Who Wants to Take an Eat Local Challenge?

In November 2006, when I wrote a Food section story about preparing a 100-Mile Thanksgiving, the word "locavore" was a new word familiar to a small group of like-minded people in the Bay area, practicing what they preach, which is to eat food grown and raised within 100 miles of where you live.

Yellow wax beans from my local foodshed. (Kim O'Donnel)

Now the word locavore is filtering in the mainstream and becoming part of the vernacular - last year, Oxford American Dictionary declared locavore the 2007 Word of the Year.

By now, you've probably heard about or read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", the memoir Barbara Kingsolver and her family wrote about moving from Tucson to a small Appalachian town in southwestern Virginia and eating locally for a year.

Shortly after the publication of Kingsolver's book in 2007, "Plenty," by Vancouver, B.C. couple Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, hit the bookstore shelves. Like the Kingsolver book, "Plenty" is a memoir of eating locally for a year; what's different is locale -- the Kingsolvers live in the middle of nowhere in southern Appalachia, the Smith-Mackinnons live in the city, and it's just the two of them, no kids to feed. I'm presently half way through Plenty, and I'm laughing out loud. They are both terrific, funny writers, chronicling a painfully honest and ultimately life-changing experience that urban junglers may relate to.

And the trend -- it just keeps on keeping on.

This year, Lynn Rossetto Kasper, host of the NPR program, The Splendid Table, kicked off "Locavore Nation," a blogging project chronicling 15 people around the country eating a diet of 80 percent local food for a year.

For the past generation and a half in this country, the notion of locavoring is a strange and foreign concept. Instead, we've been eating primarily a long-distance diet, to the tune of 1,500 miles for produce. Cheap oil was making this possible, but now oil ain't so cheap -- today's price is at a record high of $141 per barrel, and gas is $4 per gallon (if you're lucky). Even if you don't own a car, you're feeling the pinch at the checkout line.

According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the consumer price index (CPI) of food was 5 percent higher in May 2008 than it was in May 2007, already reaching the projected annual increase just five months into the year. (June data will be released July 16.)

So, if we agree that cheap oil was making long-distance food a bargain, and we're seeing first hand that we're getting less for money at the supermarkets, can we infer that eating locally is a less expensive alternative?

Short answer: Not exactly -- at least right now. When Smith and Mackinnon set out on their local eating adventure, they spent $128 on a dinner for four made entirely from a 100-mile radius. After the guests left that evening, Smith said to Mackinnon, "This might not even be possible."

As Smith points out, "No region feeds itself anymore; we all stand reference to the same global food system." And that, ladies and gents, is a simplified way of explaining why eating locally is so darn expensive. By choosing to eat locally, we're eating out off the highway grid, we're dining outside of the box, we're choosing a less traveled path.

And the hard part of that sticker shock, particularly during an economic crisis, is swallowing a lifetime of learning. How do we, as a culture, unlearn the long-distance eating habits that have been forced down our throats for the past 30-plus years?

This is why a reader is mad at me because I continue to suggest buying in-season local strawberries when less expensive supermarket berries can be had. I understand.

So here's what I'm wondering: What if we shifted a small percentage of our weekly budget to locally produced food? I'm not suggesting that we give up global commodities like coffee, tea, salt and olive oil, but what if we could find a way to introduce ourselves to our respective local food sheds -- and do it with regularity? And after a while, would our pocketbooks feel a difference? Imagine if we were able to flip flop the ratio of local to long-distance food money. Do we, as consumers, have the power to shift the direction of our forks?

Next month, Anne Arundel County is sponsoring a "Buy Local Challenge Week" (July 19-27), and I'm proposing that A Mighty Appetite readers hop aboard and take the challenge. Who wants to join me? The Anne Arundel folks are encouraging one local food item per day; I'm going to up the ante and encourage a minimum of 10 local items throughout the week.

