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Eating Local: There's No Plate Like Home

  • There's No Plate Like Home
    Our writer vows to only eat food produced within a 100-mile radius. Which is great, unless you love coffee.
    By Elisa Ludwig
    Philadelphia citypaper.net - Philadelphia, PA, August 10-16, 2006
    Straight to the Source

The fettuccini is a little gritty. It's made with the only local flour we could find,  coarse-ground whole wheat. For a few minutes there, things in the kitchen weren'  looking good the sheets of dough alternately tearing and drying up, the grayis  strands limply wobbling out of the pasta maker. We stared at the mess hungrily  wondering if we were going to have to scrap the whole thing and have Blue Mountai  wine for dinner. In the end, it cooked nicely, and now, with some Berks County squas  sauteed in butter and chopped parsley, plus a salad of roasted beets and Shellbar  Hollow Farm goat cheese, it almost passes for a decent meal. Of course, we can't hel but yearn for some salt and pepper and a splash of fruity olive oil  all which are off-limits and locked away in the pantry

We're two days into a 12-day 100-Mile Diet and we're learning as we go. The 100-Mile Diet is the brainchild of Vancouver writer Alisa Smith and her partner, former Adbusters editor J.B. MacKinnon. After learning that the ingredients in the average North American meal travel between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate - as much as 25 percent farther than they did two decades ago - the green-minded couple decided to make some lifestyle changes. "We're the kind of people that ride our bikes everywhere, so we wondered why we were going to all this effort when our food was flying around the world."

From March 2005 to March 2006, they ate and drank only products grown, raised and produced within a 100-mile radius. They documented their progress along the way, started a Web site to encourage others and are now working on a book about their experience.

The ecologically and socially responsible concept has already caught on and it's growing faster than a patch of purslane. In Powell River, a peninsula town in British Columbia, 250 people have signed up to follow a 50-mile diet for five weeks. "Others have written in to say they have 100-mile lunches or dinner parties," Smith says. In the States, chapters of "locavores" have sprung up all across the country. Other groups have set up their own Eat Local challenges. In this area, a group blog called PhillyFoodShed serves as a starting point for exploring local resources.

Intrigued by numerous reports about this culinary brand of activism, I wanted to know what it would mean to eat exclusively locally here in Philadelphia. For two weeks, I decided, I would follow the 100-Mile Diet myself. My good-natured boyfriend would join me.

Before we started, we spent over a week preparing, discussing all the things we could and could not eat. The 100-mile radius from Philadelphia extends to Dallas and Littlestown, Pa., and takes in sections of Delaware, Maryland, the Jersey shore and even parts of Long Island. We'd already bought a share in a CSA (community supported agriculture) from Red Earth Farm in Berks County (89 miles away) so we had a box of vegetables and herbs delivered to a nearby drop-off point each week. Peaches, blueberries and nectarines were coming into season. We could get local corn and tomatoes at just about any farmstand in the area. We had our own small, fledgling crop, too: a few varieties of peppers and several kinds of herbs. Meats, poultry, eggs, honey, cheeses and other dairy products were easy to find.

Yet we were not living in California, where the luckiest locavores of all have olive oil and lemons at their disposal. Like any diet, it was going to require sacrifice. No oils, as far as I could tell. No chocolate. No sugar. No salt, pepper, or other spices. Worst of all, no coffee or tea.

Eating on a 100-mile diet requires a total reimagining of how to prepare food. Everything but the cheese, yogurt, butter and bacon was made from scratch. There were no recipes that didn't include salt or oils  and cooking without lemon juice impeded my usual style  so we had to wing it in the kitchen. I considered making my own bread with a sourdough starter, but the starter itself would take nearly two weeks. We decided to just give up bread. We did, however, find that locally milled flour for pasta and crepes, so we didn't have to go full-on Atkins.

There was another small issue. We had a weekend-long wedding to attend in Big Indian, N.Y., in the middle of the planned timeframe for the diet. We took those two days off, but as it turned out, we had plenty of opportunities to eat local. An entire table of hors d'oeuvres was devoted to a "Catskills Feast": heirloom tomatoes, roasted beets, ostrich stuffed with mushrooms. I'm not going to lie, though. We did sample the chocolate raspberry wedding cake, and it was excellent.

So two weeks, minus two days - not even a fortnight. At times, though, it would feel like a religious fast. I kept a journal of our progress while I set out to learn more about our food, where it comes from and how we get it.

