A Year of Eating Locally

by Elizabeth Brake

By now, most environmentally-minded people have probably heard of the 100 Mile Diet – not a weight-loss plan but the name of a book by two British Columbians describing their year of eating locally. In the way these things happen, whether due to the machinations of the publishing world or the placement of the stars, another book with the same idea, and a whole lot more local to New Orleans, came out around the same time.

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver – author of the actually-very-good Oprah’s Book Club book, The Poisonwood Bible – tells the story of her family’s year-long stint of local eating in the Appalachians. As luck would have it, her husband, Steven Hopp, is a professor of environmental studies, and her college-student daughter, Camille, an amateur nutritionist, so the book comes complete with meal plans, recipes, and academic blurbs on the science and economics behind the project (lots of statistics in handy bite-sized chunks).

The Kingsolver-Hopps moved to a small Virginia farming community to raise turkeys, chickens, and just about every fruit and vegetable they could grow. For one year, they ate only local foods (although with a certain elasticity – one month was spent enjoying the local food in Tuscany, Italy, and each family member got to choose one ‘cheat food’). They sowed, weeded, harvested, dried, canned, preserved, froze, scavenged, and slaughtered. (As a long-time vegetarian, I found the turkey-slaughtering aspect a bit gruesome, but Kingsolver provides a thoughtful defense of eating animals raised with kindness.) The whole family participated – even the younger daughter, Lily, took responsibility for a small egg operation. What they couldn’t grow themselves, they bought, mainly at farm markets or from neighboring farmers. The book gives a great sense of life in the old farmhouse, their community, and what hard but rewarding work farming is. There are two chapter-length ‘travel features’, the trip to Tuscany, and a visit to an Amish farm family. And there are plenty of hilarious moments – many involving the continuing saga of their rafter (yes, that is the group name) of turkeys, especially when Kingsolver has to play matchmaker for turkeys whose mating instinct has been bred out of them.

One of Kingsolver’s successful turkeys

Yes, turkeys whose mating instinct has been deselected for, as producers seek fast-growing, cruelly top-heavy birds that reproduce via artificial insemination. That goes, in a way, to the heart of the reason for eating locally: against the environmental degradation, cruelty, and health hazards wrought by agribusiness and factory farms, knowing where your food comes from is a way to be kinder to the earth, animals, and humans – including yourself. Older, better farming methods, seeds, and breeds are being lost at a pace that matches deforestation and the melting of the glaciers; so are older, better eating methods, with disastrous health consequences (obesity, diabetes) and a loss, too, to gustatory pleasures, the pleasures of the palate.

The book explains why local is better, in a lot of detail, some of which will make you angry, like the story of the 73-year-old Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto for patent infringement because their genetically modified canola seed had drifted into his crop; the fact that Canadian farmers can no longer grow organic canola, because they can’t prevent this kind of seed drift, and consumers can no longer be sure of getting food uncontaminated by GM seeds, is of course ignored by big agribusiness.

Here are some of the other reasons for eating local, which the book documents and details:

  • transporting food (especially foods like salad, which are mostly water) across the country or the world is a huge waste of fuel, and large-scale farming operations use large amounts of fuel in fertilizer
  • small farmers are in danger of losing their livelihoods; buying directly from farmers helps them, sustains communities, and gives consumers a higher degree of control over what we eat
  • small farmers work hard, but their working conditions are better than those of many agribusiness farm workers
  • contact with local farmers builds community and lets the consumer learn the true details about how the food is made, which is important as ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ labels can be misleading
  • factory-farmed meat, dairy, and eggs involve incredible cruelty to animals; again, direct dealing with a farmer will yield the most accurate information about how the animals are treated
  • agribusinesses, feeding off US farm subsidies, produce monoculture crops, a practice which is devastating the diversity of the foods we eat; old ‘heirloom’ varieties are lost as produce is bred for durability and regularity – not flavor or nutritional value
  • ‘conventional’ farming methods, using fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, are a disaster for the earth, animals, and humans

Kingsolver emphasises that eating locally is not about deprivation.

Kingsolver’s backyard garden greens

Big agribusiness leads to bad food; contrast Twinkies, Pop-Tarts, and Doritos with the food cultures of Italy, France, Japan, or almost any older culture. Good food cultures are built on knowing and using local ingredients. Like chef Alice Waters, whose San Francisco restaurant Chez Panisse is legendary, and members of the Slow Food movement, Kingsolver reminds us that delicious (and healthy) eating begins with the freshest possible whole ingredients – heirloom tomato and basil straight from the garden, with some home-made mozzarella, perhaps (yes, she tells you how to make cheese and it doesn’t sound that hard). For those who aren’t master chefs, the book provides easy recipes (also on their web-site) and tips on preparing and storing meals ahead of time.Kingsolver’s approach isn’t ascetic but celebratory: it’s not about going without, but discovering how much better local food really is. While not all of us can move to the country and grow peaches, if all of us increased our local eating by 10-20% true change might begin. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a great introduction to why you should eat more local food, and why you should want to.

Visit the website: www.animalvegetablemiracle.com

Get the book: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Elizabeth Brake, an Arizona State University Philosophy Professor and a Visiting Fellow at the Murphy Institute, Tulane University 2008-2009.