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Eating only what grows around you

Worried about the environmental impact of shipping food hundreds of miles, a small but devoted number of Americans have joined the "locavore" movement.
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Members of Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse, N.Y., work on a community garden that will aim to give locally grown food to those in need.Max Schulte / Special to

When Katherine Gray takes her kids to the grocery store, they can pick out as many apples and pears as their hearts desire. But bananas? Pineapples? Mangoes? Sorry kids, if they weren’t grown within 100 miles of Gray’s house in Portland, Ore., chances are they won’t make it into the grocery cart.

For years, the idea of eating only food grown locally and in season was reserved for upscale chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., or serious hippies living off the grid, while the rest of us didn’t think twice about gulping down blueberries from Chile or avocadoes from Mexico.

Recently, however, a small but devoted number of Americans have started to think a lot more about the origin of the food going into their grocery cart. Worried about the environmental impact of shipping food hundreds of miles, plus the dwindling fate of local farmers – and obsessed with the idea of eating really good food – these extreme eaters try to only buy food that is grown within a 100-mile radius of their own home.

“When we first started talking about it, at the beginning, people thought we were a little bit off our rockers, and now it’s become part of this mainstream discussion,” says Jennifer Maiser, one of a group of San Francisco “locavores” who pioneered an effort to eat locally a few years ago.

Around the same time, a couple in Vancouver, British Columbia, became alarmed after hearing about a study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which showed that the average distance a piece of produce travels from U.S. farms to households in the upper Midwest is 1,500 miles.

They made the decision to spend a year trying to live only on food grown within 100 miles of their Canada home.

An engaging book about their effort, “Plenty,” spawned a devoted international following, and now co-author Alisa Smith says activities related to eating locally, such as speaking engagements, are pretty much a full-time job. The fact that eating locally has touched such a nerve still surprises her.

“When we first started writing it, it was a personal experiment for us,” she says. “But we started to hear from people in England, France, Australia, and it just took off from there.”

The movement has grown popular enough to spawn serious research into how much eating locally could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with at least one researcher arguing that, other benefits aside, it may not be the environmental savior some are hoping for.

Gray, who is 34 and runs her own business in addition to raising two small children, doesn’t consider herself a gourmet chef, but she does like to eat healthy. About two years ago, she started reading more about industrialized food production, and it got her thinking about what her family could do to make a difference. Then she came across the book “Plenty” and found her solution.

“I like a plan,” she says.

Soon, the family was eating a lot more eggs and potatoes and trying vegetables they had never heard of, including one that looked like a white carrot and tasted, inexplicably, like an oyster. They became regulars at the farmers market and the natural food store, and Gray purchased some new cookbooks. Now she says about 80 percent of the fresh food they eat is grown locally.

“I didn’t feel like we’d be able to do it, and then I realized how, when you start looking, there are a lot of resources out there,” she says.

Nevertheless, she says she remains an anomaly even in liberal-minded Portland: “I still am the freaky one here.”

The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows would not seem like an obvious candidate for the eating local movement. Growing up, she didn’t eat many vegetables and those that were on the table were “always cooked within an inch of their lives.”

“I grew up in an African-American household,” she says. “Celery root was not part of our tradition.”

Her husband also did not come to the idea naturally: a native of the Bahamas, he considered vegetables to be more of a plate decoration than an actual part of the meal.

But Baskerville-Burrows, 41, had always liked to cook, and she started shopping at farmers markets beginning around 1999. A few years later, she started reading books including “Fast Food Nation,” which includes segments about the farm practices that go into mass-produced food. It prompted a closer look at how she could find healthier and tastier food.

“I started really looking at my diet,’” says Baskerville-Burrows, who is an Episcopal priest.

These days, Baskerville-Burrows says she buys about 85 percent of her food from producers in the Syracuse, N.Y., area, where she lives. She also grows tomatoes, herbs and other vegetables at home, and this year she worked with church members to plant a garden on church grounds that they hope will eventually supply a local food pantry with fresh produce.

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Grace Garden. (photo by Max Schulte -053108)Max Schulte / Max Schulte

Among locavore proponents, one popular pastime is the “eat local challenge,” in which participants try, usually for one month, to eat only food that comes from within their community. The rest of the year, many locavores are more realistic about the limits of their devotion.