Day 1: So far, so good. We breakfasted on scrambled eggs, goat cheese and chives. For an afternoon snack, peaches, Pequea Farms yogurt and honey. Dinner was some kale, corn and a chicken that just finished roasting before our power went out  which was lucky because trying to cook it over an open fire would have taken this pre-industrial eating experiment a little too far.

When I tell people in Philly's local food movement that I'm following the 100-Mile Diet, they're excited. They remind me that we live in a richly fertile area of the world, and that, for a city, we are surrounded by an unusually large amount of farmland. "We're blessed that way," Bob Pierson says. He is the program director of Farm to City, which runs 11 farmers' markets around the city, several CSA programs  including Red Earth Farm and a Winter Harvest buying club during the off-market season. "But we're not taking advantage of this bounty hardly at all. In our supermarkets, less than a percent of the food is coming from local farms."

Even so, the Buy Local movement is more popular than ever. Sales are up and Pierson has steadily been adding markets. "Ten years ago there was just one farmers' market, at South and Passyunk," he says. "Now there are 20 in the city total." Nine of these are run by The Food Trust, whose mission is to ensure that Philadelphians have access to affordable, nutritious food. The Trust operates an additional 11 markets around the city and surrounding counties.

Three years ago, the White Dog Foundation opened the Fair Food farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market. Initially held on folding tables a few times a week, Fair Food has become a full-time store. "It began as a way of educating and connecting with consumers, but the demand was so strong that we've become permanent," says program director Ann Karlen. She plans to open a lunch counter and a casual catering business in the coming months.

Fair Food sells produce, dairy products, eggs, meat and value-added products from more than 40 vendors. Much of it is organic and grass-fed or pasture-raised. It becomes a great one-stop resource for me as I plan my meals, and there is a true camaraderie between the stand employees and browsing shoppers. It's a place you go when you really want to know where your food comes from. "We can trace the source back," Karlen says. "We know all the farmers personally and we can tell you about their growing methods."

Day 3: Three days in, the diet feels a little like detox. That's because I've had no caffeine and my head throbs dully. I am drinking a tisane of garden mint and honey. It's refreshing, but not what you'd call an eye-opener. Already we are both down a few pounds on the scale, most likely due to the lack of salt. Crappy headache notwithstanding, I can't help but feel virtuous.

I plan a visit to Michael Ahlert, the owner of Red Earth Farm, to observe the fields that are feeding us firsthand. On the Northeast Extension, I see the food distribution system in action: A Pathmark tractor trailer with the words "Grocery Haulers" on its mud flaps passes in the left lane. A few miles later, there's a Lunchables truck that urges moms to "Ride On!"

Technology and cheap fuel have made it easy to ship and refrigerate food across long distances in the past 50 years, and these advances have transformed the global food system. According to the USDA, the majority of fresh fruits and vegetables produced in the United States are shipped from just three states: California, Florida and Washington.

"I'm always amazed at how good the produce looks in supermarkets, considering it's grown on such a huge scale and trucked from so far away," says Ahlert.

Environmentally speaking, what you eat for lunch may be more important than the kind of car you drive. Seventeen percent of all fossil fuel burned in the United States is consumed by food production, packaging and transport.

In his book Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market, Worldwatch Institute senior researcher Brian Halweil writes about the enormous Mid-Atlantic regional distribution center for Safeway supermarkets in Upper Marlboro, Md., where all the East Coast produce is inspected. Even if the products will eventually be sold in a farmer's hometown 400 miles away, they must first be shipped to this central location then shipped back.

And that's just a domestic food route. Enormous quantities of food are also being shipped globally. "The lettuce in our supermarket comes from California," says Smith. "But the lettuce grown in Canadian greenhouses is shipped to Japan. Food is traveling all over the world for economic reasons that defy logic or environmental sense."

With fuel stores declining and oil prices reaching record highs, it is unlikely that this system can function this way indefinitely. Supermarket chains like King Kullen and Wal-Mart have already begun programs to buy local food. "They're saving an astronomical amount of money buying local lettuce over California lettuce," says Halweil. "It's been very successful."

Undoubtedly, these changes will make a difference in the atmosphere. A 2003 study at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University compared a meal of Iowa-produced foods enjoyed in Iowa with a meal whose ingredients had traveled 2,577 kilometers. The local meal accounted for four to 17 times less petroleum consumption and produced five to 17 times less carbon dioxide emissions than the nonlocal meal. "This is part of the evolution of our food system," says Halweil. "Eating local is no longer just a fringe movement for chefs, farmers' markets and concerned mothers."

