The Ups and Downs of Eating Local (And What You Can Do About It)
(Editor’s Note: This is the final post chronicling our two-week 125-mile food challenge. You can read the other posts here. A special thanks goes out to all our friends and family who offered lots of support and encouragement along the way. Food does create community!)
On October 1st, our family took on a little two-week challenge to only eat food that had been grown and/or produced within 125 miles of our home in Rhode Island. It was part of the 2011 EcoChallenge sponsored by the Northwest Earth Institute.
The Challenge is over and we’ve started eating some of those non-local staples like orange juice and rice again, but what our family experienced leading up to and during those two weeks was nothing short of eye-opening.
For fourteen days we ate the freshest food around, meeting the people who grew and made it. We embraced a new sense of resourcefulness, trying our hand at many new homemade things – from yogurt to bagels to butter. Our kids were troopers as they learned first-hand what it meant to really ‘eat local’ as we seized the opportunity to talk about the hows and whys of eating things grown and made close to home. Our Rhode Island Reds even starting laying eggs just in time for us to take advantage of them.
The Harsh Reality (For the Moment At Least)
Let’s be clear though: It wasn’t all peaches and cream. It was a LOT of work.
There was all the driving to get to the many farmers markets for food and supplies. While local veggies were plentiful here in the Sakonnet area (our neck of the woods in Rhode Island), it was a 25-minute drive to Providence to score our local flour (yes, you can get local flour in Rhode Island courtesy of Schartner’s Farm!), cheeses, popping corn (what a treat!), and other items that quickly became staples in our local diet.
Most nights were spent making or prepping something for the next day’s meals. That led to what seemed like a never-ending line of pots and pans to wash, use, and wash again. My wife, Sara, deserves so much credit for putting all that time into ensuring that what hit our plates was nothing short of amazing! My forte has always been playing “B-Team”, swooping in after the melee and cleaning up. It’s a good team approach.
Two Things That Make or Break a Local Food System
All of this quickly uncovered two of the glaring glitches in our local and regional food system for both producers and consumers: access and convenience.
On the consumer side of things, it’s (unfortunately) unrealistic in today’s society to expect most nine-to-fivers to be able to get to these once-a-week mid-day markets. Or to give up their few precious hours of down-time at night.
And while I have no first-hand experience with this, I imagine it is less than ideal for farmers and producers to be hauling here, there and everywhere to get their products to market. One farming family we know in the next town over (Little Compton) could be hauling one day to Providence and another to Jamaica Plain, MA. You do what you have to do, but there has to be a better, more efficient way.
What if the obstacles of access and convenience could be overcome? Could improved accessibility alleviate the hassle factor? Could a more convenient local food system bolster demand, thus creating a strong enough incentive to boost supply? In her book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” (which Sara was reading during our challenge), Barbara Kingsolver explains that only one percent of the food the typical American consumes comes from a local source.
Think about that: Only one percent. Now think about the food you’ve eaten today: Do you know where it was grown or produced? Or how many miles it’s journeyed to get to your plate? While these questions might sound academic, it’s really about getting the average person to sit up and take notice of these things; to care enough to see how un-sustainable a food system like this is – and decide to do something about it.
Here in Rhode Island, we have a fantastic non-profit called Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Their Market Mobile Program, which connects farms with local restaurants and other food service businesses in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, are making headway in creating these necessary market exchanges. But it’s only one slice of the customer spectrum — to be really successful this food needs to reach individuals and families every day at more of the places where they shop.
What You Can Do to Help Create Your Local Food System
Even as we head into fall and winter (here in our corner of the northern hemisphere), there are ways you can help create a local food system, drive our local economy and eat healthy – all at the same time:
- Support grocery stores that are committed to local food – You might not get this with the big box grocery stores, but smaller, family-owned ones do a great job at sourcing locally grown and produced food. When you purchase these goods it helps drive demand and sends a clear message to store owners that you value these options.
- Buy direct from local farmers and producers – We’re fortunate enough to have the big Wintertime Farmers Market at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket running from November through May. It features food from all over RI and southeastern MA. If you Google “wintertime farmers markets in [your city/state/area]” you’ll undoubtedly get some tip on where to get local food even when it’s cold outside.
- Sign up for a winter Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program – More and more farmers are extended their growing seasons to support increased demand for local food.
So now what do we do that our local food challenge is over? We’re going to stick with it as best we can through the winter months and into the spring, hopefully inspiring others to give it a try. We hope you can join us.
What have been your experiences with eating local? Easy? Hard? What opportunities do you see to strengthen our connection to local food and all the benefits that come with it?
P.S.: Here’s a list of all the local farms and businesses that made our food challenge a success. If you live in the southern New England area, be sure to check them out!
Brown Bear Peanut Butter
Gray’s Grist Mill
Gray’s Ice Cream
Like No Udder
Milk and Honey Bazaar
Old Stone Orchard
Olga’s Cup and Saucer
Skinny Dip Farm
The Providence Granola Project