It's not unusual these days for people to try to purchase more locally produced goods or to frequent their farmers' market. But have you ever considered what it would be like for 100 per cent of your diet to come from local producers? That's what J. B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith decided to do -- for an entire year. The couple devoted themselves to 12 months of eating only foods that came from within a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver apartment, an experiment in local eating that became a media phenomenon culminating in their book The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (Random House Canada, 2007). (Click here to read an excerpt from the book.) I spoke with the authors about their experience and how it has changed them.
Canadian Living: What is the 100-mile diet?
Alisa Smith: It's a local eating experiment that we came up with basically to see what the limits of the industrial food system are, and if it's possible to eat locally within a city at all. We picked 100 miles based on looking around ourselves and asking, What is local for us? And in Vancouver, we have the Coast Mountains rising up behind about 100 miles from Vancouver. So we picked that distance. But it seems like it's a good starting point for most people. It's not very far to drive and you could actually bike that far in a day.
J. B. MacKinnon: In the simplest terms, it was a commitment to eat only food grown or raised or produced within a 100-mile radius of our apartment in Vancouver, and that included every ingredient in every product.
CL: Including animal feed?
AS: Well, that was something we didn't think of until we started. That's when we started to realize how many levels there are to the food system, you know -- thinking, if this chicken ate grain that came in from Alberta, what's the difference between it doing it and me doing it? So you start to realize how many levels you have to think about in the modern food system that are invisible to us.
JBM: Once you start down the track, you end up pretty soon saying well, Where did the fertilizer come from to grow this? At some point we just had to be common sense about it and do the best we could. We weren't trying to do some kind of Puritan experiment, we were just doing something that would take us as deeply into local food as possible and allow it to teach us as much as it could.
CL: What are some of the reasons to eat local food?
AS: One of them would be to reduce your fossil fuel use, because there's all kinds of foods being flown around the world that don't need to be -- for instance, apples coming from New Zealand, or potatoes from somewhere far away in the States, when all those things can grow easily in most places in Canada -- particularly potatoes, or some other more humble vegetables. We'd seen a study that the minimum distance food travels from farm to plate is usually 1,500 miles, if you buy it in the supermarket. And it seems like that's just way out of hand.
JBM: That question of food miles -- how far food travels from farm to plate -- was really a starting point for us, but the list would also include spending your money within your local economy, taste -- local food typically tastes much, much better -- crop diversity, supporting small lot farming and family farms. Health and safety, reconnecting with where your food comes from, redeveloping that awareness of how food is produced and building/rebuilding your confidence in what is in your food. Reconnecting with the landscape you live in, the seasons, the people who produce your food -- the list is long.
AS: Speaking of food safety, last fall there was a huge scare with organic spinach -- it turned out so much of the spinach was being packaged in the same plant, that if one bit of contamination gets in, this is affecting hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, across the continent. And that's quite scary. I think it turned out to be partly because of being packaged in plastic, and supposedly prewashed -- people weren't washing it themselves before they ate it. But if you buy it from a local farmer, even if somehow something went wrong with the system -- which it's less likely to because less people are handling your food -- the damage would be very contained to a very small area, instead of killing hundreds of people.
CL: What inspired you to make local eating the focus of your lives for a year?
JBM: It really all started with this one meal we had in northern B.C., in this cabin that we own and stay in part of each year. There's no road access there -- you have to get in by boat or by train -- so you can't just run out to the corner grocery or the supermarket. We put together a meal out there that was totally drawn off the local landscape. We caught a fish, we went foraging for mushrooms, we picked apples out of an abandoned orchard, picked dandelion greens, and it turned into this incredibly flavourful meal, because everything was just so fresh. It also was the first time that either of us could remember really knowing where all of our food had come from and really being a part of the process and the story of our food. That's really what got us thinking, Could we eat like this in the city? Was it even possible to still do that? And if we did, then what would it look like?
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CL: One of the things I love is how you talk about discovering all of these different foods. What are some of the more interesting foods you discovered?
AS: I keep thinking of one we actually discovered well after the 100-mile diet had officially ended, because we're still finding new things -- it's a fruit called a medlar. It was apparently very popular in medieval times, and it's not even ripe until after the first frost. It looks a bit like a tiny apple and tastes kind of like a date.
JBM: For me, it was a couple of things. One was melons, which I'd had no idea grew in Canada. Out on Saltspring Island we ended up getting these canteloupes, muskmelons...just a whole stack of melon varieties that I'd never even heard of that were unbelievably good. I'd never been much of a melon fan, but I guess that's because I'd always been eating melons that had been harvested before they were ripe so that they could still be shipped. When I had them, finally, fresh off the vine, they were so sweet that they could give you a headache if you ate too much -- they were just unbelievable.
The other one for me was discovering the local seafoods. Even something as simple as sardines. All of the sardines I'd eaten in my life had probably come from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, to the extent that that's where I thought they came from. But there's also Pacific sardines, and we finally ate some of those, and they were terrific.
CL: What foods did you miss the most?
AS: It turned out to be really basic stuff, actually. I thought I would miss bananas, or tropical fruit -- I'd had a banana a few times a week probably for as long as I can remember. I didn't miss that at all, because of how tasty all the local fruits and berries were. Rice I really missed -- we never found a supplier of rice locally. Olive oil. Wheat we missed for a long time but then about seven months in we did find a guy who had both grown and ground wheat on his own farm.
CL: How did your appreciation for food change throughout the diet?
AS: I know when things come into season now.
