Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Local Eating

What components of this meal are local? It looks like mush but this is my successful attempt at a multi-course Indian meal and that’s saying something considering I’m a very white American with comparatively little culinary experience. On the left is chicken tikka masala and then spiced spinach, fresh carrot salad, and homemade naan garnished with a fabulous local heirloom tomato.

Why do I care if any part of this meal is local? “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1500 miles” and on average, every kilocalorie we consume takes 87 kilocalories to produce in oil (1). Fossil fuels are an inelastic, expensive resource whose use results in the pollution of the very water and fields we depend upon to produce food. Second, by purchasing foods from 1500 miles away or more, our money is leaving the local farmers and merchants without income. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” illustrated what happens to a town when the local industry dries up and blows away and much the same thing occurs when all the money is leaving the town to procure goods and very little is making it’s way back home. Without money circulating locally, the diverse mom and pop shops can no longer afford to operate, tightening the noose of shopping choices down to large corporate-run stores with generally poor ecological, manufacturing, and human rights practices. Buying local food allows the consumer to use their substantial buying power to support their neighbors and sustainable production techniques.

Local food also tastes better. No, no really. It’s such a little thing but local food is seasonal food, meaning that it’s picked at it’s natural prime. We’ve all experienced mealy winter tomatoes from South America but have we ever asked ourselves why we suffer so? Barbara Kingsolver eloquently says it best: “Bizarre as it seems, we’ve accepted a tradeoff that amounts to: “Give me every vegetable in every season, even if it tastes like a cardboard picture of it’s former self.” You’d think we cared more about the idea of what we’re eating than about what we’re eating(1) .”

Do we eat it simply because we can? Or perhaps we eat it because the USDA as told us to? Well before I discovered the concept of “local eating” I only consumed fresh berries and stone fruit when it was ripe locally because peaches imported from California in December are not peaches at all. But what about romaine lettuce and zucchini and cucumber? How will I get my “5 a day” in February if I don’t eat California produce? These are difficult, very personal questions that can only be answered by individuals based on time and inconvenience, given our dependence on “convenience” foods. Given time, every one of us could put up all the frozen, canned, and dried produce it would take to make it through the winter and then all it would take is will power to withstand the lusty call of tomatoes in January. But most of us don’t have the time or unwilling to make the time so instead of throwing the concept of “eating local” out the window with the Thigh Master, we can do what we can with the resources we possess. Perhaps it means going to the Farmer’s market a few times throughout the summer to enjoy truly ripe peaches. Maybe it means freezing pound upon pound of only green beans or making two types of jam. Or it could mean driving to a farm once a month to procure meat and cheese. Whatever level of local eating each individual can achieve is a step in the right direction and something is always better than nothing.

So, what parts of the meal are local? None of the spices except for the garlic, and there were many, many spices. The ginger is from Hawaii. The chicken is from California, as is the yogurt. The spinach, carrots and cilantro are from the farmer’s market but the flour, eggs, rice and butter are from the far reaches of the country. The milk and cream are from Organic Valley, a consortium of dairy farmers that are supposedly local but send their wares to a common processing plant but the according to the package, the distribution center is in Wisconsin. Not a very local meal at all but I am giving it a fare amount of consideration and trying to figure out ways to do better. There is a dairy several mile south of my home but it is not organic so I need to look into their feeding and antibiotic practices before I purchase. The process seems overwhelming but focus on one nut at a time (har har) and we will all get there.
1. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, 2007.


  1. Well my dear, here is my comment (as promised). I think the fact that you're remaining conscious to and concerned about the origin of your food is a step above what most of us do. Certainly better than me- I happily buy simply for ease of preparation with zero thought to where my food is coming from. So, I'll make a commitment to start thinking about it. Baby steps, you know.... And last night's meal sounded fabulous!

  2. Baby steps is all any of us can do. Last time I checked it was only the super over-achievers that go strait from laying flat on their back to running a marathon:)