Let me know if you're game -- and if there's enough interest, I'll chronicle your experiences in this space after the week-long challenge is over. Your tidbits, please.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 27, 2008; 10:42 AM ET Food Politics , Food Shopping , Sustainability
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This is a great idea - I just finished reading "Plenty" yesterday! It will be easy for me right now; I belong to a CSA. The challenge will be the fall and winter months. I was hoping to learn how to put up some fruits and vegetables - I'm fine with jams and jellies in small batches, but am clueless about things like tomato sauce or pressure canning. I don't have much freezer space, and not really any room for an stand-alone freezer. My CSA offers big boxes of tomatoes later on in the season, so I will attempt sauces. You might need to do a "what to put up" blog one day a week, as the summer produce starts rolling in!

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | June 27, 2008 10:54 AM

Kim, how can you tell if a food is local? Sure sometimes it's obvious - farmer's markets, the signs on the produce dept. But what about prepackaged foods like rice or noodles? What about meat? In the DC area I know we have a lot of local fish options, but how do you know it's local? Blue crabs, for instance, can also come from the Carolinas.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | June 27, 2008 10:56 AM

This sounds fun! I'm with Alexandria on the desire to learn how to can. (Seeing all the berries at the farmer's market has me craving homemade jam...!)

Posted by: Arlington, VA | June 27, 2008 10:57 AM

I'm game--last week I signed up for a CSA at my local farm. I already can, mostly tomato stuff, but I would love to learn more.

Posted by: BethAnn | June 27, 2008 11:02 AM

I am totally game for this. I will have to start plotting to plan my shopping list for the farmer's market that week.

I am actually getting ready to buy and freeze a bunch of meat from the farmer's market because it is actually cheaper than the organic meat at any of the stores we go to.

Posted by: Kitchen Cat | June 27, 2008 11:09 AM

I am going to definitely try this. It'll be hard with a picky toddler, but I will try.

Posted by: MD | June 27, 2008 11:12 AM

Definately interested in observing and learning new tips, and I do incorporate as much local stuff as I can already. Definately a great idea.

Off topic a little - I'm looking for the recipe for the squash that you hollow out and then mix the insides with herbs/bread crumbs etc. and cook, but I can't find it. Can anyone help? Thanks.

Posted by: Elizabeth | June 27, 2008 11:17 AM

I already sort of do this so I am in!! I have a garden and a local farmer's market practically next to my office.

Posted by: Selinsgrove, PA | June 27, 2008 11:22 AM

I could probably do it for the summer thanks to our CSA, but I'm curious how successful I would be in the fall/winter. It certainly would encourage us to eat more fresh foods though. Frozen meals often have 'distributed by' or something to that effect but no mention of where the food was actually cooked/processed.

Posted by: PW | June 27, 2008 11:27 AM

Kim, I absolutely agree that there is much to be gained from eating morely locally. And, I applaude anyone who has both the inclination and means to do so. I wish that I was one of those people. I love going to the farmer's market and seeing all the wonderful produce and other freshly made items. Just yesterday, I stopped at the Penn Quarter market and bought a $6 quart of cherries. They are so good! But, I think about all the other things I wanted to buy and just could not justify spending so much of my budget on. My farm market purchases are luxuries. I see them as a treat, but cannot afford to do most of my shopping there. I grow all my own herbs and am trying to grow zucchini for the first time this year, but I still depend on grocery stores for most of my fruits and veggies. I think I could make it one week by eating locally, but it would probably cost me about twice what I spend on food for a week now. So, it is not a longterm option for me.

Posted by: Sweetie | June 27, 2008 11:54 AM

Sweetie: Because our culture is so entrenched in a food system that has forced a dependence on long-distance, inexpensive food, the idea of sourcing our food locally is both difficult to fathom and financially untenable for so many folks like yourself. But...But...I think every little bit counts -- and you are already doing something to dip your toe into the pool. Baby steps, my dear.
DC Cubefarm: the most obvious ways are buying from local farm markets, co-ops, subscribing to a CSA and checking labels of origin at your supermarket. You can also visit a pick-your-own fruit farm...or start your very own garden! Even if it's an herb garden, you are in some small way contributing to local eats.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 27, 2008 12:31 PM

I am interested in giving it a try! I think I could manage at least ten local food items a week. Thank you so much for the suggestion!