Day 6: There's an almost unbearable lightness of 100-mile eating. I'm not hungry, but I'm almost never really full. At the gas station I eye the bright packages of chips and cookies, craving the fast, cheap calories. But then I think guiltily of the zucchinis in my refrigerator. They are not anonymous, mass-produced zucchinis. There's a real person behind them, and I don't want them to go to waste.

"To me, the best sign that there is more interest in local food is that a number of young people are getting into farming now," says Pierson. "People come in with a passion for the issues, and they want to get their hands dirty."

Michael Ahlert is part of that burgeoning movement of small growing operations, many of which are sustainably farmed or organic. Ahlert, who is 37, grew up in rural Warren County, N.J. He inherited his love of fresh food from his grandmother, who maintained a large garden and preserved her vegetables for the winter.

"One summer, I worked at a local farm. I loved the hard work, the sort of repetitive, meditative nature of it. It was almost a spiritual calling that's true for a lot of organic farmers and probably for organic consumers as well," he says.

Ahlert later became an active member of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and managed a farm in Oley Valley, supplying restaurants and operating a CSA called Covered Bridge Produce. Last January, he bought the land that is now Red Earth Farm.

In the bigger picture, of course, family-owned farms are declining in the United States. Between 1935 and 2002, the U.S. lost 4.7 million farms, according to the USDA. Farmers in 2002 earned their lowest net cash income since 1940, while corporate agribusiness profits increased 98 percent during the 1990s.

While most U.S. farms are still small and family-owned, the majority of production has moved to large farms growing single crops like soybeans and corn. Medium-size farms, which can't compete with the cheap prices set by big agribusiness companies, have largely been squeezed out of the picture. That leaves farmers like Ahlert to grow a variety of specialty and organic crops that can command a higher price at restaurants or through CSAs, farmers' markets and roadside stands. A growing interest in eating local has meant that these small farms have more marketing opportunities than ever, and many consumers are more than willing to spend their food dollars supporting them.

But only the medium-size farms can bring local food to our college cafeterias and hospital rooms, and it will take a commitment from these institutions to ensure that farms can continue to operate on that scale. Lindsay Gilmour is the program coordinator for the Farm to Institution project, another of White Dog's Fair Food initiatives. She's working on connecting the struggling midsize farms with steady clients.

Though the program is making strides, Gilmour has found that creating new food routes is a highly complicated process. "Right now, the infrastructure is just not there," says Gilmour. "Even if everyone was willing to buy local it would still take time for a local system to be set up."

In the meantime, Fair Food, Farm to City and the Food Trust are researching the feasibility of a local-food distribution center that would facilitate deliveries and offer resources for small businesses using local ingredients to create food products. They plan to open in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Brewerytown in the next year or two. The Food Trust is also looking into establishing a shipping point terminal for wholesale food distribution.

"We're still learning all the layers of this system," says Gilmour. "I like to say we're digging away with spoons."

Day 7: Biting into a nectarine I bought at Linvilla Orchards, I notice it has a California sticker on it. I'd assumed it was grown on site, along with the yellow cling peaches, blueberries and yellow raspberries I also got there. I'm realizing just how many questions we have to ask to make sure we know where our food is coming from.

"When you're dealing with a local farmer you can know by talking to him how he raises his crops, treats his workers and treats the environment," says Bob Pierson. "In the supermarket, the food can come from anywhere and you have no idea how it was produced."

This is true for the majority of major supermarket chains out there, which, aside from posting photographs of smiling farmers in the produce aisle, give customers little opportunity to interface with producers. There are some exceptions, though.

One is Wegman's, the 71-store chain that opened a new location this summer in Cherry Hill, N.J. Wegman's got its start as a produce-only store in upstate New York. In each store, management sources local fruits and vegetables, working with a total of 900 different growers whose names and products are listed on their corporate Web site.

On the afternoon I visit, I see a host of Jersey's finest on display: perfect peaches, a gigantic pyramid of corn, stacks of plastic boxes of blueberries. To be sure, these are huge mechanized farms that grow their food conventionally and transport it through middlemen distributors. I buy a tomato that looks deliciously irregular, with light streaks and a bumpy shape. It's only halfway flavorful, though  most likely picked before it was truly ripe.

Wegman's also carries a small selection of Jersey seafood. Behind the counter products are labeled only with country of origin, but the seafood manager tells me that the scallops and flounder came from the Jersey Shore.

