Patrick and I are all abuzz this week about our upcoming participation in the Eat Local Challenge (ELC), laid down by Jen Maiser, of Life Begins at Thirty, and Locavores. It’s a repeat of a challange they did last August in the Bay Area. Check out the sites for more background. There will be an ELC blog soon, where we’ll probably do most of our posting on the challenge. We’ll add a link from Henwaller as soon as it’s available.
As you might imagine from the name, this is a challenge to eat as locally as possible for the month of May. We work pretty hard to be local already, but this is a good opportunity to really focus on where things are at in terms of being able to live in what we’re calling our foodshed.
“Foodshed” is is a riff on the term “watershed.” Technically, and most simply, a watershed is the area of land that catches the rain and snowmelt from a given downslope. It is used more broadly in sustainability discussions to talk about the area defined by your local water sources. Learning about one’s watershed is a powerful way to start thinking about your place. It is a concept I was wholly unfamiliar with when I lived in Michigan, in part because Michigan has one hell of a lot of fresh water. Moving out west, I started hearing about watershed and wondering what all the fuss was. But out here, many urban areas exist that cannot survive on the water from their own watersheds. They pull from other regions—think Las Vegas, much of Arizona, etc.—and there is often competition between cities and rural areas for water. If people were forced to live by their own watersheds, many areas would be forced to depopulate.
Thinking about living in a limited foodshed is similarly eye-opening. Most Americans at this point do not eat from their foodshed. Even food grown in one’s own region often is trucked away before coming back to the table. We had a friend who lived in Montana for a while, and he couldn’t get a steak from the ranchers who raised cattle outside his town. The only beef to be had came in plastic wrap at the Safeway. Perhaps it was grown locally, but it was no longer local.
Our first move toward local food was via organic foods. Eating organic was a way to support small producers of healthy food grown sustainably. But as “organic” has come to the attention of agribusiness, and large producers have decided it’s profitable, it can no longer be seen as a guarantee of sustainability. There are now large organic growers who farm in ways that are fundamentally unsustainable, using up land and then discarding it. Knowing where something was grown—and how far it travelled to get to a market— have become increasingly important ways to assess the sustainability of our food and foodways. Bill McKibben has a really good discussion of this in his recent book Wandering Home. It’s a great read for eat-local participants. Industrial agriculture will never be local. They cannot afford to be. There is no economy of sufficient scale on that level. Local is about sustainability on ecological, economic, and community levels.
The guidelines for the ELC ask you to lay out your goals for the following parameters:
1. What’s the radius that defines your “local”?
2. What exceptions will you admit?
3. What proportion of your eating will be included?
So far, here’s what we’re thinking.
1. What’s the radius that defines your “local”? Our local is shaping up to be a 150 mile radius. This may change, and one of the things we’re doing as a part of the challenge is mapping our food sources. As we identify where our food comes from, we’ll add it to the map. So partly, one of our goals from the challenge is to identify our foodshed. We are in a region where 150 miles, even in May, will be a generous source of pretty much anything we can need, and a lot of what we will want (see below for some exceptions). I’d say I feel lucky about that, but frankly, that’s a part of how we chose where we live. Here’s our fledgling food map. Permanent link is also on the right. We’re identifying both markets and original producers and growers. Where appropriate, say in the case of the Portland Farmer’s Market, we’ll have a keyword on a producer (PDXFM) that indicates that we purchase this food item from the market, but it is grown at Happy Acre Farms, or what have you. Yes, this does certainly appeal to our compulsive-cataloguer sides!
2. What exceptions will you admit? This is a subject of much rumination. I think at a certain point we would have been a lot more rigid about this than we plan to be. We think the ELC is most interesting, however, as a way to learn and challenge ourselves, not to punish ourselves. For instance, if we went 100% in our foodshed, we would be hard-pressed to find any cooking oils. Cooking would get a lot less interesting, or a lot fattier, if we went to only boiling or to all butter. So, we’ll use oils, and try to find some Oregon-grown ones. We will use the ELC to focus on seeing how close to home we can get with certain things. We know we can get olive oil from California, for example. When we cannot be local, how can we support small producers, or sustainable practices for products that we are importing into the foodshed? What is great about the ELC is how inspiring it is to answer some of these questions.
We are going to maintain a running list of exceptions—meaning things we use regularly that we cannot supply from our foodshed, and what we do about them. So far we think it’s oils, vinegars, sugar, and spices. Patrick has some banana vinegar he made which may be ready by May, but, of course, the bananas are not from our foodshed! We are hopeful too that we may find a vinegar producer we never noticed at the farmer’s market, or among the many wineries of the area. Another open question is grains. We know that we can get some of them locally, but we need to do more investigation on this front.
3. What proportion of your eating will be included? We’re aiming to include 100% of our eating in the challenge, with the understanding that, as mortals, we shall fail. I’ve already mentioned things we know we’ll have trouble with in exceptions.
What to do about eating out? We have found quite a number of local eateries that use quite a large proportion of local, sustainably-raised ingredients. We love supporting them and eating their food. But if controlling background ingredients is hard when we cook the food, it will be even more difficult in a restuarant or bakery. So, these are places where we will let the ELC shape our approach, and see how well we—and they—can do.
However, we mostly plan to use the ELC as a secondary challenge to cook more at home. Since arriving in our new town, with the aforementioned cornucopia of locally-oriented restaurants, we’ve been indulging a little more than we ought. This will be a chance to get ourselves back in fighting trim in the kitchen, as it were.
My mom just sent us Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, which has been a terrific reminder of the sheer sensual delight of cooking. It is both that it is Europe, and also that it was before the meteoric rise of industrical, corporate food production in the second half of the twentieth century, but it is heart-rending to read of her market trips in Paris in the late forties and early fifties—so much contact, so much texture and personality. All the same, we are incredibly fortunate to live in a region where, while I cannot go to a storefront with a huge mound of fresh butter behind the counter, waiting for my hunk to be carved out, I can go to the Portland Farmer’s Market, and buy a luscious pound-sized brick of butter directly from the farmer who milks the grass-fed cows who gave their milk for it.
Oh! It’s so exciting!