As a conscious consumer I, like many of you, have been troubled by the frequency of e coli outbreaks from nationally available foodstuffs: remember the tainted spinach in October 2006 or the contaminated ground beef patties in October 2007? I’m also bothered by the lack of regulation in food products shipped from overseas: remember the pet food from China scandal this past spring?
How does the savvy shopper combat this growing possibility of bringing contaminated foods to your family’s table or to your pet’s dish? Fresh (as in not shipped, processed or genetically altered) fruits, vegetables, meats and grains are the way to go; i.e. foods grown, bred or milled locally. But what does eating locally mean and how can we do it?
Recently I had an opportunity to talk with authors of PLENTY: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, about their year-long commitment to eating only food that was found within a 100 mile radius from their home. You’ll be surprised how easy and fun it is to add more locally produced goods to your table.
SLOANE MILLER: Tell me about your former “SUV” diet?
PLENTY: We thought we were health-conscious eaters: lots of fresh produce and home-cooked meals, no fast food. But a couple of years ago, we’d eat lettuce and strawberries in winter and tropical fruits the year round. No one had told us about the invisible food-miles that go into these things, let alone all of those processed foods with long lists on the package. But we learned that when the average North American sits down to eat, each ingredient has typically traveled at least 1,500 miles—we call it "the SUV diet."
SM: So, what does it mean to eat locally?
PLENTY: It means taking a good look at the landscape around you, and taking your food cues from it and from the seasons. We chose 100 miles as our local radius because that’s the distance where our wide river valley gets hemmed in by mountains. It’s a good round number, but people can decide what makes sense for them.
SM: How difficult or easy is it eat locally?
PLENTY: We walked into the diet cold turkey for a full year, and it was hard. For example, we live on the West Coast of North America, so it took us seven months to find a rogue local farmer who actually grows wheat. Meanwhile, we ate an unbelievable number of potatoes. Doing the diet the hard way taught us a lot about the current food system, but it isn't for everybody. A more realistic approach is to plan a single, totally 100-mile meal with friends or family, and see where you want to go from there.
SM: Do you have a “local” meal suggestion for winter?
PLENTY: A nice winter meal for anywhere in North America would be a hearty bean or meat stew with root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and celeriac. Add dried herbs such as rosemary, sage, oregano or thyme for flavor and aroma. And on the East coast, have maple syrup on homemade ice cream for a delicious, simple desert.
SM: Why should we eat locally?
PLENTY: We have at least 9 great reasons to consider why you should eat local.
1. Taste the difference. At a farmers’ market, most local produce has been picked inside of 24 hours. It comes to you ripe, fresh, and with its full flavor, unlike supermarket food that may have been picked weeks or months before. Close-to-home foods can also be bred for taste, rather than withstanding the abuse of shipping or industrial harvesting. Many of the foods we ate on the 100-Mile Diet were the best we’d ever had.
2. Know what you’re eating. Buying food today is complicated. What pesticides were used? Is that corn genetically modified? Was that chicken free range or did it grow up in a box? People who eat locally find it easier to get answers. Many build relationships with farmers whom they trust. And when in doubt, they can drive out to the farms and see for themselves.
3. Meet your neighbors. Local eating is social. Studies show that people shopping at farmers’ markets have 10 times more conversations than their counterparts at the supermarket. Join a community garden and you’ll actually meet the people you pass on the street. Sign up with the 100-Mile Diet Society; we’ll be working to connect people in your area who care about the same things you do.
3. Get in touch with the seasons. When you eat locally, you eat what’s in season. You’ll remember that cherries are the taste of summer. Even in winter, comfort foods like squash soup and pancakes just make sense–a lot more sense than flavorless cherries from the other side of the world.
4. Discover new flavors. Ever tried sunchokes? How about purslane, quail eggs, yerba mora, or tayberries? These are just a few of the new (to us) flavors we sampled over a year of local eating. Our local spot prawns, we learned, are tastier than popular tiger prawns. Even familiar foods were more interesting. Count the types of pear on offer at your supermarket. Maybe three? Small farms are keeping alive nearly 300 other varieties–while more than 2,000 more have been lost in our rush to sameness.
5. Save the world. A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country. The ingredients for a typical British meal, sourced locally, traveled 66 times fewer “food miles.” Or we can just keep burning those fossil fuels and learn to live with global climate change, the fiercest hurricane seasons in history, wars over resources…
6. Support small farms. A British study tracked how much of the money spent at a local food business stayed in the local economy, and how many times it was reinvested. The total value was almost twice the contribution of a dollar spent at a supermarket chain .
7. Be healthy. Everyone wants to know whether the 100-Mile Diet worked as a weight-loss program. Well, yes, we lost a few pounds apiece. More importantly, though, we felt better than ever. We ate more vegetables and fewer processed products, sampled a wider variety of foods, and ate more fresh food at its nutritional peak. Eating from farmers’ markets and cooking from scratch, we never felt a need to count calories.
8. Create memories. A friend of ours has a theory that a night spent making jam–or in his case, perogies–with friends will always be better a time than the latest Hollywood blockbuster. We’re convinced.
9. Have more fun while traveling. Once you’re addicted to local eating, you’ll want to explore it wherever you go. On a recent trip to Mexico, earth-baked corn and hot-spiced sour oranges led us away from the resorts and into the small towns. Somewhere along the line, a mute magician gave us a free show over bowls of lime soup in a little cantina.
SM: Is eating locally more expensive?
PLENTY: Only in the beginning. Most of us pay a big premium for out-of-season foods like cherries in winter or prepared foods like spaghetti sauce, usually with a long list of ingredients we might prefer not to have in our bodies. Eating locally, we bought fresh ingredients in season and direct from the farmer–and we were often buying bulk. We preserved enough food for the winter that we rarely had to buy groceries. Our bet? Most people eating a typical diet could save money by eating locally.
SM: How can we start to eat locally right now?
1. Learn when foods are in season throughout the year where you live. This is the foundation of local eating (sustainabletable.org is a great resource. here in the US).
2. Find out which local foods are easy to obtain in your area - whether it’s potatoes, apples, or eggs - and commit to obtaining them from local sources throughout the year.