By Whitney Donohue
Moapa Valley Progress
What promised to be an evening of fresh, local food under the stars quickly grew into a portrait of confusion for the more than 100 guests at Quail Hollow Farm’s “Farm to Fork Dinner”. As the guests were preparing to sit down to a gourmet dinner prepared by Chef Giovanni Maura; using local beef from the Cliven Bundy ranch, and lamb, chicken, rabbit, and vegetables from Quail Hollow Farm; diners were stunned by the announcement from owner Laura Bledsoe stating that the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) was refusing to let her serve the food prepared for that evening.
It is unlikely that anyone was more confused about the evening’s events than Monte and Laura Bledsoe themselves.
“Hosting a dinner like this has been in the back of my mind for a couple of years,” Laura states. “Farm to Fork Dinners are growing in popularity in states all around the country. People are getting back to their roots and developing more understanding about where their food comes from.”
As farmer’s markets are popping up all over the country, it seems like a grass roots movement towards whole foods is growing. In the last year the number of farmer’s markets in Las Vegas has grown to nine, a sure indication that people are concerned about their food. The selling point at these markets is that customers know the farmer, and they know the produce was grown locally.
Many of the people at the Quail Hollow dinner said that they heard about the event at a farmer’s market. Jill Crochet met the Bledsoe’s at the Fresh 52 market in Las Vegas.
“We bought some of their produce and thought it was amazing,” Crochet said. “The dinner itself seemed like an adventure – travel out of Las Vegas and have dinner on the farm…what could be more fun than that?”
Quail Hollow partnered with Red Acre Farm from Cedar City, Utah to present this event. The owners of Red Acre Farm had hosted events like this before, and gladly shared their expertise, Bledsoe said. They had also shared the idea of the dinner with many people at the Downtown Farmer’s Market in St. George.
The Bledsoes said they had spent hundreds of hours planning the event. On Thursday it was suggested to them that they would need a permit to hold the dinner, so they drove to the SNHD building in Las Vegas to get one. They filled out all the paperwork for the permit and were told that an inspector would be by on Friday afternoon to inspect the food preparation facilities.
Monte and Laura informed Chef Giovanni, owner of Nora’s Wine Bar in Las Vegas, of the inspection, and he assured them that it was quite normal. He told them there wouldn’t be a problem, as he is well-versed in safe food preparation practices.
As the majority of the dinner guests arrived, so did the SNHD inspector. The inspection of the facilities seemed to go fine. But the inspector said that there was a problem with the food itself.
“The inspector couldn’t seem to wrap her head around the idea that we didn’t purchase the food from the grocery store or a restaurant supply store,” Monte said. “We explained that the beef came directly from Cliven Bundy’s ranch, and she got upset that it didn’t have a USDA inspection stamp. She told us that if we wanted to serve beef, we could go purchase it from Lin’s and bring back the receipts. As for the vegetables, she didn’t want us to serve those either. The only reason she stopped pursuing that was because we showed her our producer’s license.”
“As soon as the inspector showed up,” Laura explained, “it was evident that her intention from the beginning was to close us down. We had her supervisor on the phone trying to work out some kind of an arrangement so that we could continue with the dinner, but they were adamant. When Monte suggested that we refund everyone’s money and invite them all to stay for a friendly dinner, both the inspector and her supervisor got irate and threatened the police.”
At that point the Bledsoe’s decided to comply with the demands. They were told they could serve the produce and the eggs from the farm, so they decided that was what they would do. In the meantime, the health department insisted that the meat be destroyed by pouring bleach over it.
Laura came down to make an announcement to the crowd, who was stunned by the turn of events. As she was explaining how they had to destroy the meat and would be creating a whole new dinner, one of the guests, Attorney Marty Keach , spoke up and told the Bledsoe’s that if they chose to take the citation and serve the original dinner, he would represent them all the way to the Supreme Court.
After this announcement, there was a flurry of calls to different people and agencies, including County Commissioner Tom Collins.
“I’ve only heard one side of the story, so far, but it seems like we have a problem with how we’re serving the public,” Collins stated.” Going forward, I’d like to see what regulations need to be followed and what needs to be fixed if they’re not appropriate for small farmers and ranchers. I go to events all the time in Vegas where the food being sold was purchased directly from a rancher. There has to be room in the regulations to allow for this type of event, as long as everything is prepared and served in a safe manner.”
Collins has been working on revising the county statutes to allow individuals to sell produce grown on their own property from their property without having to follow all the rules of a commercial enterprise. The revised statute will address issues related to large animals and small ranching as well. But it doesn’t delve into Health District codes or protocol.
Monte suggested to Laura that she call the Farm to Consumers Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), and then he went to speak again to the health inspector. FTCLDF is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the constitutional right of the nation’s family farms to provide farm foods directly to consumers, to protect consumers’ rights to obtain those foods, and to protect farms from harassment by federal, state, and local government.
The attorney at the FTCLDF stated that the Bledsoes could ask the health inspector to leave, which they promptly did.
This reportedly angered the inspector, who immediately called the police. When Metro arrived on the scene, the inspector demanded that the officers remove everyone from the premises. Metro refused as the gathering was peaceful. The inspector then demanded that Metro issue the farm a citation. Metro again refused, as they saw no evidence of any laws being broken. The officers suggested to the inspector that if there was a health violation that she should issue a citation, but at that point, she did not. So, at the Bledsoe’s request, Metro escorted the inspector off of the farm.
Dinner was served on Friday, although it was a completely different dinner than what was planned. Although the Bledsoe’s offered to refund the diner’s money, only two couples ended up leaving and requesting their money back. Many of the remaining diners pitched in to help get the dinner back on track. One woman who works as a server at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas stepped forward and helped serve the food. Many diners went out in the fields and picked produce, which Chef Giovanni transformed into an amazingly fresh dinner.
“This turned out to be an incredible experience for us,” Laura stated. “There was an overwhelming show of support from the diners, the staff, and Chef Giovanni. We ended up with a true Farm to Fork dinner with the freshest food imaginable. So many people came up to tell me they didn’t want their money back, and that whatever they could do to help, they were there.”
In an interview earlier this week, SNHD spokesperson, Stephanie Bethel stated that the main issue was the unknown source of the food.
“The issue in question was, I believe, an approved food source,” Bethel said. “There has to be information on where the food actually came from, and in this case, there was no information about the meat.”
When asked to comment about the possibility of the apparent over-reaction of the inspector in handling the situation, Bethel said, “First of all, the health inspector does not need a warrant to be there to inspect food. While I wasn’t there, I believe that the inspector probably behaved accordingly. The inspector was asked to leave [by the Bledsoe’s], which she did.”
This whole experience hasn’t soured the Bledsoes at all on the idea of hosting more events like this in the future. In fact, the turn of events makes them want to share the food even more.
The Bledsoe’s have scheduled a meeting this week with Tom Collins’ staff and the Southern Nevada Health District to resolve the issues brought to light on Friday.