I knew it was a little gimmicky when Jerelyn and I agreed to join a “local food challenge.” For the first ten days in October, we’d be able to eat only locally grown food, except for ten exotics. But I got on-board, and I have to admit, the experience has been incredibly eye-opening. Plus, it offers important lessons relative to food security and resilience.
Jerelyn and I have both been involved in organizing the Slow Living Summit, which is held each year in Brattleboro (an awesome event that focuses on local economies, food, and agriculture that you should check out), and one of the speakers the last two years has been Vicki Robin, from Whidbey Island, Washington (north of Seattle), who created the Ten-Day Local Food Challenge. Her challenge is fairly modest: 10 Days; 100 miles; 10 exotics. How hard could that be? Piece of cake. Right?
We signed up and are now more than half-way through the challenge.
Harder than I thought
We do most of our shopping at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, so I assumed that sourcing local products would be pretty easy. With a lot of vegetables and fruits, it is easy, particularly this time of year. Indeed, for lots of vegetables, local means walking out to our garden on the other side of our barn. As long as one is willing to skip bananas (America’s most-eaten fruit), oranges, and asparagus in October, sourcing fresh fruits and vegetables locally is quite easy this time of year.
Grains and flours were much more difficult for us in southern Vermont—even for the whole state. Interestingly, the Champlain Valley of Vermont was once the wheat belt of New England, but today there are just a handful of farms growing wheat, oats, and other grains. There are some other, closer options in Western Massachusetts, including Four Star Farms in Northfield.
A number of flours and cornmeal from those farms are sold at our Co-op, but Vermont-grown white flour was out of stock when we shopped most recently. We picked up some whole-wheat bread flour at the Green Fields Market in Greenfield, MA, but there was no local white flour there either, so I put in an order with Four Star Farms this week (they mill and package grains to order on Tuesdays). We’re still on the hunt for local rolled oats, which Four Star Farms doesn’t offer.
Packaged foods are out
I was able to find almost nothing in our Co-op or at Green Fields Market in the way of packaged foods that are produced from local farm products—even with some staples, such as salt and sugar accepted as exotics.
This was a surprise to me, though I guess it shouldn’t have been. Most of the smaller companies that may once have made packaged foods out of local ingredients have been acquired by larger companies and the raw materials going into those foods have been commoditized nationally. This has been a trend across the country, with companies like Annie’s Homegrown, which started in Hampden, Connecticut, but is now owned by General Mills and headquartered in Berkeley, California. The same is true with Smartfood, Green Mountain Gringo Salsa, Cascadian Farms, and Kashi.
In the snack department, we were able to buy some Western-Mass-grown popcorn (my own popcorn isn’t ready to harvest yet), but that’s about it.
Local dairy and meat much more available
We haven’t had nearly as much difficulty with dairy products (milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese), eggs, and meat. In fact, today I believe there are far more options for locally produced animal products than there were 10 or 20 years ago.
Our Co-op sells lots of Vermont (or local) cheeses, milk, butter, yogurt, and a few meats. Other local meat products are available at the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market (which we went to Saturday) and directly from farms.
The allowable exotics helped out
Vicki’s Local Food Challenge allows ten exotic ingredients, and that was a good thing. Here are the exotics we opted for: salt; sugar (we started out using maple syrup and honey as sweetener, but that limited us relative to some prepared foods); peanuts (so that I could eat my peanut butter sandwiches!); green tea (for Jerelyn); cooking oil (we lumped olive oil and Canola oil—maybe that was cheating); yeast (for baking); baking powder; rennet (used in cheese making); and sulfites (used in most hard cider).
From the Local Food Challenge Facebook page, I see that a participant in San Francisco had to list water as his first exotic, so I guess I feel lucky in that department! We have lots of great-tasting water with no additives.
Is food miles the right yardstick?
I’m well aware that a local food challenge based on distance over which food is shipped is overly simplistic. There are many other factors that determine what the right choices are for us in buying one product over another—relative to energy, the environment, and social equity.
But this challenge, nonetheless, accomplishes a great deal in getting us to consider where our foods come from and exactly what goes into our prepared foods. Vicki, in fact, suggests that participants not be too rigid about the distance. In our case, we expanded the definition to “100 miles or within Vermont” for some products. The point is to learn more about our food.
Why this relates to resilience
There is a certain vulnerability to being dependent on something from far away—whether gasoline for our cars, water to irrigate our farms, rare-earth metals to make laptop computers, or food for the dinner table. Food security is an important part of resilience, as I’ve pointed out in past blogs.
When disasters occur—major storms, earthquakes, terrorist actions, etc.—supplies to critical goods, including food, can be cut off. Were there to be a shortage of diesel fuel at some point in the future, that would have a huge impact on food shipments by truck and rail from California and the Midwest.
Should an extended drought in the West coincide with a lack of snow cover in the Rockies and Sierras, California produce farmers would be in even more trouble than they’ve been in the past several years. The 2012 drought in the Midwest showed us how significant drought can be on corn and grain production, wreaking havoc on international grain markets and raising the prospect of food riots in some countries.
A more resilient food system has more distributed food production, with greater availability of locally grown and locally processed foods. We have a long way to go in achieving food security, but the locavore movement and initiatives like Vicki Robbin’s Local Food Challenge are helping to raise awareness about this issue—along with achieving all sorts of additional benefits, including better tasting and more nutritious food.
You can get a sense of how different states stack up in terms of availability of local food through the Locavore Index, a numeric ranking developed by RDI Board member Martin Langeveld through the Strolling of the Heifers organization in Brattleboro. I’m proud to say that, based on the factors that are analyzed in this rating system (number of farmers’ markets and CSAs per capita, local food availability in schools, etc.), Vermont has remained at the top of the list since the Index was first created in 2012. Rounding out the top-5 states for 2015 are Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Massachusetts.
All this is a good thing. I’m enjoying learning about new foods, new ways to prepare foods, and local farms that I hadn’t known of before. I must admit, though, that I look forward to being able to have a beer again (we don’t have any local beers made from locally sourced ingredients) and enjoy some chips with it—though I’ll try to eat those chips with our own salsa!
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Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.