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Local Loaves


Chocolate. Tea. Oranges. Avocados. Bananas. Spices. Vanilla. Coconut milk.

I am a list maker, and when something’s on my mind it likely finds its way into some kind of list, be it a hierarchical flowchart or more of a mantra. In the case of eating locally, for years I have found myself periodically chewing over this list of tropical things I consume. I was never sure if it was a comfort (it’s fewer than 10 things, and I really could live without them) or a regular reminder of just how globally dependent I am.

Eating more locally has been an interest of mine for many years, ever since the idea of the ecological footprint got it through my skull that there was something more than pesticides wrong with our food system: all that polluting refrigerated driving/flying, all that food spoilage along the way, all those nasty tasteless vegetables and fruits bred for transport, the loss of all those family farms that actually take care of the soil.

Though my family has been edging along the road of eating more locally and in season for a long time, we didn’t quite get our act together to join the local 100-Mile Diet Challenge this September. Nonetheless, when I was reminded of it, I did the mental inventory of what it would mean for us if we tried.

And I realized after all this time that these tropical treats that everyone talks about not wanting to give up are kind of a red herring. If I tried to go all the way to local foods, even for just a month, they would not cause the most serious adjustments in my diet. What would? The absence of brown rice, olive oil, peanut butter, and lemon juice. In fact, given what is actually grown locally, as opposed to what could be grown locally, it would be the absence of grains other than corn, all oil, all nuts, and flour/bread.

That’s a hell of a lot of butter and potatoes.

Author Barbara Kingsolver recorded her family’s year of eating locally in their county in Virginia in her recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Each person in the family got one luxury exception—coffee, spices, hot chocolate, dried fruit. But then, more quietly, they also made another exception: wheat flour for their daily (homemade) loaves of bread.

I’m not criticizing them for this: If their goal was to influence other people’s behavior, which it’s clear from the book that it was, I think it was a far smarter move to go about showing how well they could eat on a 95-percent local diet than getting all hairshirt and purist (and it did sound good).

But I do wish she’d talked about that bread decision a little more instead of breezing over it like 300 pounds of flour was obviously less of a big deal than a couple of cans of fair-trade cocoa. It seems like a big question.

Of course as things that store and ship well, both of those things are far less of a big deal than the produce. It seems a bit much to be worrying about getting our flour from Nebraska before we’ve shifted our food culture away from California green salads in February and Southern hemisphere asparagus in October, not to mention importing apples into New York state at all.

When it comes to supporting our local food economy, a year’s worth of buying all of our animal products, vegetables, and fruit locally (which yes, involves some big binges at the farmers market and a chest freezer) would make a hell of a lot more difference than sweating through a month without canola oil to sauté those nice fresh local veggies in or rice to serve them over.

On the other hand, in terms of long-term sustainability in the face of spiking gas prices and climate catastrophes, it is actually important to start to think about how we can get all of our staples close to home, not to mention to talk about what qualifies as a staple. The extra value of buying a fresh, local tomato or head of broccoli over a tasteless, limp import is a fairly easy sell. The extra nutritional value of freshly ground flour that hasn’t spent nine months in a silo waiting for commodity prices to do their thing, not to mention the value of supporting a local wheat field and mill now so we have it later, are much bigger leaps.

But they are possible leaps. In a fascinating paper called “Food System Planning for the Capital District of New York State,” Hank Herrera and Hannah Schreiber of the Center for Popular Research, Education, and Policy in Rochester argue that based on sustainable farming methods, the Capital Region actually has enough productive farmland to provide for its own basic food needs. This is extremely hopeful, and quite contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that we import our food because there’s just too many of us in any part of the crowded urban Northeast to do otherwise. Even some of us local-food advocates kinda believed that deep down.

What we need are the systems to get the food to the consumers in a way that the farmers can make a living (local “fair trade” if you will), and the market demand from those consumers. That’s enough to make me mark next September as a time to go whole hog on the 100-Mile Diet Challenge. In the meantime, I’m off to my neighborhood’s last farmer’s market of the year to look for some potatoes for Thanksgiving and some good veggies to freeze for January.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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