One Family’s Local Food Challenge, Part I

We’re hearing more than ever lately about local folks and their efforts to look closer to home for food. Yet another example appeared last week in the Bellingham Herald. The piece featured Krista Rome, whose inspiration for her Backyard Beans and Grains Project came from her garden, and from three books of the last decade: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Plenty; and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A few years back I, too, was moved by those reads, as well as by Gary Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat. As a result, my family embarked on a year-long challenge of sustainable eating from May 2007 to May 2008.  A few months after, in advance of “Eat Local Week” in 2008, Shonie Schlotzhauer asked me to document the experience.

Shonie used to run Sustainable Connections’ Food and Farming program. When I told her one day of our family food adventure and my Co-op receipt analysis – even in winter, a good percentage of our bill was local – she said her intern was collecting ‘locavore stories,’ and would I write something about ours? Sure, I replied, and eventually got around to it.  Alas, by the time I did, the intern’s SC tenure had ended and she’d moved away, hopefully with many local eating stories to finish her project. As for my article, I saved it as I would a vacation journal and that was that. 

But that Herald piece the other day prompted a search of old Mac files– I’m a digital packrat–and I found my article.  It occurs to me today, with even more people eager to eat local foods, more farmers growing incredible produce and meats, more fishers offering sustainable seafood, and more businesses working to help families access and enjoy this abundance — well, heck, maybe our story would be added encouragement. So I’m sharing it, years hence.  What follows, then, in three parts, is my account of our family’s venture into the world of local eating, written almost four years ago, but still relevant. 

May 2007-May 2008: Our Year of Eating Local

First of all, I don’t live on a farm. Nor do I have a spacious yard dotted with fruit trees and lined with raised vegetable beds. There are no free-roaming pet chickens scratching in our dirt, giving us fresh eggs every day. I don’t have a pair of milking goats, either. As one who loves to garden and cook, and who harbors romantic notions of growing virtually everything my family eats, I have fantasized such a home. But I’ll get over it.

The fact is, I live with my husband and kids on a quarter-acre lot, at the top of a small mountain in Sudden Valley. Surrounded by steep-sloped woods and pesky deer, it’s hardly the place to raise chickens or tend a big pea patch. Nevertheless, my busy family of four, including two pre-teen boys, ate locally for a year. Indeed, what began deliberately as a 12-month challenge became a way of life sometime along the way, so that the first anniversary came and went without fanfare – but with another wholesome, delicious, almost entirely local meal.

And here may be the kicker: it wasn’t all that hard. What’s more, it wasn’t expensive. It’s been fun, actually, and enriching beyond simply feeding our bodies. At the risk of sounding corny, the experience fed our spirits. It has been heartwarming to realize not only the agricultural bounty of this area, but the stewardship local farmers feel for the land and animals, and the amazing support they get from this community. How satisfying that something as fundamental as feeding my loved ones connected us physically, emotionally and spiritually with the people, land and water where we live.

How’d we do it? Well, it wasn’t cold turkey and, if we’re to be honest, that’s partly why it wasn’t terribly difficult. Like many households, we already had something of a “buy local” bias, thanks in large part to the influence of Sustainable Connections. We had also been trying to make “green living” choices; it’s a Northwest thing, right? We’d long ago switched to a few key organic foods before our first son was born; after all, those studies of so-called safe pesticide levels were done on adult bodies, not babies and kids. Thus, only organic dairy, apples, peanut butter and nitrate-free bacon made our shopping list. My breast cancer in 2004 only reinforced my wariness of pesticides and hormones in food.

When we started our challenge we were already Co-op and Terra Organica customers, and had already added CSAs to our food budget, first from Harmony Farms and later from Cedarville. We’ve enjoyed the Bellingham Farmers Market since the kids were tots, though back then it was for entertainment as much as fresh produce. We also enjoyed self-guided farm tours with the boys when they were little, just for a fun day of berry picking or visiting animals. (I can still picture them romping about Appel farm after tasting curds, singing ‘squeeeeeky cheeeeeese!’)

Still, we were inconsistent, especially during the colder months. We patronized local farmers during the peak summer season, yes. But, we were just as likely to buy large tubs of California-grown organic lettuce mix from Costco, national “big-organic” brands from Fred Meyer and out-of-season New Zealand Fuji apples and Mexico grapes at the Co-op.  These were all “certified organic” and, before I learned better, that made it a good choice. Besides, until recent years, there really weren’t other options during winter.

Over time, as I read and learned more about the industrial food system, and increasingly found superior alternatives closer to home, my commitment to local, sustainable agriculture deepened. The books Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Coming Home to Eat and Plenty, for example, all hammered home the consequences of our food choices. We realized that greens grown sustainably near home (but perhaps not certified organic) were better for us and the soil than those with the USDA organic label trucked up from California; that “free-range organic” chickens from large producers are in fact often confined, their outdoor access a small hole in a crowded coop that meets low government standards and is little more than a marketing ploy; that cows fed exclusively on grain–even if organic–still aren’t eating their natural diet and therefore are not as healthy, nutritious or tasty as pastured animals.

Finally, in May 2007, it was an account by my favorite writer about her family’s locavore year that became our personal tipping point. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver was so delightfully entertaining and inspiring, we just had to follow the example and experience some of that same family fun. So, that very month, my family took the “eat local challenge.” We bought an energy-smart deep freezer for our winter supplies, and I became more mindful of every food purchase – where and how it was grown or made, logging my receipts several times per season to monitor our progress.

(End of part I)

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