Two years ago, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon set out to see if it was still possible, in these hyper-globalized times, to live off food grown in your own ‘hood. The pair made a pact to dine on dishes culled from within a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver, B.C., home for an entire year. Their personal experiment quickly evolved into a movement, and now Smith, a freelance journalist who writes regularly for Reader’s Digest, and MacKinnon, a nonfiction author, have turned that movement into a book.
The 100-mile diet began as a way to reduce dependence on the fossil fuels sucked up by the conventional food system, which sees food travel an average of at least 1,500 miles from farm to plate. But it quickly became just as much an exploration of community, seasons, and flavor — and a source of understanding about just how far removed we are from the food we eat.
Sure, there was the period of time before the dining duo found locally milled flour, putting them on an accidental Atkins diet. And there was that whole other chicken-and-egg question — even if the chickens were local, was their feed? But in the end, they say, the year amounted to the most varied food-fest they’d ever had.
Their book, Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Robust Year of Eating Locally, hits U.S. shelves on April 24; it’s already out in Canada, under the more direct title The 100-Mile Diet (the publishers feared it would come off as a weight-loss guide in the U.S. under that title). Grist caught up with Smith and MacKinnon by phone on the second day of their Canadian book tour.
What surprised you the most in the course of your 100-mile diet?
Smith: One surprise was things you couldn’t get, which turned out to be wheat for us, but it would be different wherever you’re living. I just imagined because bread and pasta are such a staple, [wheat] must be grown everywhere. But it turned out that historically it had been grown on the West Coast, but because of specialization of agriculture they decided that the prairies in the Midwest would be the wheat place, and where we [live] is the dairy place. So all of these decisions have been made, and the average person isn’t aware of the effect they have on what kind of food you can get locally.
MacKinnon: I think one of the things that really surprised both of us was just how good a year of eating it ended up being. I think a lot of people, including us at the start, thought that it would be kind of boring and repetitive, and that we’d be eating the same thing day in and day out, the same short list of vegetables. But it turned out to be the most varied year of eating that either one of us has ever had.
I liked reading about the chicken dilemma, where you were going to get eggs from a local farm but realized those chickens probably ate feed bused from miles and miles away. How did you make decisions about these complex situations?
Smith: We hadn’t even considered the depth of the whole chicken dilemma. So we really had to confront those issues as we went along and make decisions as they came. Some things we would reject and others we’d have to be like, “Well, if we want to eat eggs, the best ones are the ones at the UBC farm, which is biking distance from our home. The chickens were born there and raised there and they eat lots of the grass that grows there and the bugs on the ground there.” We decided that we would eat those eggs, because we were informed of every aspect of the production of that food.
MacKinnon: We just tried to do the best we could.
Were there any specific moments that really told the story of how difficult it is to buy local, or how far we are removed from a local system of eating?
MacKinnon: I think fisheries were one of the more shocking areas. We live right on the ocean, and at the mouth of one of the world’s great salmon-producing rivers, yet it was unbelievably difficult to find genuinely local seafood. There was this sort of dawning awareness of just how overwhelmingly fished-out some parts of the coast have become. We did eventually find one fisherman we could go to and we always knew where the stuff had come from, and knew that it had been fished in a sustainable way. But it was a pretty hard realization.
What did you find the most frustrating?
Smith: I’d say it was definitely the system itself, and realizing what the downfalls of the industrial food system really are. What really frustrated me is the labeling of food, in grocery stores. At best what they’ll say is the state they’re from. But if you’re from, say, California or Texas, that could still be from almost 1,000 miles away. Or even with fish and seafood, it’s very often not labeled at all, so people don’t even have a way of finding out where it came from.
In Britain, food chains are talking about developing a food mileage labeling system. Do you guys see that as a possibility to raise more awareness?
MacKinnon: I think what we’ll see over the next 10 years or so is that local food will impact the food system in the same ways that organic food has over the last 10 years or so. We’ve heard ideas like in the U.K., people have talked about getting grocery-store chains to set aside a portion of a store or parking lot as spaces for micro-farmers’ markets. There’s already talk in Vancouver about much more efficient ways to ship produce from local farms to local grocery chains. So we’re right at the very beginning, but there’s so much room for innovation that I don’t have any doubt that five years from now it’s going to be 20 times easier to eat locally.
You went into this as near-vegans, as you described it. How have your thoughts changed about conscientious or sustainable eating and what that means?
Smith: I still prefer to eat vegetarian, so this last year we planted beans in our garden, since that’s something we’d had a lot of trouble finding. Now we have dry pinto beans we grew ourselves. I do occasionally eat local organic meat [now] because I have talked to the farmers and had my confidence restored in that side of the food system. I would eat that kind of meat, but I would never go to a restaurant and say, “I’ll have the beef stir-fry.”
MacKinnon: The most powerful thing about eating locally is just the degree of awareness that you have about the food that you’re eating. If people are eating locally and sourcing food from places they have a good awareness of, they make much more sophisticated choices about the ethics of the food they’re eating. We even found with some vegetable growers that they weren’t necessarily organic, but when they told us exactly what they applied and when, we decided we could live with that and feel confident about the food. So, it’s the same with meat. People can pick the point on the spectrum where they’re comfortable or uncomfortable eating meat and dairy products.
The main criticism of this project and one of the main criticisms of the local food movement in general is that this is some sort of left-wing ideal, and isn’t feasible for most people. How do you respond to that?
MacKinnon: I find that argument pretty strange. I mean, you look through most of human history, buying your food off of the land base around you has been the primary way that we’ve eaten. If we go back even one generation, you find that the people who were canning, doing home cooking, and growing kitchen gardens were primarily not the bourgeois. It was the everyday person. In fact, I think we should find the idea very odd that the way the average person in society should eat is buying products with a laundry list of chemicals attached to them that are coming from halfway around the world. I think we need to wake up to the idea that that model is brand-new and pretty strange when you take a look at it.
What were some of the long-distance treats you were excited to reintroduce?
MacKinnon: Oh, beer.
Smith: Less-than-glamorous things. Even rice was something we couldn’t get, and that was the foundation of many former meals.
MacKinnon: It’s nice to be able to have a beer and a chunk of chocolate every once in a while. Even foods that are handier, like buying dry pasta instead of having to make it from scratch every time with local flour. Things like olives, lemons, olive oil — a little bit of those sorts of things are back in the cupboards, but the list of things that never came back is much, much longer.
What was the first meal you ate when you finished the diet?
Smith: The very first meal when officially we could have had anything we wanted, James just still made …
MacKinnon: Potatoes and eggs.
Smith: Yeah, at home, with all the local food we already had, because that’s what I wanted. But then we went out for Indian food that night.
MacKinnon: It really did start to feel like the new normal for us. So it never really ended.
It’s one thing to change your personal habits or convince a few other people to change theirs. What’s your thinking about how we can change the way North America as a whole, or the world, eats?
Smith: For me the most exciting thing, and it’s happening on its own, is the explosion of farmers’ markets. For the first time this year, Vancouver had a winter farmers’ market, and they actually had to turn customers away because the space they booked wasn’t large enough. So I think that’s a really promising direction for local eating, because that is where shoppers can connect directly with the farmers.
MacKinnon: Eating is one area where consumer choice really does have a particularly powerful effect. I mean, as we saw with organics, a group of consumers are making different choices and are able to really drive revolutionary change throughout the food system. I think by buying locally you have that same capacity. As the demand for local food grows, it just automatically pushes the food system and the farmers to start operating in a different way. And policy and infrastructure changes follow that.
I’m not always a 100 percent believer in consumer power having the capacity to drive significant change, but this really is [an example] where that is the case.