I have been reading the 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon. In fact, I just finished it, moments ago. What they did was amazing and may have been the catalyst to actually get a local eating movement off the ground. In a recently published article on the top 10 food trends for 2011, eating local came in at #3. These guys did this in 2006 and the momentum is still growing. People all over the world are taking up this challenge.
It is quite the challenge. Alisa and James live in Vancouver, where salmon is a plenty and new spring veggies come early (as compared to where I live) but where wheat does not grow. It can grow there, but farmers choose not to grow it because it can be grown more efficiently somewhere else. So Alisa and James went without bread, pasta, crackers, etc for 7 months until they tracked down a farmer that did grow wheat, only to supply a related family restaurant.
In the span of one year they transform their clothes cupboards to store onions and potatoes. They hang garlic from the ceiling. They dry chillies in the front hall closet. They make their own sauerkraut, cheese and yoghurt. They preserve and can many foods for the winter, including tomatoes, pickles, berries, corn, green beans, you name it. They have a small community plot in which they garden. They source all of the rest of their foods from local farms, and have many adventures finding walnuts, hazelnuts, and the elusive olive tree. Much of their free time seems to be spent either researching where to find local food, going to local farms to get their food, or canning or preserving their food at home.
They find that they become much more connected to their food. No longer does it just miraculously arrive on their plates at a restaurant, or appear with bounty on grocery store shelves. They talk to the farmers who grow it, raise it. They go to the farms and see the crops in the field, see how the animals are treated. They watch their own food grow in their garden. They store and preserve and manage their food supply in the winter. Food becomes something to be cherished, worth working for. They research how the early peoples of the area grew and managed food, and realized that they were rich with excess. They note how varieties of vegetables and fruit grown in the area have now been reduced from thousands to a few. They tell us that the average North American dinner contains foods that have traveled an average of 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) to the plate.
After reading this book I feel just… sad. A generation ago everyone had a back garden, even if you lived in the city. Now here I am, never having grown a single tomato in my life. I live in the prairies, where the soil is rich and the sun shines brightly in the summer, yet I cannot find local food in my grocery store, even in the summer. Everything is from somewhere else. Everything is shipped. We ship our stuff to them; they ship their stuff to us. We grow the best wheat and canola; they grow the best oranges and peaches. So we trade, even though it takes thousands of kilometres to get here. This is a model I used to believe in. The market works best if resources are allowed to flow to those geographic locations where the goods can be produced the most efficiently. This keeps prices down for the consumer, allowing our money to go further. I want my money to go further, yes.
Now this whole model in which I believed is being turned on its head. Is it always better to be cheaper? What about those costs that are not priced in, those costs to the environment, the land, the atmosphere? We need to cut emissions, yet our global food system relies on shipping refrigerated containers all across the Earth, constantly. How much food is at sea, right at this moment? Or on a train or truck? In my mind I see an Earth criss-crossed with lines. Farms at home grow only a few main crops, and cannot support the full dietary needs of the people. Furthermore, farmable land continues to be reduced, due to the sprawl of our cities.
Today I planned to go to the biggest farmer’s market we have in my city. I checked it out online, researched some of the farmers, watched some of the videos on how they raise their free run chickens and how they grow and harvest their organic vegetables. These farmers are doing this differently than others because they believe in it. They are going against the grain and I want to support them.
But today a huge snow storm hit and ground traffic to a halt, so I was forced to go to my neighbourhood farmer’s market (much smaller), supplemented by Safeway. Since I had been reading the 100-Mile diet, I was considering where everything came from. The farmer’s market yielded onions, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, bacon, ham sausage, eggs and bison. The grocery store had to fill in all the rest. It took forever. Normally with grocery shopping I get it done in the smallest amount of time possible. I am in, I am out. Sometimes I surprise even myself how fast I can select, load and pay for a week’s worth of groceries. Today was different.
I was indecisive, troubled. With every product there arose a question. Should I buy the strawberries from Mexico or the blueberries from Chile? Perhaps the grapes are a bit more local… no also from Chile. I decided to get the bananas from Ecuador since we are now on a week on, week off rotation with bananas, and this is the week on. I decided on the strawberries, thinking that at least it is on the same continent. Some foods listed Canada/USA as their origin, as if this was a homogenous area. What about the chicken? There was grain fed for twice the price of regular. I would prefer grain fed, but I could not get past the price. Does grain fed mean free run? I went for the cheaper option. I was annoyed that I felt guilty.
I am also a stickler for packaging. Do I get the cherry tomatoes grown in Canada packaged in a clear plastic container, or the ones from the US in a reusable mesh bag? What about juice? I thought I would go with apple, since there was a shred of hope it could have been more local (as compared to orange, mango, and pineapple) but then they were sold out. Orange it was.
So many decisions so much global variety, I felt overwhelmed and frustrated and annoyed at myself and at the world. Damn 100-Mile Diet book, my ignorance used to be bliss!