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100-mile Diet: Q&A With a Couple Who Did It
What would you put on your table if you could only use ingredients produced within 100 miles of home? From their apartment in urban Vancouver, journalists Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon found out the hard way — and shared their triumphant adventure in their book Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. (Read an excerpt here.) I sat down with Alisa and James to find out more about how they did it — and how their radical experiment can help you go local, even just a little.
Q: Which foods did you two find most surprising in terms of “food miles” they’ve traveled to our tables?
James: The most shocking was the Dungeness crab. They’re fished right there in the North Pacific. In some cases they're put into freezer containers and sent to China. The meat is removed from the shell, shipped back and sold in Vancouver and Seattle.
It’s a food that's from within 100 miles of us. But in some cases if we buy it at the grocery, it's traveled 8,000 miles. And you wouldn't have any idea. The label says it came from the port down the way … who would think it? Sometimes a whole salmon will be shipped to China just to have the bones removed, then shipped back. There's no shortage of examples like this.
Alisa: Or even a turnip or a head of lettuce you could have grown in your own backyard. Even if it was grown close to where you are, it's often shipped, say, to a warehouse in Chicago before it comes back to the supermarket.
You noted studies showing the impact global food transport has on the environment and on local economies and cultures. But do I have to limit myself to foods from within 100 miles to make a meaningful difference?
Alisa: Not at all. We set our rules so strictly because we wanted to see if it is even possible to eat locally in a more urban setting, where most people live today.
There's a lot of pressure on people right now to completely revolutionize everything in their lives for environmental or social good. Local food is a change you can make that isn't so much of a sacrifice. It brings immediate rewards — it comes with good food! It improves quality of life, and yet you're making a contribution.
If you tried to eat 30 percent local foods, you'd be cutting down your fossil fuel use by 30 percent in that area of your life without much difficulty. If you cut your driving by 30 percent, that would be a huge life change. Start gradually — like shopping more often at farmers’ markets or you-pick farms. Expand your backyard garden or grow a couple of vegetables in pots on your balcony.
James: I've done a lot of writing about environmental issues, and I don't doubt that the challenges we face are immense. But this was a really interesting process in terms of the power we have when we make certain consumer choices. Look at how organics have reshaped the food system. Local food could do the same over the next 10 to 15 years.
Local food also reconnects you with the place you live in — what happens in the different seasons and the people who produce your food.
Alisa, you wrote about eating “yellow meals” in the winter …. Will I be stuck eating squash and turnips all winter?
Alisa: Oh, no. James is the cook of the family, and he was away then and I was on my own. So, I was like, well, I guess I have to make myself something. So, I did make a yellow meal by accident … a yellow tomato soup with the last of the summer tomatoes and corn and squash. But James said we didn’t have to eat yellow meals.
James: Part of what's fun about the book is that you get to see us floundering around at first. We wanted to make sure people saw that — it shows is how difficult it's become to get local food.
A lot of people don’t like many of the produce that are in season in winter and early spring, but I think a lot of that is because they're tasteless. The difference in flavor is just unbelievable between local, in-season produce and produce that is harvested before it's ripe, put into refrigerated containers and shipped cross-country.
A good sized grocery store today has about 41,000 products. More than 95 percent of those are non-local in every way. It’s kind of a shock that the food system has come to that. But we also wanted to show that there was an evolution — by the end of it, we were eating better food than we had in our whole lives.
But if I live in Wisconsin, am I never supposed to eat an orange again?
James: It’s really about restoring a balance. Right now we've got people eating maybe 10 percent local foods, if they're lucky — and usually, by chance.
We need to move more toward that kind of balance, where the core foods that we eat day-to-day are coming from our local area. You can still supplement those with, as Alisa called it, the global treats. Sometimes we'll have an orange, but more often, we're going to be eating the local fruits. There's much more diversity in that than people expect. Just look at berries alone — there are more varieties of berries in Vancouver than probably all the types of fruit in a supermarket.
Alisa: If you turn your thinking around and go, “Okay, it’s not, ‘I’m going to give up oranges,’ but, ‘I’m going to try more local fruits … ’” you probably won't be eating oranges as often anyway. You won't even want to.
It's also nice to wait until, say, you happen to be going to Florida or Arizona or Texas, and find that oranges taste better if you get them where they're grown and they're picked ripe.
You ate butter — no canola oil, no olive oil — as your only cooking fat for a year because it was your only local choice. Is that healthy?
Alisa: Cooking with butter is very tasty. But I thought, oh, my goodness, we are going to gain so much weight eating all this cheese and butter.
But we were cutting down on the carbs a lot because it took us so long to find flour. And then even when we did, you know, we always had to make the bread or the pasta ourselves. We didn't gain any weight. But we ate very healthy before we started doing this.
If someone was eating the typical American diet of fast food all the time, and all of a sudden they were cooking all their meals at home with fresh vegetables, they would probably lose weight — in a healthy way instead of a fad crash-diet kind of way.
James: We had this phone call we talk about in the book with a dietitian in Florida. We said, here's how we're eating — what do you think? We got halfway through the list and she was just laughing. She said, “You guys are eating so much better than the average American.”
Is it more important to buy local, or organic?
James: In a way it's a false choice. In many cases, you can choose local and organic. But if you have to choose, I suggest buying local. It’s really the more critical.
The biggest crisis in the food system is the lack of transparency. We no longer know where our food is coming from, and that makes it difficult to make the ethical choices I think most people want to make — around things like ethical treatment of animals or genetically modified ingredients or heavy pesticide and chemical fertilizer use.
Local gives you that power. When you're eating locally you can buy from the person who's produced the food — at a farmers’ market for example — and you can ask those questions.
Alisa: Lots of small farmers actually do grow with organic principles — they just can't afford the certification process. You can talk to them, and you'll probably get a better deal on organic produce as well.