Posted by: southern gal | June 27, 2008 12:33 PM

This is great! I love :"Plenty" also..I am not participating in a CSA this year but try to get my veggies at the Anne Arundel Co. farmers market and my garden. Last week I also tried out canning my first batch of local cukes for some pickles. We'll see how they turn out in about 4 weeks. This is my first real expierence
canning, hopefully I will be able to begin canning my tomatoes soon. I would love to learn more about canning, it is a tradition that should not be lost. Count me in on the local challange.

Posted by: ALM | June 27, 2008 12:41 PM

Thanks for the tips, Kim. Okay, I'm game. I think I can do enough label-reading and farm market visiting to do it. I needed to get back to the farmers markets anyway. Plus, I already have an herb garden!

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | June 27, 2008 1:18 PM

I'd be up for it, too. Like others, I'm a CSA subscriber, so this is normal practice for me in the summer.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | June 27, 2008 1:23 PM

One way to eat locally and keep costs down at the same time: grow your own food! It is possible to do this, even in an urban environment. For more info Google the DC Urban Gardeners, the 7th Street Garden, and visit www.homegrownevolution.com.

Posted by: MBinDC | June 27, 2008 1:23 PM

Baby steps, indeed. We've been working toward this for 2 years and I'd guess we get about 50% local, and a good percentage more within about 200 miles. Living in California I think we've got more options - I can buy local olive oil, local wine (yay!), local veggies at our year-round farmers' markets, California rice. I've got my biggest garden ever this year and have dropped the CSA in anticipation of the fruits of my labor. As pointed out in one of the recent books extolling local eating, if everyone managed one day a week of local eating we'd reduce our food fuel transport usage by 14%.

A side note regarding $6 cherries - if demand is low at that price, go back to the farmer at the end of the market. He or she probably doesn't want to take them home and is likely to negotiate a deal with you.

Posted by: esleigh | June 27, 2008 2:10 PM

Oh, and regarding fish: we've got one store on the dock that sells fish caught by local fishermen. My guideline is that if it was caught by a local fisherman it counts as local food. I know that they travel a long-way to catch the fish and maybe some was caught pretty far away. At the very least I'm supporting my local economy. What do you all think about whether this is local?

Posted by: esleigh | June 27, 2008 2:24 PM

I would suggest readers look at something
like Simply in Season from the Mennonite Central Committee: http://www.worldcommunitycookbook.org/ - it's recipes on how to use seasonal produce well.

Reason being: if you're eating veggies and fruit seasonally, you improve your ability to eat locally, and chances are good that you're eating tasty things at a time when they have the best likelihood to be cheap(er)--(the corollary is that if you're eating cherries in January, chances are good they aren't local or particularly fresh by the time you get them).

The other thing I've learned is to figure out a a menu after getting my CSA box--planning before leads to an overabundence of whatever I might otherwise have eaten. I think I'm already up to local food at nearly every meal I make.

Posted by: Silver Spring, MD | June 27, 2008 2:34 PM

I would love to get involved in an eat local challenge. Like you, I do much of my summer produce shopping at the Courthouse farmers market and try to buy local otherwise as often as possible. As a vegetarian, though, my big question is whether I could buy my protein and other staples locally - tofu, beans, grains, etc. There are plenty of meat and dairy options from the local farmers, but I haven't seen anyone who grows beans or grains in my market travels around the area. Maybe you could help us find some local non-produce options!

Posted by: Kristin in Arlington | June 27, 2008 2:51 PM

I sort-of already do this. Seventy-five percent of my vegetables come from the local-only farmers market. And I can get things like cornmeal, oatmeal, and rice too.

I just don't know if I can do ten "items" though. I'm single and the portions at my market are big. I can't buy a tomato, I have to get five. Or 15 peaches or whatever. I'll think of another way to keep track and increase my percentage though.

For anyone watching prices, there are bargains and splurges at the farmers market just like at the super market. Cherries are expensive compared to other fruit no matter where you buy them.

