Suppose you had dinner guests whose trip to your table covered thousands of miles and took several weeks. Surely that would represent a special occasion, and you would probably forgive them for being a bit listless and travel weary from their journey. You might even overlook the large energy expenditure and carbon footprint it took to reach you. But what if this situation was repeated every day, for every meal? That would be crazy, right?
Indeed it would be crazy, and yet that is very nearly what happens in the average American household. Only it's not dinner guests that travel great distances, but rather the food itself. The typical meal item originates more than 1,500 miles away and spends weeks or more being processed, packaged, shipped, and stored before ever reaching your plate. Are you willing to forgive listless, travel-weary food that has a large carbon footprint?
My wife Gina and I decided we are not willing, and so for the last few years we've been eating a more local, environmentally-responsible diet. In fact, we just spent the month of October participating in the Eat Local Challenge, with a goal of eating only foods grown or produced within 100 miles of our Goleta home. The following is an accounting of all the food we ate, where it originated, and some reflections on the experience.
The ultimate in being a locavore is to walk out into the yard and gather some food just moments before preparing and eating it. We have a productive, healthy garden which provides roughly half of our fruits and vegetables, along with abundant eggs from our happy chickens! From just outside our door we have apples, oranges, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, herbs (rosemary, time, oregano, cilantro), squash, carrots, lemons, figs, strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, beets, chard, and eggs. We also had blueberries harvested in the spring and stored in the freezer (powered by rooftop photovoltaic panels).
The next best source of local food is the Farmers' Market, and we are fortunate to have good ones every week here on the south coast. During October we patronized those growers with farms within 100 miles. From them we bought almonds, grapes, squash, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, dry beans, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, avocados, walnuts, spinach, corn, peppers, and leeks. We also had local free-range beef and chicken, as well as cheese made from the milk of Santa Barbara county dairy cows. We used Santa Ynez honey the entire month instead of sugar, and twice we bought bread made by the Solvang Pie Company using locally-grown wheat.
We did visit grocery stores a couple times during the month, and in particular, the Isla Vista Food Co-op was a great surrogate when we missed the Farmers' Market. From them we bought locally-grown lettuce, broccoli, and apples, as well as wine and olive oil made in Santa Barbara County.
Exceptions to the rule
I must confess that we had some "cheats" or exceptions to the 100-mile rule. We got milk and yogurt from the Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy in Sonoma County. They use returnable glass bottles, thus cutting down on wasteful packaging. We allowed ourselves a few other small indulgences with local connections: coffee from Handlebar Coffee Roasters in Santa Barbara, tortillas and chips from La Tolteca, and ice cream from McConnell's. We also made an exception for spices and condiments, although you might think our definition of a condiment was a bit liberal... for example, parmesan cheese and caramel sauce fell in this category!
Gina and I choose to eat local for many reasons. We believe the industrial food system is too reliant on toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, so we prefer to support local farmers and ranchers who practice environmentally-responsible agriculture. There is something comforting about buying a piece of fruit directly from the farmer who grew it, knowing that it was picked recently and only a few miles away.
We also found during October that we had significantly less trash because very little of our food had packaging. Our meals didn't come from a box or jar with a lengthy ingredient list; instead we prepared everything from scratch. It took more planning and time, but the end result was worth it. Ironically, our food budget during October was lower than normal, primarily because we eliminated junk calories and processed foods, and we never wasted leftovers. Eating local doesn't need to be more expensive.
Modern society has become disconnected from food in many ways. People don't really know what they are eating and how it got to their table, and yet the negative impacts on health and the environment are profound. Choosing to eat local is a major step in the right direction. It reconnects us with our food, and perhaps most significantly, the food tastes better!