Lessons Learned from Eating Locally
by Ann Hippensteel
Ann is a longtime gardener and new Victory Garden Initiative volunteer. Over the last few months, we've shared segments of her local food-fueled lifestyle, and the last segment is up!
Jump to Segment II - Protein and Other Tradeoffs
Jump to Segment III - The Lessons
When I first began to examine the challenge I had accepted to eat for an entire year only local foods, that is, foods raised and processed within 100 miles of my home, I panicked. “We’re going to starve!” I thought. What would I use to replace the olive oil and balsamic vinegar that we appreciate on our salads? What about rice and pasta? What about olives and raisins and lentils and peanut butter and a multitude of other loved foodstuffs?
But commit myself I did, and not being one to pass up such an intriguing challenge, I forged ahead. There were factors in my favor. The challenge year began July 1st, so gardening and farmers’ market seasons were upon us. I had developed food preservation skills. I had agreed to blog about my experience so felt the pressure of the scrutiny of others. I was not averse to doing research, something I immediately saw would be necessary to identify sources of food in my region. Most importantly, my 14 year old daughter had made the commitment with me, and I wanted to set a positive, determined example for her. As an engaged mother, I had provided Sally with locally produced, nutritious, and delicious food since she was a breastfed baby. It seemed I only needed to ramp that effort up a bit to make it an exclusive endeavor.
The challenge had been made by a nonprofit organization devoted to assisting other organizations, businesses, governments, and individuals to change to more sustainable practices. The challenge was to last four complete seasons. Participants agreed they would increase sourcing their meals from growers and providers within a 100 mile radius of their homes. Some participants chose to increase their local eating by one meal a week for the entire year. Some chose to eat exclusively local foods during the months that the farmers’ markets were open. Some, such as myself, chose to eat as close to 100% local foods as possible for the year. The parameters of each individual's commitment were self-determined, and needed only to represent a personal challenge and increase the incidence and/or duration of local foods consumption.
I excluded salt and leavening agents such as yeast and baking powder from our locavore diet. I also continued to take and provided for my daughter, multivitamins – not technically food, but something to reassure me that we wouldn’t suffer from malnutrition before the challenge was over. (I needn’t have worried, as it turns out. Local foods can provide all the necessary nutrients for a healthful diet.)
A month or two before the challenge began I started researching. I called local dairies, grain purveyors, and meat producers. Not only did the ice cream or the flour or the sausage need to be processed locally, but all the ingredients needed to be locally sourced as well. I often found myself making calls up the supply chain in order to be certain that the food was truly local. I ran into many disappointing dead ends but was gratified on numerous occasions as well.
Eating locally supports community. This concept I understood to mean that local farmers and food producers are supported by the effort, which in turn enhances the local economy. As individuals begin to purchase their food from Community Supported Agriculture and other farms, they learn more about and become friendly with not only the individuals who grow their produce but with the other subscribers and customers as well. Saturday morning at the farmers’ market is a social event.
An aspect of community building that I hadn’t realized at the beginning of the challenge year but was keenly and appreciatively aware of before long, was the personal network of friends who were to support my efforts. Some of these were other locavores who traded food with me, but some were just enthusiastic about the 100 mile challenge though not in a position to participate themselves, and helped find foodstuffs that would work for us. These items often included things I wasn’t even looking for: flavor enhancers such as herbs and spices and greenhouse grown items that I wouldn’t have considered possible such as lemons and kumquats. One couple offered to pickle cucumbers for me if I provided the produce and some vinegar I had managed to produce from local apple cider. Another man brought me a pound of shelled hickory nuts in time for Christmas baking.
These were gifts of both the material and the spiritual kinds.
PROTEIN AND OTHER TRADEOFFS
In our household, we found that our commitment to eat only local foods presented various tradeoffs. For instance, though not vegetarian, I valued and had incorporated into the family diet,plant sources of protein such as tofu and complementary grains and legumes. As locavores, we found that we needed to get more of our protein from animal sources. I was able to find all types of meat locally, most raised with concern for the land and environment, and butchered locally. We ate not only beef and chicken, but pork, lamb, and fish as well. Our Thanksgiving turkey was reserved months in advance of the big day, and was one of the tastiest we had ever eaten.
Nutritionally we found that we ate less processed foods, no refined sugar or grains. This was of course a good thing. We didn’t eat out at all, except for a couple of occasions when the chefs custom cooked for us. Depending on the restaurant, eating out often means eating less fresh, less whole ingredients, so lacking the possibility was also a nutritional benefit. And I did not eat the volume of food I was used to because there was not always convenient food available to me. If I wanted a piece of toast, I sometimes found I hadn’t made bread recently. And perhaps in addition I hadn’t ground enough wheat to make bread in the first place. Over the course of the year I lost almost twenty unnecessary pounds.
I needed to plan ahead and always be aware of the availability of ingredients. I thought about food much of the day, and felt a kinship with pioneer women and hunter/gatherers.
