Local produce fuels the 100-Mile diet (Credit: saw/iStockPhoto)
— by Nuño Dominguez
For decades, diets were designed to make people lose some extra pounds or push them into healthier lifestyles. Now, things are going holistic: eat better while you fight global warming and save your local economy. It is the 100-mile diet.
Thousands of people looking for fresh and sustainable bites across the US and Canada are shifting to local food from a 100-mile radius from their homes. The local food networks are also getting bigger with hundreds of new farmer’s markets appearing every year. The local trend is even reaching federal politics. As Congress debates the new farm bill, small farmers and local consumers are pushing representatives to create a more sustainable food system for the U.S.
It all started in March 2005, when freelance writers Alissa Smith and James McKinnon ran out of food up in their holiday cabin in a remote region of British Columbia, Canada. Far from any road to reach the closest town, they decided to feast on what the wilderness had to offer. They fished a Dolly Varden trout in the nearby stream and harvested chanterelle mushrooms and dandelion greens in the woods. They also used some of the potatoes they planted in their garden the previous spring. “It was delicious, because everything was so fresh,” says Smith. Driven by the soft bouquet of wild trout and the juicy taste of those wilderness-thriving mushrooms, the couple decided that, for a year, they would eat only products within 100 miles of Vancouver, where their apartment is.
The couple quickly realized their shift to local food was not precisely a smooth change. As they figured out which products were inside their food zone, they found out there was no source of local wheat or rice, so forget about good old pasta or bread. Sugar – not your typical British Columbia produce – was also a bitter drop-out. Smith and McKinnon are mainly vegetarians -they only eat meat and fish once in a while- so their local diet had to stick to seasonal greens, which were scarce from March to late May. They mainly fed on kale, cabbage, turnips, rutabagas and leeks. There was also an ever present star: the potato. The couple had to wrack their brains to fight monotony in their dishes. A veggie sandwich using sliced roasted turnip instead of bread was one of their outstanding innovations. During the first six weeks, they lost 15 pounds.
Just as Smith and McKinnon thought they could not go on with their challenge, the new season started and fresh vegetables returned to markets again. From May, the couple enjoyed a culinary spring that turned into a tasty summer with juicy strawberries, crunchy carrots and multiple salad greens. Even in the midst of their green feast, they had a premonition of the long Canadian winter. Like in the old fable, they started playing the ant’s role and preserved as much food for the cold months as they could. Their one bedroom apartment became a small grocery store with boxes of sauerkraut under every chair, rows of chilli peppers drying in the closet next to their coats and a three feet tall by two feet wide cube freezer stuffed with reserves seizing most part of their kitchen. “It invaded our decor a little bit,” says Smith, who nevertheless says their new lifestyle was worth the starving and the hard work. “I learned that I didn’t want to go back to my old way of supermarket eating,” she says. Although the couple now consumes 85% of their food locally, they have indulged in some hard-to-leave goods like beer, olive oil and rice.
As they moved on through their diet year, Smith and McKinnon learned their 100-mile diet was not only about fresh and tasty goods. It was also a way to reduce the carbon footprint of their dishes. The average meal in North America has travelled at least 1.500 miles, according to World Watch. The organization calculates that, compared with local networks, the conventional food transport systems use 17 times more petroleum and pumps as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “Since we knew we cared about our environment, we wanted to reduce our use of fossil fuels by riding a bike or walking instead of driving in the city,” says Smith. “It did not make sense to us all those invisible fossil fuels that were being put into the food system.”
It was also about health. A diet based on fresh produce instead of processed meals avoids sugar, transfats and other ingredients that boost obesity and diabetes, says Smith. Local meals were also a way to know exactly where the food came from. While the labels on most processed foods do not state the origin of the ingredients, the couple knew exactly who had grown their tomatoes. According to Smith, that kept them safe from food crisis and tainted products. “People can’t know enough about industrial food to feel safe, but they can know enough about local food to feel safe. You can meet the farmer and you can even go to his farm if you want to,” she says.