Maiser drinks coffee and has a soft spot for Greek yogurt and Italian pasta. Gray’s family eats salsa and pesto and pasta, even though she suspects that some of the ingredients have traveled remarkably long distances. Even Smith has allowed things such as rice and olive oil into her home since ending the year of eating locally chronicled in “Plenty.”

But that doesn’t mean that a locavore’s kitchen looks anything like most Americans’. In order to eat locally through the winter without getting scurvy or facing a family revolt, locavores are forced to take on domestic efforts that most families haven’t tackled for generations. Gray’s extra freezer is stuffed with frozen summer foods plus half a cow she purchased from a local rancher, and she has aspirations to learn more about canning.

Baskerville-Burrows has a root cellar to keep food fresh through the winter. She freezes fresh produce and has been canning strawberries and tomatoes since 2006. Like a lot of people trying to learn long-forgotten food preservation skills, she admits she has approached it with a bit of trepidation.

“I can’t think of anything that’s gone horribly awry. I’ll tell you, though, when I opened up my first jar of tomato sauce, I went to the computer and looked up botulism,” she says.

Smith, the “Plenty” author, recalls frantic calls to her mother and grandmother as she tried to figure out how to do things like make jam.

One piece of advice she has to offer: Get started early in the day, because it takes longer than you might think.

The same could be said for eating locally in general, since doing so often involves spending more time tracking down food and finding ways to cook things you might normally buy ready-made, like bread. Not surprisingly,  in most communities it’s hard to find processed food that is made exclusively from local ingredients.

Also, expect to see a spike in your food bill.

“I am keenly aware that my grocery budget –  it gives me heart attacks –  and so I know that there are a lot of people that can’t do that,” Gray says.

Baskerville-Burrows believes the extra cost is worth the tradeoffs, and she also feels she is paying a fair price for foods that keep local farmers in business.

“I’d rather spend my money putting good stuff in my body than worrying about what’s on it,” she says.

Locavores also report other, perhaps unexpected, benefits to eating food produced near their homes. Maiser said it gives you a better understanding not just of where food comes from, but when it is freshest.

“I would say the normal American who goes to Safeway or something like that doesn’t really have a good idea of when asparagus is in season,” she says.

Some find themselves making healthier eating choices because eating locally tends to mean eating more fruits and vegetables, rather than processed foods. Others, like Gray, aren’t sure they’ve made their diet any healthier, but they like the other benefits.

For example, once you’ve eaten food that was just picked from the farm, many say it’s hard to go back to the refrigerated, shipped variety. Baskerville-Burrows hated tomatoes until she had some fresh ones from a produce market in Berkeley, Calif., and realized what they really taste like.

Still, people who are trying to eat locally concede that it is easier if you live in an area, like San Francisco, where a wide variety of food is grown nearby and there are like-minded people. Also, the added time and money can make it harder for people who are juggling family and work responsibilities.

“As a single person in San Francisco, I feel like I can’t say to someone with a family, this is something that is worth it to do or that you should do,” Maiser says. “I definitely know many (families) who are doing it, but I would say it’s definitely more something that single people are doing.”

There are plenty of good reasons to eat locally grown food, says Christopher Weber, assistant research professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. But, he argues in a recent research paper, the most commonly cited reason — reducing the environmental impact of transporting food hundreds of miles — may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Weber and co-author H. Scott Matthews concluded that transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the environmentally destructive greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing food. He says families could more drastically, and perhaps more easily, reduce their carbon footprint by cutting back on or eliminating the red meat and dairy in their diets. That’s because those foods take an inordinate amount of resources to produce compared with fruits, vegetables, eggs, chicken and fish.

But once you start parsing food choices more closely, it gets more complicated. For example, you could reduce your carbon footprint and still eat red meat by choosing grass-fed beef from a local rancher, because it takes a lot more energy to produce grain for conventionally raised cattle. On the other hand, eating fish is generally the better environmental choice for protein, but not if it’s not being flown in from some exotic locale.

Also, eating locally by actually growing your own food is a better environmental choice than buying food, for a variety of reasons. But, he says, just buying organic food from anywhere in the country does not do much to help reduce the threat of global warming, although some would argue there are other environmental benefits.

Finally, for a person like Weber, who describes himself as “somewhere between vegetarian and vegan,” eating locally could have a big proportional impact since he has already cut back on meat and dairy consumption.

Weber worries that he’s been misinterpreted.

“We’re not trying to say that eating local is bad,” he says. “Eating local is definitely good, and there’s a lot of good reasons to do it.”

It just may not save the planet.