Whole Foods is another supermarket that sells local products  and it has increased its commitment in the wake of a recent public spat with author Michael Pollan, who criticized the company in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The company has now set aside an annual $10 million budget to promote local agriculture and has vowed to start weekend farmers' markets in its parking lots.

Day 8: Planning our meals and cooking our food for every meal  not to mention all the cleanup  is admittedly a little bit tedious. I'd like to go out and try a new restaurant or meet up with friends but we have been explaining that we are out of commission for a little while. We did manage to meet up with two of our friends at the White Dog for a glass of local wine.

Saving food miles requires flexibility, time and dedication. It takes the ability to plan meals, the willingness to travel a little farther to the store that carries Lancaster cheddar, an interest in learning new preparations for unfamiliar vegetables. To follow a year-round local diet here in Philadelphia would mean planning well in advance, canning and preserving summer's fruits and vegetables and living off of storage crops like beets and carrots. There are no restaurants that serve exclusively local foods and it would not be possible to eat at friends' homes unless you brought your own local stash. Compared to what we are used to, a locavore lifestyle is anything but convenient.

It's also, for the most part, more expensive. The total cost for our two-week diet, including the CSA, was $219, or $109 a week for two people. Granted, it's easy to spend that amount with a few impulse purchases at Whole Foods, but it is still significantly more than the $84.50 the average two-member American household spends on groceries a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute. "I don't know that local food universally ends up being more expensive," says David Adler, spokesman for The Food Trust. "It's important that you compare apples to apples, so to speak. Local blueberries in season at the farmers' market are not necessarily that much more than they are at the supermarket." What's more, the cheap supermarket food we've grown accustomed to may also have hidden, long-term costs that we'll bear as a society in future generations. In Home Grown, Halweil writes, "Economists often argue that the long-distance food trade is efficient, because communities and nations can buy their food from the lowest-cost provider. But the loss of local food self-reliance brings a range of unseen costs  to the environment, to the agricultural landscape and to farm communities."

Day 9: We're enjoying the foods, some for the first time. There's the raw milk, with actual cream rising to the top of the glass bottle. (It's almost embarrassing that this is a novelty.) Technicolor rainbow chard. Tiny sugarplums bursting with juice. Unbelievably sweet ears of Mirai corn. Candy onions you could practically eat raw. It's a whole new palette of flavors.

Man cannot live on soybeans alone. When you choose to eat locally, you have the opportunity to sample new foods. On the one hand, the global food system gives us access to more choices, like lychee martinis, or passion- fruit-filled bonbons. But when was the last time you saw a mulberry in Superfresh? Like many berries, they're too fragile to ship, so unless you have your own tree, you miss out. Our local biodiversity is too often undermined by the global cornucopia.

"When I was in Oley Valley I was surrounded by farms," says Ahlert. "Ninety percent of the county was zoned agriculturally, yet all you saw was corn, soybeans and grains for livestock feed or oils for packaged foods."

Though lettuce can be grown in Pennsylvania, it is never done on a large scale. "Garlic isn't grown here much," says Paul Tsakos, who owns and operates Overbrook Herb Farm in Lansdale. "If you go to the supermarket, you get one kind of garlic that's grown in California. But if you look in seed catalogs, there are a dozen varieties."

Figs, too, are relatively easy to grow in this area, though Tsakos says he has to wrap his trees come winter. Other items he's grown include tiny Alpine strawberries, Romano beans, Shelly beans and groundcherries  none of which is available in the conventional market. These are products we could cultivate a taste for, if only we had the chance.

Day 10: Well into the diet we notice changes. We feel energetic. We're sleeping well. Our clothes are looser. Someone told me my skin looked healthier. The caffeine cravings are now gone. A fuel metaphor is probably inappropriate, but it's like running on premium.

The health benefits of this diet are in some ways indirect. Certainly eating locally encourages a "whole foods" approach with fewer prepackaged, processed foods. In our case, it meant cutting out sugar and sodium but for the bacon and cheeses we ate. Since our produce was organic and our meats were grass-fed and pasture-raised, it also meant giving up pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, preservatives, irradiation and hormones. Local food may have other health benefits, as well: Some people have suggested that eating local honey can help prevent allergic reactions, though these claims have not been proven conclusively.

