Documenting my 9-week journey to create a local, sustainable, affordable, balanced, satisfying and tasty meal in Fargo, ND
There are a lot of reasons to eat local. When I lived in Vermont, I found myself doing so almost by accident. I’d poke into the farmer’s market to pick up Melissa’s honey, or drive out to Laurie’s farmstand for some raw milk. Local eggs were everywhere and I could even sign up for a yearly consignment of local pork chops from Jill.
But then I started my nomadic year at Experience Institute, and found myself like most Americans, disconnected from the sources of my food. I only had a quick 20 minutes to grab lunch, or was trying to squeeze in a grocery store run during my exhausted winter trudge home each night. I didn’t have time to ask questions, or seek out local purveyors.
If I want to eat local, it has to be a concerted choice. But is it worth it? I decided to find out.
There are the familiar arguments… Eat local because it’s better for the environment, or because it builds local economy. I’ve done a bit of research and summarized the main points of these below.
Environmental benefits of eating local:
If a person starts eating food produced within 100 miles or less of where they live, they can reduce their greenhouse gas contributions by 4-5%.1 If they’re an average American consumer that would reduce his or her CO2 by 1,600-2,000 lbs2 per year (enough to fill 100,000 party balloons!).3
Keep nutrients cycling locally:
If a person buys food grown in their region, and also eats, cooks and disposes of that food waste locally, then they keep nutrients cycling at a local level, keeping everything in balance. Why is this important?
Well, let’s look at phosphorus. There’s a theory going around that we’re running out of phosphorus which is a big freakin’ deal because you need phosphorus to grow plants (food). But phosphorus, like matter, can not be created or destroyed. It’s an element and we don’t use it up when we grow food with it. However if I grow grain in the midwest, and ship it (full of my soil’s phosphorus) to new england to feed their dairy cows, my soil is now depleted. And when they use that cow manure to fertilize their crops, they have an excess of phosphorus which leads to phosphorus runoff, a huge problem in and of itself (phosphorus runoff into streams, lakes and oceans promotes the growth of algae, which blooms and dies, creating a dead zone in the ocean where nothing can live or grow).4
Economic benefits of eating local:
Imagine this scenario, I go to my local farmer’s market and buy a tomato from Leo the farmer. My dollar then goes into Leo’s pocket, less farmer’s market fees and taxes, which is considerably more than goes into his pocket if he sells through a big box store. Leo then spends his, say, $.90 at the local feed store. My single dollar has now supported me, Leo, the farmer’s market and their employees and the owner of the feed store and their employees. This is an example of a local economy with healthy circulation. Time5 has a great article on the economic benefits of eating local, and Huffington Post6 has a neat infographic. They’re well worth a look.
One German town took this idea to an extreme and created their own local currency which would decrease in value if it spent too long in one person’s hands!
Those arguments are powerful, but they have never done much to actually make me change my behavior. The arguments that resonate more with me are far more selfish and revolve around my physical health and my psychological well-being.
In Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” he writes about a group of 10 middle-aged, overweight, and diabetic Aborigines. They had been living a Western lifestyle, eating a carbohydrate rich diet (flour, sugar, rice, soda, beer, meat, potatoes and onions…) when they returned to the bush for 7 weeks and ate only their traditionally hunted and gathered foods (fish, kangaroo, birds, yams, figs and bush honey). They lost an average of 17.9 pounds, their blood pressure dropped and their diabetic metabolic imbalances were either dramatically improved or completely normalized.
Humans evolved with their environment symbiotically – “I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes”. Pollan illustrates this by describing a population of animal herders in north-central Europe who flourished when a mutation allowed them to digest cow milk, something which then became a heavily selected for trait. The trait also popped up and was selected for in separate populations in the Middle East and Africa.7
Globalization has allowed us to break all our symbiotic relationships. We can buy kiwis in Vermont and mangos in Fargo. Any time of the year, in any part of the world we can get a good portion of what the world has to offer. Similarly our ability to refine food allows us to get more sugar, fat and salt into a single bite than any previous generation. We can create diets based on only eating white food, or sweet foods, or fat-free foods, and still be able to get enough calories into our systems to get through the day.
But the number of “Western diseases” that keep cropping up make me realize we probably can’t do this sort of selection with impunity. If I, a largely Northern European girl, start to cut some arbitrary nutrient out of my diet (say carbs, or fat) and I supplement that with some other nation’s food (Quinoa or soybeans) will I get sick?
I look at diabetes, gluten intolerance, heart disease … and I can’t help but think, probably.
“People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet,” Pollan writes. “This goes for the Japanese and other Asian diets as well as the traditional diets of Mexico, India and the Mediterranean regions…”8
The real hallmark of being human isn’t our taste for meat but our ability to adapt to many habitats
A gorgeous national geographic article sums it up well:
“…there is no one ideal human diet… the real hallmark of being human isn’t our taste for meat but our ability to adapt to many habitats—and to be able to combine many different foods to create many healthy diets. Unfortunately the modern Western diet does not appear to be one of them…
“It’s this shift to processed foods, taking place all over the world, that’s contributing to a rising epidemic of obesity and related diseases. If most of the world ate more local fruits and vegetables, a little meat, fish, and some whole grains (as in the highly touted Mediterranean diet), and exercised an hour a day, that would be good news for our health—and for the planet.”9
And that sweet, sweet connected feeling:
Now this might just be me … but sitting down to a plate of food where I know the origin of every ingredient AND I know the person who grew or made it, is the most satisfying feeling in the world. It makes me feel grounded, in my community, in my relationship with the environment, in my culture and its history and in that moment: at that table with those flavors and the people I’m eating with.
With one lifestyle change I can support my community, my local economy, and better my environment, my health and my sense well-being? I don’t know about you, but that’s enough to convince me.
But there’s a problem. I want to eat local, but because I’m a student at Experience Institute, I find myself in a new town, Fargo, and for only 9 more weeks. I don’t know where to go to buy food, or what grows here, or when it’s in season.
On the other hand…
This would be a perfect opportunity to document the journey of what it means to develop a local diet, for any community, from scratch!
So for the next 9 weeks consider following along. I’ll do the research and every other week will attempt to use it to prepare a local, sustainable, affordable, balanced, satisfying and tasty meal for my new Fargo Family.
And while I strive to create the perfect Fargo summer meal, I’ll research issues that influence our relationship with food and the food system. Below are some possible articles (questions and curiosities I have), but please comment with any other issues you’d like to see explored!
Future article ideas
- Where’s the beef? The environmental impact of cow methane and the effects of eating beef10
- Why should I avoid pesticides? Why/when should I eat Organic?
- It’s not just about local – finding growers who work symbiotically with the land (in terms of pesticide, irrigation techniques, plowing techniques, fuel use, etc.)
- How can I make sure my diet is balanced while considering the environment?
- Is it better to eat my ancestry or my region? Better how?11
Credit: Simone Wai for Featured Image
- Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food : an Eater’s Manifesto. New York :Penguin Press, 2008. Print.