100-Mile Diets, 1000-Mile Impacts: The Civility and Sustainability of Eating Local

litbonanza.jpgThe recent movement towards community food security has generated many “eat local” initiatives, with the 100-Mile Diet joining the lexicon of farmers’ markets and urban gardens. As an urbanite, I support the cause by purchasing local strawberries over bland Californian mutants and by growing green beans in my backyard. When given the opportunity to cook a 100-mile meal for a school assignment, I was keen to give this project a try.

The process of finding local ingredients was not as difficult as I thought, albeit more time-consuming than the usual shopping trip to the corner grocer. More importantly, this experiment drew me closer to questions on the civility and sustainability of local eating. Living in a world of imported papayas and microwave pizza, a local meal reconnected me with the natural origins of my sustenance – a vital link severed by the commodification of food. However, eating local creates serious economic and social implications for food producers in developing nations. In this way, the 100-Mile diet should be viewed as more than about eating local; it is a way to redefine our role as consumers and members of a globalized world.

On a drizzly morning during the first week of January, I invited my two best friends for a get-together. Instead of the typical go-out-for-a-movie-and-dinner routine, we decided to cook a 100-mile lunch. Two hours after we began cooking, the kitchen had the appearance of a war zone. Shards of celery were plastered on the floor and a regiment of cooking utensils were strewed along the kitchen counters. Nonetheless, nobody sustained any injuries nor did we set off the fire alarm. Boiling, grating, chopping, dicing, and squeezing occurred simultaneously through the mechanized labour of three humans equipped with two arms each. To make a carrot salad, we chopped and grated six carrots by hand without the convenience of those bagged salad mixes. The gnocchi was hard to make; the sticky potato-based dough refused to cooperate during kneading and rolling, but we disciplined the gnocchi by dropping them into boiling water. For the stew, I simmered a free-range chicken with the vegetable goodness of carrots, mushrooms, onions, and celery. A dessert of baked apples, drenched with melted butter and brown sugar, rounded off the local menu.

Soon enough, the kitchen became a potpourri of apples and chicken gravy. The extra effort put into cooking this meal, along with the aroma, made us especially pleased with the food. I was content that we made lunch for three persons in three hours. Unquestionably, the amount of time it takes to eat local can be somewhat inconvenient. However, I made a three-course meal without buying any pre-cut, canned, or frozen foods. I felt a lot better—mentally and physically—eating a meal that was not laced with sodium or nitrates. Unlike local food, processed foods contain high amounts of preservatives in order to prolong shelf-life and maximize profits. The lengthy process of preparing a local meal was also spiritually restorative, as it calmed my senses and slowed the ever-increasing speed of time. Paradoxically, the temporal acceleration caused by globalization distances consumers further from the origins of food. The global food system creates a mass market for over-processed, industrial food without any defined source or geography. Globalization withers away any notion of civility and respect for food producers.

Where once farmers were the backbone of a community, food producers today are replaced by industrial machinery. Time-space distanciation severs the relationship between consumer and producer. Furthermore, the commodification of nature devalues the social and environmental costs of food production. William Cronon, environmental historian, argues that industrial agriculture, “by linking and integrating the products of so many ecosystems and communities, obscured the very connections it helped create.” Conversely, eating local promotes the concept of “slow food,” not unlike that of slow knowledge. By taking the time to prepare food from scratch, slow food rekindles the lost respect for nature and food producers.

Slow food gave me a deeper appreciation for the simple potato; it made me realize that in order to live, I require the energy of this vegetable. On a societal level, slow food reconnects the broken links between consumer and producer and creates an intimate sharing and gaining of knowledge through food. In order to create a civil society, individuals must acknowledge the importance of other members’ roles in the community. Furthermore, as my friends and I ate our meal, we noted that “local food tastes a lot fresher than a regular meal.” Local foods taste much better partly because they are not sprayed with chemicals to withstand long travels. A local tomato logs much less air and food miles than the continental tomato, which helps to reduce fossil fuel consumption and pollution. A local diet connects nature, producers, and consumers through its ability to bring a heightened sense of knowledge, time, and place for all parties. A local diet not only promotes ecological sustainability; it creates social sustainability too.

Somewhere in the process of making a 100-Mile meal, I discovered that eating local promotes sustainability and civility in my community. However, I also discovered that eating local could create serious economic and social impacts on developing nations. Living in a developed country, I have the privilege of choosing to buy local, even if these products often cost more than industrial food. My decision to eat local may generate negative effects for a papaya farmer in Jamaica or an illegal migrant worker in California seeking to support his family. This bleak but critical epiphany occurred to me during a shopping trip for the 100-mile meal.

I went to a provincial supermarket chain to purchase some of my ingredients. This supermarket chain uses a specific marketing campaign for its fresh produce. In-store signs advertise that most of their vegetables are grown by local farmers. The ads would include a brief story about the farmers’ livelihoods and show photos of happy farming families. The ads provide much comfort for customers by reminding them that buying local products supports a civil and sustainable community. Yet, if everyone in developed nations no longer ate banana splits and chocolate cake, how would that impact a developing nation which relies on cash crops as its sole economy? My choice to not buy papayas is a direct threat to the livelihoods of farmers who have no other means of income.

Paradoxically, farmers in developing nations rely on imported food simply because subsistence crops do not create much economic benefit. Although local diets are seen as a way to improve food security, ironically, many people in developing countries do not have the choice but to eat imported staples. The benefits of eating local are dependant on the living standards, nation, and economy of the community. There are many paths to civility and sustainability, and eating local is just one of those paths to take.

Although eating local is rather time-consuming, such a diet will bolster the well-being of people who choose to eat this way. I enjoyed eating slow food; the lengthy preparation process not only reconnected me with my food, it also allowed me to bond with my friends. The 100-mile meal would be a wonderful weekly social activity, and it is a much healthier alternative to movie night. In the end, the implications of eating local goes beyond the obvious benefits of less pollution and supporting local economies. Buying a 100-mile vegetable seems an inconsequential act, but in our global world, a single action may reverberate across 1000 miles. Nonetheless, eating local cultivates civil and sustainable communities, and it definitely reduces the population of microwave pizzas and processed food-fiends hiding in our midst.

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Alice is currently studying in the Civil and Sustainable Societies stream of the Coordinated Arts Program, which explains her interest in all things green and clean. When Alice is not writing a 1000-word paper, she enjoys sewing, being a history buff, cooking with local produce, and writing poetry in iambic pentametre.