In 2006 the Canadian couple started a website about the 100-mile diet. On it they encouraged people to join the experience of going local. So far, 13,000 people from Canada and the US have signed up the web challenge and are eating locally, according to Smith. The level of commitment varies from low compromise eaters who do occasional 100-mile meals to brave year-round dieters. Other communities are springing across the U.S. and even further. Local eaters from Albany, New York, and Seattle, Wash, celebrate a 100-mile month every year. In the bay area of San Francisco, a group called the locavores started their own 100-mile month two years ago. The community has grown fast ever since and today there are 2.200 locavores, according to Sage Van Wing, co-founder of the project. The 100-mile fever has also crossed the Atlantic. In Scotland, it has become the Fife Diet, named for a county where 19 people has begun a year-round challenge based on local products.
But there are limits to the expansion of the local cause. Fresh and seasonal products strongly rely on weather conditions. It would be very difficult to eat locally in extreme weather areas like the Death Valley dessert or ice covered mountain tops, says Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University. Weather also adds a level of difficulty to the local challenge in places where temperatures routinely get below freezing in winter, says Pirog. It does not mean cold places shun 100-mile diets, it just takes more effort. While local eaters from Massachusetts or New York State eat a lot of root vegetables over the winter and rely on their preserves, those in warm weather areas like California have a much larger variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. “I don’t know if I could be locavore if I lived in Minnesota,” says Haven Bourque, a local eater from the San Francisco area. But for some local dieters in regions with cold winters the most difficult part was living without some sweet treats. “I really missed chocolate,” says Cheryl Nechamen, who started the Albany monthly challenge in 2006.
As more people localize their meals, they are giving local farmers a steady source of income. More than 19,000 farmers in the U.S. sell their crops only to final consumers, no middlemen involved. Since 2004, the number of farmer’s markets in the U.S. increased 18% and today there are more than 4,000, according to the Department of Agriculture. Consumers and producers are also establishing year-round subscriptions -known as Community Supported Agriculture (CAS). Customers pay an annual amount and receive a weekly basket of fresh veggies. In 1990 there were only 50 pioneer farms doing CAS. Today, there are at least 1,200, according to the Robyn Van En Center for CSA resources. “Sixteen years ago no one had heard about sustainable agriculture, now it is all over the news and people talk about it all the time,” says Jen James, associate director of the Food Project, a Boston organization that manages a 31 acre local farm and three urban gardens, including one on top of Boston Medical Center.
Local food advocates think the next step is going political. This year, the Congress is discussing the $286 billion new farm bill, a federal subsidy program for farmers. The system does not reach all producers and it tends to favour big farms growing commodity crops like wheat or soybean. Food activists argue the bill is very unfair. While commodities will receive $50 billions, specialty crops like fruits and vegetables -the kind of crops most local producers grow- will only get $3 billion, says Heather Fenney, project director for the California Food and Justice Coalition, a group of 37 organizations supporting local food networks. Even those $3 billion could be a great figure if they ended up at local farms, but only 10% of the subsidies reach small scale farmers, says Finney. “We have to completely change the whole program and invest our dollars in the part of the system that needs help,” she says.
Other consumers think the growing demand will make the market change. They argue local produce will make it into large-scale retail shops as organic food did some twenty years ago. A winning paradigm is Whole Foods, which started in 1980 as a store for natural and organic products in Austin, Texas, and today is a 270 store giant that earned more than $180 million in profits last year.
The soaring cost of energy will also promote the eat-locally movement. When the top oil production-peak oil- is met, prizes of fuel would be so high that shipping food from far away will not be competitive any more, local food advocates say. They think the food supply will turn towards local sources of food. “It is going to happen faster than people expect,” says Billie Best, former executive director of the Farm and Food Project, a non profit local produce network in New York State.
But despite all the growth, the local food networks are still an island in a globalized food world. The shift of agriculture to a model with fewer and bigger farms in the 70’s sent a lot of farmers out of business and destroyed local infrastructure. “There is a massive rebuilding job that is just beginning,” says Herb Barbolet, a long time local food activist who created in British Columbia one of the first organizations devoted to the promotion of sustainable local food networks 14 years ago. Nevertheless, Barbolet thinks the shift towards a more sustainable food system is achievable in the U.S. He thinks almost any part of the country could produce at least 50% of its own food supply. “It is possible if the need is there; and the need is there because of climate change and peak oil.”