Posted by: mollyjade | June 27, 2008 3:36 PM

I love this idea and our household has steadily been moving towards locavorism, especially now that the summer markets are open. Poultry and grass-fed beef are expensive and reserved for special meals a few times a month; I am trying to make stock as often as possible from their leavings. This past winter some of the market vendors had a weekend market at a now-decommissioned elementary school, so hopefully our family will keep up with them in the off-season and learn more about what is available year round.

Another suggestion for a challenge (or a component of this one) would be to reduce/eliminate corn-based products from your diet. High fructose corn syrup, anyone? Reading food labels and avoiding HFCS products easily eliminates half of the offerings at the grocery store for me. Similarly, nothing with "partially hydrogenated" anything comes home in our baskets.

It's the little things, when added up, that will bring about change.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | June 27, 2008 4:08 PM

I'm working on this, I belong to a CSA (year-round) and in my new yard I planted three fruit trees (apple, cherry & peach) and a veggie garden (tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, cantaloupe & pumpkins). My biggest problem is that the NW weather has been so awful that even the CSA is importing produce until their crops finally grow. On the plus side, I can buy my fresh salmon from the boat owner at the local farmers' market. And the fish really is local, too!

Posted by: Seattle girl | June 27, 2008 6:11 PM

I am definitely in! With the newish U Street farmer's market I have been eating only locally raised pork (it's the best) along with veggies and fruit. But I could - and will - shift more of my budget over.

Posted by: U Street | June 29, 2008 7:51 AM

I would definitely be interested in this. I loved both books! And I've been intending to start getting milk and eggs from a local farm and this may be the incentive I need.

Posted by: Alex, VA | June 29, 2008 8:29 AM

I have been buying my fruits and veggies locally. So,I am in, also!!! Always up for new tips, thats why I read your blog, Kim..... : )

Posted by: East Coast | June 29, 2008 2:28 PM

I agree with the baby steps. Some items are less expensive which can be an unexpected treat (or taste like I remember growing up, also a treat!) Not all farmers market food is all that local, so it is worthwhile to ask. I find now my almost 2 year long change in what I buy and feed to my family has resulted in somewhat steady food bills, more fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, and weight loss (this also includes walking much more, including to the farmers market which can be hard if buying cold items or if very hot, but doable). Over time it is evolving. We do not buy everything local, we do not buy everything organic, but small changes have made us happier and healthier I think.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 29, 2008 4:50 PM

The Hubs and I are in. Although I feel like we have an advantage because of our CSA.

Posted by: Bethesda to NYC | June 29, 2008 9:24 PM

I'm not a locavore (you'll take my mangos, pineapples, and papayas from my cold, dead hands), but applaud the concept of eating more local food. Local is expensive, because you lose all the economies of scale. I'd also be curious as to the efficiency in terms of fuel usage. Sure, the produce driven into the local farmers markets is closer. However, how much fuel per pound of food is used driving it 100 miles to Court House versus a boat full of bananas from Honduras?

I buy the (relatively) expensive strawberries at the farmers markets, because they're better! I have often bought Japanese (sorry, Chinese) eggplant before, but never fully ripened. Great on a pizza with goats cheese. Likewise, the spring berry tarts are a hit. I like the concept of seasonal food and local goes with it nicely.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 30, 2008 9:46 AM

BB, I think the green house gasses and other environmental impacts of local foods vs. industrial foods are hard to tease out because of all the variables. Before and after that boat ride, the bananas are still traveling on a truck or train. And many industrial fruits and vegetables are refrigerated from almost the moment they're picked, so that has to be considered too. You might be interested in this Carnegie Mellon University study that looked at the green house impact of transportation on food: http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/abstract.cgi/esthag/2008/42/i10/abs/es702969f.html

I'm not so sure the economics is that simple either. The local blueberries and strawberries at my farmers market are much cheaper than the ones at the grocery store. It all depends on the farmers market and the grocery store and proably a million other things.

I agree with you that we shouldn't stop asking questions just because something is local. BUT, it's a whole lot easier to get answers from the farmer at the market than to ask Chiquita.