The food might also be healthier simply because it tastes good. Behind The Food Trust's nutrition education initiatives is the hope is that by being introduced to real farm food, people will learn a new love of the fruits and vegetables that can help them avoid cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. "We lose out on taste when we get our food from all over the world," says Adler. "There may be no nutritional difference per se, but local food is healthier because fruits and vegetables taste better when picked fresh, so it's less of a challenge to eat them regularly." After all, five to nine servings a day sounds a lot less appetizing when you're talking about wan January tomatoes.

Farm fresh produce, bred only for taste as opposed to well-traveling texture, can be a revelation. "When I got my first CSA box, I cooked up my produce and I was amazed at how big the flavors were. The next week I used even less preparation, and it was even better," says Greg Salisbury, owner of Rx restaurant in West Philadelphia and charter member of Fair Food. Salisbury sources everything from duck, bacon and eggs, to herbs, fruits and vegetables locally. "The eggs are yellower, more vibrant," he says. "The strawberries are sweeter: A good one is a Proustian moment."

I know what he means. At Michael Ahlert's farm I got to eat gorgeous sunripe tomatoes off the vine, and I have been dreaming of them ever since.

Day 13: Last night we made steak and eggplant on the grill, plus mashed potatoes with leeks. This morning we had crepes with apricots and blueberries. I don't know if I could go without olive oil long-term, but we are certainly not suffering. I actually went to the supermarket today to stock up for our week after the diet ends. I found myself uncomfortable with the prospect of buying the usual nonlocal brand names. I can't look at the cookie aisle in quite the same way  all I see is wasteful food miles.

By the end of their year, Smith and MacKinnon had grown accustomed to the 100-Mile Diet. In fact, she says, their first post-diet meal, when they could have had anything they wanted, was a 100-mile meal of eggs and potatoes.

My boyfriend says the diet has changed the way he thinks about food and eating. Walking into a market he can now assess what's local, and it's no longer a matter of just eating what he wants when the craving strikes. Undoubtedly, we will reintroduce espressos, pita bread and cashews to our kitchen, but each choice will be weighed more carefully. If eating local is a moral imperative, then every meal is an opportunity to do the right thing. Besides, I'm now hooked on local yogurt and bacon.

"We're a long way off from everyone deciding to eat only locally or seasonally  and that doesn't necessarily have to be the answer," says Ahlert. "Perhaps we can simply incorporate more local products into our food system but still allow people some of the choices they're used to."

It certainly doesn't need to be all or nothing, and with so many reasons to eat locally, it's not hard to make small changes. Alisa Smith says a friend of hers who drank orange juice every day just switched to apple juice, and now saves tons of food miles every morning.

Bob Pierson estimates that his family eats about 75 percent local. "Once you make the shift you no longer think about what you miss," he says. "You go to the farmers' market and there are bountiful piles of food. People ask me what they can eat, and I say, 'Look around. How hungry are you?'"

(e_ludwig@citypaper.net)

Tips for Hardcore Local Eating:
Use butter in place of oils.
Drink fresh herb infusions (lemon verbena, mint) in place of tea or coffee.
Substitute honey for sugar.
Use meat bones to make stocks for flavoring sauces or soups.
Buy locally milled flour and make your own pasta and sourdough starter for bread baking.


Resources for Local Eating:

In the Philadelphia Area:

Almanac
Fourth and Poplar sts.
215-625-6611
www.almanacmarket.com

Fair Food Farmstand Reading Terminal Market
12th and Arch sts.
215-627-2029
www.whitedogcafefoundation.org

More Generally:

Farmers' markets,
Buying clubs
CSAs

Food Routes
www.foodroutes.org

Local Harvest
www.localharvest.org

Sample Shopping List:
1 dozen eggs (Meadow Run Farm, Lititz, Pa.)
1 head of hardneck garlic (Pete's Produce, Westtown, Pa.)
breakfast links (Meadow Run Farm, Lititz, Pa.)
1 lb. chicken legs/thighs (Meadow Run Farm, Lititz, Pa.)
1 quart yogurt (Pequea Valley Farm, Ronks, Pa.)
1/2 lb. aged cheddar (Green Meadow Farm, Gap, Pa.)
1/2 lb. of butter (Green Meadow Farm, Gap, Pa.)
4 low-spray peaches (Green Meadow Farm, Gap, Pa.)
2 pattypan squash (Red Earth Farm, Orwigsburg, Pa.)
goat cheese (Shellbark Hollow Farm, West Chester, Pa.)
2 ears Mirai Corn (Pete's Produce, Westtown, Pa.)
1 bottle Blue Mountain Vidal Blanc (New Tripoli, Pa.)


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