member of Local Crop's advisory board, he not only applauds the opportunities for farmers but also praises the smaller "carbon footprint" that may result from using SYSCO's already-established routes.

Sawyer calls Local Crop one of the nation's "best-organized." With its connection to SYSCO, he predicts it could someday grow into a national model.

But he's not playing favorites. "I want them both to succeed. I think there's room for both."

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