Posted by: mollyjade | June 30, 2008 12:43 PM

mollyjade: I'm single, too, but have found that canning and freezing veggies and fruits helps me be able to eat locally. I just wrote about canning strawberry freezer jam on my blog a couple of weeks ago; you might find it interesting/helpful: http://ericksonblog.com/blog/juliaboyle/from-the-field-to-the-jar-homemade-strawberry-jam/
We picked the strawberries locally, and I might add that store-bought strawberries don't make good jam. For some reason it separates.
I get my first delivery of produce from Washington's Green Grocer tomorrow. Has anyone tried that? And we're planting our garden this week. Hopefully with all of that I'll be eating locally throughout the summer and into the fall. Then with frozen and canned fruits, veggies, and sauces, I should be set for the winter too.
This was a great post. Thanks for sparking the conversation!

Posted by: Julia | June 30, 2008 1:52 PM

We live in the country and have farm stands and farmers' markets. For us, summer is all about food. But there are mosquitos in paradise, in particular, the weather. Last week terrible hail storms destroyed all the fruit, berries and much of the produce of many farmers' including some of the largest fruit producers around here. Gone. There will be fruit, but it will be expensive. Without our food distribution system, a disaster like this in an area could result in food shortages. Such things happen in many parts of the world.

The pricing at farmers' markets here was increasing before the storms. Some of the local farmers travel to NYC and they expect to get NYC pricing (or close to it) here as well. Here's an example: We buy lots of strawberries to make jam and to freeze. At our favorite farmer's stand, they are $4/qt. Farmers often buy some things from other farmers to fill in their offerings. One such charged $5/qt. At the local grocery, on the weekend when lots of weekenders appear, they were $6/qt. At the farmers' market, they were $7/qt.

Posted by: Fran | June 30, 2008 3:50 PM

I agree with Julia, that was a great post mollyjade. I'll definitely check out the link. My wife grew up (mostly) in Costa Rica, so I've had the wonderful experience of being in a place where bananas, pineapples, and coffee are local food. [Parenthethical comment: how should a locavore get caffeine?]

Strawberries in Arlington/Alexandria have been running $5-$6/quart. I picked up a really nice quart in Falls Church last weekend at $7.I can get them at about half that price at a local grocery store (Magruders). I'm willing to pay that price, because the quality is higher. There's a wonderful local farm that has a tomato stand out on Leesburg Pike. It's a bit of a drive to get there (those greenhouse gas emissions again), but there's nothing like local tomatoes.

So, I'm not convinced of the altruism of buying local. However, I firmly believe that it is a way to get quality produce and support people who truly care about food and the land. Plus-plus in my view.

Cheers and buh-bye (BB)

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 30, 2008 7:56 PM

The link to "100-Mile Thanksgiving" is not working. Is there somewhere else to find the piece?

I'd really like to read it.

Posted by: Arielle | July 1, 2008 10:33 AM

Arielle: link is working now!

To all of you interested in taking the challenge: It's a-go! I'd like everyone who's interested in being part to e-mail me at: kim.odonnelATwashingtonpost.com
with subject line: Eat Local Challenge
with your city and state.
I'll be putting together a list of everyone participating.
More to come.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 1, 2008 10:42 AM

Thanks, Kim! Now that's service. :)

Posted by: Arielle | July 1, 2008 1:05 PM

We're always on vacation during eat local week -- darn!! It would be so much fun to participate. We try to eat locally and seasonally as much as we can. This summer, it's extra fun because my six-month-old son just started solid foods; he's eating locally now, too!

Posted by: Troylet from Waldorf | July 2, 2008 9:05 AM

I'm in - we're in the middle of the One Local Summer challenge, so it probably won't too different!

Posted by: Nicole | July 2, 2008 12:49 PM

I make a concerted effort to include a lot of local. In fact I am a Yankee transplant living in Charleston, SC dedicating a year to cooking and eating Southern. Your challenge is inspiring and I am going to try and eat all local for the week.

Posted by: Kim | July 3, 2008 7:32 AM

Respectfully Chris, Bill Frist has about as much in common with Howard Dean as I do with Dolly Parton. Frist has neither conviction nor a cause to rally behind like Dean did.


Posted by: dalamar | July 13, 2008 12:07 PM

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