Announcing Our 125-Mile Local Food Challenge

Map of Rhode Island and surrounding areaEvery once in a while you have to put what you believe in to the test. And for those who have been reading TNP for a while or know me “off screen”, you know that I’m a huge supporter of the local food movement as a vehicle for building community, local economies and sustainable living. So with that backdrop, I’m excited to launch this new series of posts chronicling our family’s participation in the 2011 EcoChallenge sponsored by the Northwest Earth Institute.

The annual Challenge allows individuals and groups to identify areas in their life where they can make positive changes that benefit them, their communities and the environment as a whole. Participants can choose the area(s) that best fit with their situation, including water conservation, energy efficiency, sustainable food options, alternative transportation and trash reduction. After a quick sign up — which allows you to participate as an individual or team — you are up and running. I am doubly-excited because NWEI has asked me to be a feature blogger for this year’s Challenge, sharing posts and updates with the entire NWEI community.

Our challenge is straightforward: For the two week period of October 1 through October 15, eat and drink only what is grown and/or produced within a 125-mile radius of our home in Rhode Island.

While straightforward, this challenge is far from simple. Though the local and regional food infrastructure has been built up in recent years, it is far from complete — as is evidenced by our research and planning. Our particular challenge is also complicated by the fact that our family of five is vegetarian, has three young children running around and geographically speaking, we are headed into the tail end of the primary growing season.

Measuring Our Progress

In thinking about how we’ll “score” our progress, we’ve decided that we will “grade” our food consumption by where it falls on this very non-scientific scale:

  • Tier ONE — Food (or ingredients) is grown and produced within 125 miles (e.g., vegetables, milk, flour)
  • Tier TWO — Food (or ingredients) is grown outside the 125 mile radius but produced within the 125 radius (e.g., our favorite local brew)
  • Tier THREE — Food is grown/produced outside the 125 mile radius (e.g., well, we’ll have to see)

In chronicling our efforts, we believe we can help shed some light on both the great work that has been in play to create local/regional food systems as well as identify the gaps when it comes to the practicality of trying to eat locally/regionally. Think about it: If something were to happen overnight that rendered cheap energy and the ability to ship in food (raw, processed or otherwise) from hundreds or thousands of miles away obsolete, would your local food system be able to support its surrounding population? For the vast majority of us, I am going to say ‘no’. In a very small way, participating in this Challenge will help me bring some real-world experience to the table — literally and figuratively — allowing me to help spur the right kind of system growth.

It’s All About Planning

Since deciding to participate in the Challenge, we have been doing our homework and figuring out what we’ll eat and where we’ll buy the food/ingredients. Truth be told, my wife, Sara, has been doing the heavy lifting in this department — mapping out our eventual menus, trips and budgets. Here in Rhode Island, we’re fortunate to have a great non-profit called Farm Fresh RI. Their maps and databases of locally-grown and produced food have been a big asset. When we’ve emailed them with questions about hard to find things like flour, grains and beans, their staff have been extremely helpful.

We plan to take this as granular as possible — all three meals, beverages, snacks, treats, etc. So that means I’ll be foregoing things like coffee, tea and chocolate (thank goodness for our local dairy farm, brewery and winery!). Beyond that, we’ve had to have discussions around just how far to take this: Do we not use base ingredients like sugar and salt (we think we have flour covered so Sara can make her breads)? What about other spices and herbs we can get fresh? Can apple cider (it’s apple season here) make it as an orange juice substitute?

And then there are the kids. Three strapping youngsters who (fortunately) are very open to pretty much anything you put in front of them. As an adult, you could probably tolerate eating greens and hefty salads three nights in a row. I’m not sure about the kids. We’ll have to see. (Full disclosure: Writing those last few sentences makes me extremely sensitive to the reality that so many kids here in the U.S. and across the globe are food insecure and I’m sure would not bat an eye at having fresh greens three nights in a row. I feel extremely fortunate that we are in a position to even take on this “challenge” when so many are challenged just to survive.)

Stay Tuned

We’ll post updates as the weeks go on, sharing the ups and downs, holes and surprise finds. If things work out, I hope to get Sara to guest post to share her perspective too. In the meantime, you can also check out our Challenge Profile where we’ll be posting short musings along the way (each day if we can). If you think you’re up to it, I hope you can sign up for the EcoChallenge too.

Be well,
Bill

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Comments
3 Responses to “Announcing Our 125-Mile Local Food Challenge”
  1. Bill, I love it! I can’t wait to read more about the EcoChallenge. I really can’t wait to read all about what you do find to eat being a family of vegetarians with young children. You’re certainly acting as our models right now in this!

    Just a day or so ago Russ challenged me to not purchase any thing with a smidge of plastic on it for the month of October… it was overwhelming to think of what all disappears when you get super literal and really challenge yourself. We will see if I can do it. I’m sure I can, but I might not like what I have to give up. But as I’ve already learned from ODP… it’s only a matter of time before you find ways to have enough of what you love, by arriving at it in new ways. For example, I’ll have to learn to make yogurt. No big deal. But if I didn’t do this challenge, I wonder how much longer I could just go on buying yogurt and wanting to learn and knowing that I should, but not. It’ll be good for me, for sure. And your challenge will be great encouragement throughout.

  2. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Kristy // Thanks. We’re excited and nervous at the same time. Trying something like this makes you quickly realize that so much of what we put into our bodies is over-processed junk that is being cooked up in some industrial lab a thousand miles away. Yes, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the picture. Eating local is this way is a massive blow to the standard quo diet and eating routine. We’ll see what happens.

    Now, about your plastic challenge — that is fantastic. It’s amazing just how “dependent” we’ve become on this stuff (not by choice because the system has been created around it). But I’m so glad to hear you’re looking at the positive side of it and seeing ways you can continue to grow as a person. I’m a big proponent of learning new DIY skills like yogurt making. (Stoneyfield Yogurt falls within our 125 mile radius and will likely be scored as a Tier 2 food for us.) My question: Is Russ also partaking in the plastic challenge? :) All the best to both of you. I do hope one day our paths cross in person.

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  1. [...] September 29, 2011 in EcoChallenge, Take Action! | Tags: EcoChallenge, guest blogger, local food, sustainable food, taking action | by Deborah McNamara As you know, NWEI staff, board, volunteers and hundreds of individuals and organizations throughout North America are gearing up for the two week EcoChallenge starting on Saturday October 1st! Bill Gerlach has been blogging about his 125 Mile Local Food Challenge. Below is an excerpt. For the full post, please click here. [...]