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