I Tried to Eat Local in Vermont for a Week—Here's What Happened
I live in Vermont and while there are many great things that come along with living here (mountains, friendly people and incredible beer, to name a few), it's not exactly the premiere climate for agriculture. Winters are long and cold, summers are hot and short and seasons change often. Luckily for me, I am a five-minute walk from the local farmers' market in the summer, which makes it easy (and highly enjoyable) to locally procure my produce for the week. And in the fall and winter months, I sign-up for community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares to get my fill of seasonal produce. But given the growing limitations in the winter months, I do have to supplement with non-local items from the store.
There is a lot of talk about how eating locally is one of the most sustainable food choices you can make. On paper, this makes a lot of sense. Your food travels a much shorter distance to get to you, everything is fresh and seasonal to your area and you can support local farmers who really deserve it. But in practice, eating locally can be a bit more complicated. What would it actually look like to try and eat exclusively local food in the fall or winter in a place like Vermont? When I signed up for my fall CSA this year, I vowed to find out.
The Rules of the Challenge
I am on a budget, so it's not accessible for me to buy every product I consume from a local producer. That said, I am lucky to live in Vermont where there is ample affordable local dairy and grain products (thanks, Cabot and King Arthur Baking Company). For one week, I vowed to consume only produce that was grown locally and opt for locally produced staples like milk, cheese, butter and yogurt. Local meat is particularly expensive, so I tried to limit my consumption and choose local products as much as I could. In terms of pantry staples, I used things I already had stocked and tried to make things from scratch if I needed to supplement. Here's what I learned from my week of eating locally in the fall in Vermont.
What I Ate
Overall, breakfast was pretty easy. A egg scramble with vegetables like onions, garlic and greens always sounds good to me. I paired it with homemade hot sauce from my summer garden and a slice of homemade sourdough bread most days. To treat myself on Friday, I made a vegetable hash with potatoes, onions, garlic and kale topped with a fried egg to switch it up.
Lunch usually consisted of a salad with some sort of dinner leftovers on the side. I had ample roasted vegetables, cheese and nuts, and topped it with homemade vinaigrette. It was filling and flavorful. Tuna salad is also a regular in my rotation so I was able to use carrots from the CSA and local celery from the area food co-op (though I admit the tuna was canned and not local, nor was the mayonnaise).
On the first day of this pseudo-challenge, I made a big batch of butternut squash soup and grilled cheese for dinner. This made enough for dinner the next day too, plus some leftovers for lunch.
The third day I made pasta with kale and dried beans that I bought from the farmers market over the summer, and topped it with nutty parmesan breadcrumbs.
Day four called for something easy after all of this cooking. I thawed chili from the freezer (full disclosure: not local ground beef, it was made months prior) and made Chili-Topped Sweet Potatoes. This big batch lasted two dinners as well.
On day six, I needed something with brighter flavor, so I made a tofu stir fry with roasted Brussels and brown rice. I omitted scallions and cilantro because I couldn't find any that were local and they were dearly missed.
The last day of the challenge called for a celebratory meal: roasted cabbage and carrots with a whole roast chicken. I actually bought local chicken and though it was more expensive, it was so much more tender and flavorful than what I usually buy. Since my CSA came with lettuce mix and napa cabbage, we enjoyed fresh side salads every night (I love our Basic Green Salad with Vinaigrette recipe for this).
Snacks were the most challenging part of the week. I usually eat fruit and yogurt for a snack, but yogurt without berries left a little to be desired. Instead, I would snack on roasted veg, cheese, local apples and nuts I had on hand already. In a few instances, I treated myself to a PB&J in a pinch, like after work before going to the gym when I needed something fast and easily digestible.
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The one major pro from signing up for the CSA was that it was paid for in advance, and while it may feel expensive up-front, it's actually quite affordable. It cost only about $200 for 10 weeks of shares, so $20 per week for pounds of various seasonal vegetables. The challenge helped me save even more money, since I planned meticulously and only bought what I really needed. To avoid purchasing too many non-local products, I planned around what I already had in my pantry and freezer, too.
There are also environmental benefits from eating locally. Non-locally produced food travels long distances and requires a massive amount of fuel, energy (primarily from refrigeration in transit) and packaging to stay fresh and safe until it arrives at its destination. Choosing local cuts all of that out, which can lead to big environmental savings.
Lastly, I was surprised at how delicious and varied my meals were. I used to think that winter produce meant a monolith of roasted vegetables. And while those are delectable, I was able to have all of the flavors I wanted throughout the week while using seasonal ingredients.
One thing that became a glaringly obvious oversight from the start: fruit. While there is an array of fruit that is locally grown in the summer, the colder weather months are not as conducive to fruit growth. In fact, the only fruit that was locally grown that I could find in the store were apples. While I love apples, they got old really fast. If I had planned further ahead, I would have bought berries in bulk when they were in season and frozen them for the colder months.
Additionally, this prep and super-focused planning took up a lot of time, as did the actual preparation of the meals. Heartier foods like Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, sweet potatoes and cabbage can take longer to prepare, so it was different from the quick one-pot dishes or Shakshuka that I regularly whip up that use non-seasonal ingredients like tomatoes, herbs and peppers.
Lastly, I just cook for myself and my partner, so it's easier to splurge on local meat and local products since we eat a relatively small quantity. If I were trying to feed a larger family, spending several dollars more per pound would make a lot less sense.
The Bottom Line
For one week, I found this challenge really enjoyable and it helped inspire me to work more seasonal local produce into my meals in creative ways. I can see how this would become more challenging or monotonous over a longer period of time. But as with anything, eating locally doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. The environmental savings are still beneficial even if you opt to buy just a few local products at each weekly shopping trip. Plus, every bit of support for local farmers and producers helps. And with the right recipe, you can make seasonal foods really delicious no matter the time of year. To read about more of my imperfect efforts to pursue sustainability in real life, check out what I learned from my 30-Day Zero-Waste Challenge.