Who Wants to Take an Eat Local Challenge?
In November 2006, when I wrote a Food section story about preparing a 100-Mile Thanksgiving, the word "locavore" was a new word familiar to a small group of like-minded people in the Bay area, practicing what they preach, which is to eat food grown and raised within 100 miles of where you live.
Now the word locavore is filtering in the mainstream and becoming part of the vernacular - last year, Oxford American Dictionary declared locavore the 2007 Word of the Year.
By now, you've probably heard about or read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", the memoir Barbara Kingsolver and her family wrote about moving from Tucson to a small Appalachian town in southwestern Virginia and eating locally for a year.
Shortly after the publication of Kingsolver's book in 2007, "Plenty," by Vancouver, B.C. couple Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, hit the bookstore shelves. Like the Kingsolver book, "Plenty" is a memoir of eating locally for a year; what's different is locale -- the Kingsolvers live in the middle of nowhere in southern Appalachia, the Smith-Mackinnons live in the city, and it's just the two of them, no kids to feed. I'm presently half way through Plenty, and I'm laughing out loud. They are both terrific, funny writers, chronicling a painfully honest and ultimately life-changing experience that urban junglers may relate to.
And the trend -- it just keeps on keeping on.
This year, Lynn Rossetto Kasper, host of the NPR program, The Splendid Table, kicked off "Locavore Nation," a blogging project chronicling 15 people around the country eating a diet of 80 percent local food for a year.
For the past generation and a half in this country, the notion of locavoring is a strange and foreign concept. Instead, we've been eating primarily a long-distance diet, to the tune of 1,500 miles for produce. Cheap oil was making this possible, but now oil ain't so cheap -- today's price is at a record high of $141 per barrel, and gas is $4 per gallon (if you're lucky). Even if you don't own a car, you're feeling the pinch at the checkout line.
According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the consumer price index (CPI) of food was 5 percent higher in May 2008 than it was in May 2007, already reaching the projected annual increase just five months into the year. (June data will be released July 16.)
So, if we agree that cheap oil was making long-distance food a bargain, and we're seeing first hand that we're getting less for money at the supermarkets, can we infer that eating locally is a less expensive alternative?
Short answer: Not exactly -- at least right now. When Smith and Mackinnon set out on their local eating adventure, they spent $128 on a dinner for four made entirely from a 100-mile radius. After the guests left that evening, Smith said to Mackinnon, "This might not even be possible."
As Smith points out, "No region feeds itself anymore; we all stand reference to the same global food system." And that, ladies and gents, is a simplified way of explaining why eating locally is so darn expensive. By choosing to eat locally, we're eating out off the highway grid, we're dining outside of the box, we're choosing a less traveled path.
And the hard part of that sticker shock, particularly during an economic crisis, is swallowing a lifetime of learning. How do we, as a culture, unlearn the long-distance eating habits that have been forced down our throats for the past 30-plus years?
This is why a reader is mad at me because I continue to suggest buying in-season local strawberries when less expensive supermarket berries can be had. I understand.
So here's what I'm wondering: What if we shifted a small percentage of our weekly budget to locally produced food? I'm not suggesting that we give up global commodities like coffee, tea, salt and olive oil, but what if we could find a way to introduce ourselves to our respective local food sheds -- and do it with regularity? And after a while, would our pocketbooks feel a difference? Imagine if we were able to flip flop the ratio of local to long-distance food money. Do we, as consumers, have the power to shift the direction of our forks?
Next month, Anne Arundel County is sponsoring a "Buy Local Challenge Week" (July 19-27), and I'm proposing that A Mighty Appetite readers hop aboard and take the challenge. Who wants to join me? The Anne Arundel folks are encouraging one local food item per day; I'm going to up the ante and encourage a minimum of 10 local items throughout the week.
Let me know if you're game -- and if there's enough interest, I'll chronicle your experiences in this space after the week-long challenge is over. Your tidbits, please.
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