JBM: I think we just really came to appreciate foods in their time. Seasonality was probably for me the most interesting thing about eating in the year. The foods that were available changed not only with the seasons, but week by week throughout the seasons. It became a real pleasure through the year, discovering what was available and trying to figure out what to do with it, and then having it fade away as the next thing came on.
AS: It tastes so much better when it's actually in season and it's been picked within a day of when you eat it. It makes such a huge difference that all of a sudden, eating that strawberry in January isn't very tempting anymore because it doesn't taste good. Why not just have the perfect luscious strawberry for a month?
CL: And it's fun to look forward to foods -- I'm dying for rhubarb right now.
JBM: Exactly. We just hit a restaurant -- I guess they had the very first coast rhubarb -- that had rhubarb leather with a rhubarb sorbet, a rhubarb juice, a rhubarb sabayon on a rhubarb crumble. It was just fantastic to see.
CL: Where did the recipes in the book come from?
AS: Mostly James's head. Or for things like bread, the recipe for bread is fairly universal. I adapted it to the type of flour that we had. Again, this is something I wouldn't have known -- I started making bread for the first time -- that basically you put so much flour in until it feels like the right consistency.
JBM: Eating locally involved reversing the normal process. Instead of opening up a recipe book and going and buying those ingredients, you go out and say, what's in season, what's available out there, and figure out what to do with that. So sometimes I would find a recipe that was kind of close to what I might want to make and just do some modifications.
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CL: How realistic is local eating for the majority of people, especially for the budget-conscious?
AS: It can be very realistic, as long as you're buying the fruits and vegetables in their season, and at the peak of the season -- not when the very first tomatoes appear, but when everybody's got more tomatoes than they know what to do with. The prices will be a bit lower. Buying in bulk will always save you money, and doing your preserving yourself. This takes time, but you can do it on the weekend with friends. We canned 80 pounds of tomatoes and saved money from what you would spend on canned tomatoes in the store.
Sometimes when you go to the farms you're shocked at how cheap they're selling the stuff for, or they'll throw in stuff for free. But then other times you just have to make a choice, because yes, sometimes if you live in a big city and you go to a farmer's market, local cheese might be something like $15. But you need to think that you're paying for the quality of the product, that it tastes so much better, and also about the values that the farmer has put into that product. Probably they're doing it organically, and they're treating their animals well.
Our culture has gotten to the point where we assume that food has to be cheap. You're satisfied if you see, "Hey, that's the cheapest tomato I've ever seen!" But then you get it home and you eat it and it doesn't taste very good. We have to decide what our values are, and say, I'll buy this as a special treat because it's worth it.
JBM: If it's cheap, it's because someone else is paying. That's really what it comes down to. If you're buying inexpensive lettuce from California, it's because someone's being paid a buck a pound to pick it. We've seen, for example, incredible increases in the cost of real estate. We're going to have to accept that if we want our food to carry the values that we want, if we want to be environmentally sustainable and socially just and fair and equitable in the global sense, it's going to have to start carrying some of that cost.
There are savings that come from local eating, things like because the local foods tend to be much more flavourful, you don't have to use as many ingredients. I think also as the demand for it grows, governments are going to have to react and build some infrastructure so that local eating is actually supported and efficient and doesn't have to become yet another premium product.
CL: And it's also about farmers -- too many farmers are in debt and unable to make ends meet.
AS: It seems to be important to people culturally to still have these family farms existing. We need these options open to people.
CL: How important is growing your own food?
AS: Oh, it's hugely valuable. We just lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the core of Vancouver. We had a balcony and we had some big pots and we did tomatoes and beans and herbs on our balcony, and we had a community garden plot. So even if you live in an extremely urban area, you can still do it. But I would love to have a much bigger garden, because that's the most self-sufficiency that you can have. There's no fossil fuels, or at least you can control that. And that's another good way to save money as well, if you have any space you can find to garden in. A whole pack of lettuce seeds is $2, and you can grow it organically. One head of organic lettuce is $2.
CL: What are some tips for people trying to increase the amount of local foods in their diet?
JBM: A good starting place for people is farmer's markets, obviously. Farmer's markets are often the gathering point for all kinds of information on local food. The farmers there frequently not only sell at the markets but also from their farmgates or can tell you where you can buy farmgate produce. Some of those farmers may be offering box programs, or community-supported agriculture programs where you can get linked to a farm or a set of farms and get that food.
Often we find that a really pleasant way for people to start to explore the idea is to have a potluck or take a meal like Easter or Thanksgiving -- the harvest feast -- and just try eating a 100 per cent local meal there. Anything, really, that can start that process of reconnecting to the place you live in and the people who produce your food. It can be as simple as saying, this year, I'm going to pick these three or these five products and I'm going to make sure that all of those come from a local place. Even better, I'm going to see what farm they come from. Most people, once they start dabbling in it, just keep going deeper and deeper because it's a better way to eat.
AS: Another simple thing would be to go out to a farm and pick berries with family or friends, and then the next day make jam. Jam is the simplest preserve of all and while there's no local sugarbeets, but there is local honey, which is fine for jam as well.
CL: It's a great thing to do with your family and friends.
JBM: We get friends involved -- and sometimes they get us involved -- in making things like cheese. Next time I make pasta from scratch I think I'll invite friends over and we'll make a bunch of it and we'll all walk away with a bunch of homemade pasta that we can freeze and use. If you're doing that kind of work with a group of friends, or as a family, and some wine is flowing, and that kind of thing, it doesn't feel like work. It's not a chore, it's a pleasure.
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