Firsthand Experience Eating Locally

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After eating a completely local diet for the month of September, Jennifer Kongs knew exactly where to find the makings of a locally sourced Thanksgiving dinner.

As you browse the aisles of your grocery store, think about this: All those available products traveled an average of 1,500 miles from where you’re standing. International trade has invaded the food market so much that apples, oranges and bananas are now a year-long staple in most of our diets. This past September, I decided to switch from the standard 1,500-mile diet to a 100-mile diet. For 30 days, starting September 15, I would not consume any food products?except salt, pepper and yeast?that did not come from within a 100-mile radius of my house in Lawrence, Kan.

This month-long 100-mile challenge started as a project for one of my classes at the University of Kansas, but turned into a much more personal endeavor. Using the Kansas City Food Circle as a jumping-off point, I found many vendors within a 100-mile radius of Lawrence that did not sell at our farmers markets. These vendors and the markets combined to become my new grocery store, one that was strictly seasonal and entirely local.

As an employee at both a local farm (Hoyland Farms) and a community cooperative grocery store (The Merc), I should say I had a head start. I was aware of Alma cheese (about 60 miles away), Iwig dairy (about 25 miles away), plus some sources for local meat and produce. Two of my roommates are also employees on local farms, so we always have a refrigerator full of fresh, locally grown vegetables.

Finding Out What Foods are Local

Before officially starting the diet, my food choices were already based locally. However, I had to replace caffeinated teas with locally grown herbals, and sugar with honey. Sadly I never did find a good replacement for chocolate. Plus, my cooking typically included many spices, such as cinnamon, that I could no longer use because they weren’t available locally. By completely eliminating any product not from within 100 miles, I was also subject to the consequences of an unexpected late spring frost, which took out much of our fruit, including fall apples. I did manage, in the second week, to pick table grapes from Davenport Winery (about 10 miles away), a sweet saving grace once washed and stored in the freezer.

My first week was, by far, the most difficult. None of the major grains I consumed daily were available, and even locally baked breads contained ingredients from too far away. My diet was now based on vegetables and animal products. The first Saturday night, after coming home from the farmers market, I started a month-long culinary project that involved creating recipes from scratch. I enjoyed my first dinner of creamy tomato soup with bacon, pinto beans and fresh basil. The pinto beans had been picked from my back yard a few weeks prior by my roommate; the basil was fresh from Hoyland Farms. I happily replaced foreign spices with fresh herbs from the market and our greenhouse at home.

That week also marked the start of late night cooking. Going to school full-time and working multiple jobs, I wasn’t left with much time for daytime cooking. This meant I was often up well past midnight, preparing lunch and usually dinner for the next day.

Through the Kansas City Food Circle, I was able to find Lee Quaintance of Soaring Eagle Acme Grains in Edgerton (about 30 miles), the man who supplies organic wheat flour to a local bakery (Bread of Life). Driving out to his house, the irony of what I was doing sank in. To get flour grown and ground within 100 miles of my home, I had to drive myself in my little green Dodge Neon out to his land, but to get flour from who-knows-how-far, all I had to do was walk a few blocks to the grocery store. To me, there is something inherently wrong with a system that favors generic homogeneity over regional variety, and that emphasizes retail cost rather than the environmental or human costs of production.

A New Kind of Grocery Shopping

Talking with Lee and picking up a bag of flour from his back laundry room, I asked him about his production methods, the difficulties of growing wheat organically, and the challenges development is creating for his farmland. Whether grabbing a value bag of bleached white flour off the shelf or scooping organic wheat flour from a natural foods store bin, this interaction could never have happened in a grocery store. The loss of connection between producer and consumer only feeds the mechanization of agriculture, the industrialization and processing of our food.

In the remaining weeks of my diet, I continued to improve my culinary skills, creating my own 100-mile stout barbecue sauce, creamy sweet potato soup with rosemary, and several sweet honey breads. Three days before my diet was scheduled to end, I set out with a friend on a camping trip, planning to get by on vegetables I brought from home and fish from the stream less than a mile away. The first night, wily raccoons put an end to my local food exercise, devouring all my local provisions. The next morning, I enjoyed a New Zealand apple and a bear claw from who-knows-where (not likely that small town in Missouri), relishing the long missed flavors on my tongue, while contemplating the effects of that breakfast on the global food market.

Now A Locavore for Life

Although my diet officially and abruptly ended months ago, my locavore attitude has only strengthened. For Thanksgiving, my roommates and I featured local free-range turkey, local cream gravy, local butternut squash and potatoes in our au gratin, and local pumpkin in the pumpkin pie. Our homemade rolls were served with local butter, and local wine accompanied the meal. In the future, we plan to employ canning and preserving methods more intensively so that local fare can remain integral to our diets even through the winter months.

The overall experience has left me feeling successful, but also with the realization that I still have so much to learn. Luckily, for most of what I?and we as a society?have yet to learn, all we need to do is ask our grandparents.

Have you tried eating a locally based diet? Tell us about your successes ? and frustrations ? in the comments section below. You might also want to check out the following local food features:

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