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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