Tonight, for supper, we had a crock-pot meal of potatoes, wax beans, green peas, a white sauce, and some spices. For dessert, we had smoothies. Nothing all that special, right? Well, sort of. The casserole was made from peas and beans we had picked at a U-Pick operation and frozen, and the milk for the white sauce and smoothies came from our goat. The flour came from wheat grown by a farmer near Ponoka, Alberta. The potatoes, we bought from the store, and the sweet cherries in the smoothie had been purchased from a fruit stand and pitted and frozen. We had a hand in preparing more than 50% of the ingredients in that meal, and I could take you to the places where those things grew, or tell you the name of the farmer who owned the land they grew on.
Okay, so why does that matter?
Most of the stuff you can buy at a grocery store is pretty disconnected from your day-to-day life. I can go to the store here, in Saskatchewan in June, and buy mangoes from India, mandarin oranges grown in Peru, spinach from California, and squash from Mexico. I have no way to check if the fruit labelled ‘organic’ was really grown without pesticides, or of knowing what kinds of conditions my broiler chickens were raised in. Fruits and vegetables no longer really have seasons, if you are willing to accept that those giant red-on-the-outside strawberries that were grown in California in January using tons of fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation are more-or-less the same as strawberries grown in rain and organic manure and picked that morning. There is really no comparison, but a lot of people don’t know that, because their Safeway won’t carry local produce – the local farmers just can’t guarantee to produce enough to meet the demands of the store, or the produce purchasing is centralized in Ontario, or whatever. One way or another, it is rare to see local produce in the big grocery chains around here. I suspect a lot of folks just don’t know what a strawberry really tastes like.
Besides basic issues like flavor and quality, there is the hubris and waste of using fuel to provide irrigation in the desert (California), and drenching the produce in petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, then using more fuel to truck the produce thousands of miles in refrigerated trailers across a country and a half in order for me to have an inferior fruit, out of season. There are also issues of environmental degradation and worker justice. Was the aquifer that provided your strawberry’s irrigation over-pumped? Did the pesticides used on the field run off into a stream and kill local fish? Just who, exactly, picked your strawberry, and what were they paid? Did he have medical coverage? Was he an illegal immigrant in a perilous working environment? You simply have no way to know.
It seems irresponsible and unhealthy to eat this way, and with gasoline hovering around $1.25 per litre as I write this, I don’t believe it is sustainable, either.
Conversely, I have strawberries in my freezer that were grown without chemicals in Central Alberta. I know this because I went to the farm and spoke with the farmer about it, and he explained that it was too expensive to get the certification as being organic, but he preferred to use organic practices. I observed him hand-picking weeds and insect pests. I saw that he used fabric netting and recorded hawk calls to keep the hungry birds off the strawberry harvest. I crawled around on my hands and knees in the black dirt and sunshine, for nothing-per-hour (but with excellent medical coverage) in order to bring those strawberries to my plate. I picked them in June, the actual season for strawberries, and they taste sweet and juicy, just like a strawberry should. I also know they are not toxic, and that the people and environment were not exploited in order for me to be able to eat them.
The Hundred Mile Diet is based on the idea of all of a person’s food coming from within 100 miles (about 160 kilometres) of where they live. The idea started with a couple from Vancouver who decided to eat that way, and who wrote a book about it, called, surprisingly, The 100-Mile Diet. The authors decided, for reasons much like I just described, to source all of their food in-person, from within an arbitrary distance from their home. They had some real challenges, and learned a whole new way of eating. It’s a good book, and I recommend it. It’s also a good idea, and one we are trying to follow here.
Now, we are not going to give up coffee, which is grown well outside our 100 miles, nor sweet cherries, or cinnamon, or oranges. We might even buy California strawberries from the store during a weak moment in January. We do, however, try to stay conscious of how our long-distance food was produced, and pay a bit extra to get organic or fair-trade when we can afford to. We compensate by producing a significant amount of our own food, a kind of Zero-Mile Diet. Back in Alberta, this was difficult, as we did not have a garden. Over the years, though, I found several U-Pick operations and market gardens, as well as local free range eggs and grass-fed beef producers, and we obtained a lot of our meat, fruit, and vegetables locally and in season, then preserved it by various methods (canning, freezing, root cellaring) for eating later.
Now, we do (finally!) have a garden, as well as ten acres to forage on, a provincial forest nearby, and farmers all around us. We have the goats, and the chickens. We’ve planted fruit, nut, and berry bushes. We have a huge pantry and a root cellar. We will see how the gardening goes, but hopefully we will spend quite a lot of our winter meals enjoying produce from our own garden, chemical-free, with no worries about slave labor, toxins, environmental degradation, or wastefulness. It will take us awhile to source the fruit and berries, as our own trees will not be bearing for several years, but I see a lot of chokecherries in our forest, and rose hips and wild raspberries, so we can make do for some of our fruit, as well.
This does take a lot of effort. There is the mental effort of searching for local food, and the physical effort of picking, washing, processing, and storing your food. It also takes some planning to figure out how much corn you use in a year, for instance, and where the heck to keep it all. I traditionally spend a lot of time every summer and fall, blanching, chopping, packaging, freezing, canning, dehydrating, and pickling food to eat for the rest of the year. There is also the effort of learning to eat seasonally – strawberries in June, and potatoes and pickles and squash in January. We think it is worth it, though, to sit down to a meal of things we grew, or at least be able to know the names and political / environmental policies of the farmers who grew it for us. It feels more productive than watching TV, and we find the time now, in order to save time, later, when all we have to do is open a package or three from the freezer in order to have beans, peas, and corn in our soup in mid-winter. There is no way to explain the satisfaction of sitting down to a meal, and knowing exactly where the ingredients came from.
You can do this, too. Even if you live in a big city, there are U-Pick operations and local market gardeners in the most surprising places. Even if you just go to a farmer’s market and buy some fruit to make jam, that’s ten jars of jam in your pantry that are guilt free, better for you, and supporting the local economy. Try it – it is easier than you think!