On the nutritional downside, I found that with the unavailability of oils, I used a lot more butter. My diet was also higher in cheese and other dairy products. I regularly bought cream from a local dairy to use as I tried to make my own salad dressings and sour cream. With this cream, Sally and I made some delicious ice cream, but it was not the low-fat variety.
Economically, we also saw some tradeoffs. Buying certified organic foods is expensive. And when we bought some locally grown products through middlemen, we sometimes saw hefty markups. Buying directly off the field proved to be very reasonable. One farmer was able to sell me wheat berries off her field for $18 per bushel. This was twice what her buyer paid for them, but I was very happy to pay this because it figured out to be about $0.36/pound.
Our purchased corn meal cost $6.00/lb. In comparison I think the work we put into growing our own Hopi blue flour corn (planting, cultivating, harvesting, husking, and grinding) was worth the money saved. Making our own is always cheaper, especially because we don’t figure our labor into the cost analysis!
There were personal environmental tradeoffs as well, but it seems in the final analysis, eating a strict local diet is overall very good for the environment. Processing food (especially canning) and storing
food (especially freezing) uses a lot of energy, which showed up on our electricity bill. But, because I needed to spend more time at home in the kitchen and garden, I drove much less. Food packaging was
much reduced as well. As a matter of fact, I found there was a dearth of materials available to me from my stash of packaging which I usually saved for reuse – things like bread bags, twist ties, paper grocery sacks, cereal box liners, etc. These are all things I had come to use on a regular basis where other folks use purchased plastic wrap, wax paper, aluminum foil, plastic garbage bags, etc. And because of eating locally these materials were in short supply!
So, what does this mean? What did we learn? What significance does this have for the greater good?
After the challenge year, challenge participants were able to use the information gained during their research of local food sources to continue their personal intentional eating in a less structured manner. However, while a community can support a handful of local eaters for a full four seasons, some very thoughtful policy changes would need to be made in order for a whole community or city to eat locally. Challenge participants identified some areas of difficulty as regards the availability of local foods and wish to report these to the wider community with the hope that some of the gaps in local food distribution might be closed with local economic development and agricultural initiatives. The gaps and recommendations follow.
Food source gap: Local consumable grains are often limited to wheat and corn. Oats, though grown readily in Wisconsin, are not always able to be processed locally due to the fact that they need special equipment to remove the husk. Thus, they are unavailable to the local consumer. Other grains such as rye, barley, sorghum, and buckwheat are also not readily available.
Recommendations: Support the establishment of grain mills which would include equipment such as a huller, to process a wider variety of grains for human consumption. Encourage growers to cultivate a wider variety of grains.
Food source gap: Cooking oils not readily available locally. Fats are limited to those derived from animal sources, such as butter and lard.
Recommendations: Support the establishment of more oil pressing plants in. Encourage growers to plant, in addition to soybeans, rapeseed, sunflower, etc. as oil crops.
Food source gap: Local eaters needed to limit the variety of foods that they enjoyed when they had eaten a conventional diet. Food stuffs that are not grown in this climate at all or that are seasonal, and thus not available year around, are lacking from the locavore's diet. These include citrus fruit, fresh greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, and many other items.
Recommendations: Support an increase in greenhouse agriculture such as is done by some farmers locally and by other farmers in climates similar to or even more harsh than our own. Support specialty food production operations (e.g. mushroom growing, dairy goat husbandry).
Food source gap: Although many local eaters enjoy working in their gardens and kitchens, growing, preserving, and preparing food, they are inconvenienced by the need to spend an atypical amount of time at these activities. In order that the wider population is able to eat locally, attention will need to be paid to convenience of acquisition of foods both whole and processed.
Recommendations: Establish certified processing kitchens, possibly staffed by experienced food preservers, which are available for use by local growers for canning and drying of their harvests. (Excellent examples are the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen and the Oneida Nation Cannery.) Support the establishment of and diversification of local food processing operations including accommodations for artisan cheese making, sausage making, bread baking, pasta production, etc.
Food source gap: Locavores find few opportunities to eat out. Although the awareness of the locavore market is increasing among restaurant owners and major effort is being made by some restaurants to use locally grown products, the problem of distribution and acquisition of food stuffs for use in local menu creation continues to impede growth in this area.
Recommendations: Continue and improve the networking efforts already begun between farmers and restaurant/grocery owners to establish reliable farm-to-table trade. Support development of Community Supported Agriculture operations. Encourage membership in and use of online networking resources such as www.greenleafmarket.com.
When we buy local food, we vote with our food dollars. This ensures that family farms in Wisconsin will continue to thrive and that healthful, flavorful, plentiful food will be available for future generations.
Ann is a longtime gardener and new Victory Garden Initiative volunteer who recently returned to Milwaukee after living in Door County for 16 years. Over the last few months, we published her experiences during an amazing year of eating locally. While all the segments have now been published, Ann's story continues.