The New Food Math: Miles per Square Meal
Supporting the local butcher, baker & candlestick maker
There was a time, a few decades back, when my after-hours passion was being able to put a meal on the table with ingredients grown or gathered within a few hundred yards of the kitchen.
This was at the height of the back-to-the-land, men-with-ponytails era, and much to the amusement of neighbors with generations of real farm experience, I struggled with the realities of coaxing a virtually abandoned old Canadian farmstead to start yielding food once again.
Weasels raided the baby chicks; barn owls feasted on unlucky hens. Plagues of hornworms ravaged the tomatoes; marauding raccoons, with perfect Swiss timing, struck on the eve before the sweet corn harvest. Woodchucks, kamikaze-like despite my attempts at armed defense, grew fat on tender beans and peas and young lettuces.
Still, after a couple of years of learning country humility, the mission seemed accomplished. From the barnyard: plump, self-basting roasting fowl and orange-yolked free-range eggs. From the garden: red-skinned Kennebec potatoes, sweet Nantes carrots, perfect Blue Lake green beans, Big Boy tomatoes, Earlivee sweet corn, along with fresh shallots, onions and herbs galore. From the old orchard: apples pressed into cider and cooked into applesauce. From the brambly fencerows and ditches: raspberries and blackberries and feral asparagus. From the sugar bush: maple syrup and chanterelle mushrooms.
Nearby farmers were good for quarters of beef and sides of pork, small creameries sold local Cheddar and cheese curds, and a few country women still welcomed customers into their kitchens to buy loaves of incomparable homemade bread, butter tarts and seasonal peach, apple and blueberry pies.
It all sounds impossibly idyllic, and over the years, other realities and priorities have intervened. These days we are content with a garden and keeping as much locally grown food on the table as possible.
As it turns out, the self-sufficiency ideals of the '70s are reblossoming as the Local Food Movement. Once again, it is a counter-cultural reaction, this time to the Western world's accelerating acceptance of highly processed, manufactured foods of dubious nutritional value.
The Worldwatch Institute estimates that the average food item now travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before we eat it, burning fossil fuels the whole way and contributing to everything from the high gasoline prices we pay to ocean warming and monster hurricanes. Just to see, we added up the miles for a typical Sunday Chicken Dinner for four (with a melange of roasted vegetables, bread, butter, apple pie and a bottle of Merlot) and came up with just 153 total miles traveled for the locally sourced ingredients vs. an eye-opening 14,483 miles for the mass-marketed choices. (Remarkably, the fresh local foods cost a grand total of $2.16 more than the $36.64 tab for the conventional groceries.)
Obviously, few to none of us are going to give up olive oil, winter fruits and vegetables and the growing selection of artisanal and organic products that make contemporary shopping, cooking and eating so interesting. Still, adding more local goods to the grocery cart seems the right thing to do, for a wealth of reasons that all of us who value flavor, quality and the intimate connections between food and the land can appreciate.
Inspired by a barrage of press releases about an Eat Local Challenge (see photo), sponsored by a sustainably minded food-services company, we are vowing to attempt a home-cooked meal with all local ingredients sometime during this holiday season. Even here in Vermont, where the cottage-food industry is flourishing, it will be a bit of a challenge, but I think I've figured out the menu, up to and including local beeswax candles.
One vexation: Local salt? A new motto may be in order: Eat Locally, Season Globally.