Much of our food travels thousands of miles before reaching our plate. New foodies (locavores, 100-mile-dieters, novelists) want to reexamine our food pathways and celebrate our local foodsheds.
When Tim Lang coined the term “food miles” back in 1991 for a Channel 4 documentary, he couldn’t have guessed what movements he’d inspire: locavores and localvores, 100 mile diets and their 60 kilometer cousins, eat local challenges and anti-SUV diets, 100 mile cafes and subway-accessible foodshed restaurants, homegrown and local labels, etcetera.
In the past 50 years, food has become massively globalised to the extent that we no longer just purchase the exotic stuff- like coffee and bananas- from foreign countries, but now nearly all our food travels before reaching the plate.
If you calculate the miles, or kilometers, from spade-to-spoon, farm-to-fork or plough-to-plate, the numbers are big:
- In the US, food travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table, according to the Worldwatch Institute.
- In a The Guardian report looking at produce in U.K. supermarkets, the fresh produce had traveled an average of 5,000 miles each.
- “Food Miles in Australia” (a CERES report from August 2007) found when you add up the food in an average shopping basket, it’s gone around the world twice – a total of 70 thousand kilometers.
- Even with organics, the UK Soil Association tracked 26 ingredients in one basket of organic groceries and found that together they had travelled a distance of 241,000 miles.
Locavores, localvores and locatarians
There have always been local food mavericks, like seasonally-focused, regionally-connected restaurateur Alice Waters of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Chez Panisse or Slow Food members intent on preserving local food traditions, but the movement gained steam in 2005 with the arrival of the locavores and the 100 mile diet.
In June of 2005, The San Francisco Chronicle reported a new species of foodie- the locavores, or four local women who had proposed a radical new diet-: “With San Francisco as the center, they have drawn a circle with a 100- mile radius from the city, and are urging people to buy, cook and eat from within that “foodshed” — or their own foodshed, based on where they live — in a monthlong challenge in August called ‘Celebrate Your Foodshed: Eat Locally.'”
Their move was not without precedent- ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan had chronicled his experiences eating from within the 250-mile radius of his Arizona home for his 2001 book Coming Home To Eat – but the San Francisco women used the Internet to spread the word and soon groups from Vermont (also calling themselves “localvores” or “locatarians”) to New York to the UK had joined the eat local club.
By February of 2007, the concept had gone mainstream and even Food & Wine Magazine issued their definition of the lifestyle: “Locavores vary in their orthodoxy, from the ultrastrict (who might eschew ingredients like salt, sugar and vinegar that aren’t locally produced) to adherents of the ‘Marco Polo rule’ (who deem acceptable dried spices like cinnamon and peppercorns that sailors could carry while at sea), down to the more lenient ‘wild card’ users (who allow themselves a few indulgences—most commonly chocolate, coffee and olive oil—outside of their hundred-mile ‘food shed’).”
A low-miles diet
While the San Francisco locavores were issuing their challenge, 950 miles to the north a Canadian couple had staged a local eat-in. Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon coined the term “the 100-mile-diet” vowing to buy food and drink only from within the radius of their Vancouver apartment and to sort out “how we all ended up eating apples that taste like cardboard and cakes made with petrochemicals” and inspired by statistics like (as posted on their site):
- “A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country.
- The ingredients for a typical British meal, sourced locally, traveled 66 times fewer “food miles.”
Over the year, they discovered farmers markets and the seasons, as well as “the micro-seasons, and the micro-micro-seasons” and the world discovered them- they were covered in press from “the BBC Worldwide to the Utne Reader.”
So others can learn from their mistakes and successes, they’ve laid out a blueprint for beginning dieters on their website- beginning with finding your own 100 mile foodshed radius and the advice to start small: “We walked smack into a year of strict 100-Mile eating. That was a big, blind leap into the unknown. You can start with a single meal, a 100-Mile day, a one-week commitment. Most people partner up, or do the 100-Mile Diet as a family or group.”
In 2007, when they released their experience as a book- Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, the concept had gone mainstream with the arrival of best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver and her memoir chronicling her, and her family’s, year “of deliberately eating food produced in the place where we live.”
Even restaurants are restricting their miles
For a whole new market of diners, restaurants have adapted to the 100 mile diet as well. The 100 Mile Café in Melbourne, Australia took the concept literally and all produce follows the restrictions of their name.
On their site, they claim to help dieters stick to their regimen: “we are making it easier for you to support local producers by bringing the farmers markets, independent producers and the best possible meat, seafood and produce into the city and onto the table.”
There are those on their own versions of the diet, like the Farmers Diner in Quechee, Vermont whose owners- using the tagline “local food from local barns“- attempt to spend “over 65 cents of every food dollar with farmers and small-scale food producers who live and work within 70 miles of the diner.”
Or the new restaurant from celebrity chef Oliver Rowe, of the BBC show Urban Chef, who, in 2007, opened his Konstam at the Prince Albert on an underground diet. “Over 85% of the produce used in the Konstam kitchen is grown or reared from the area covered by the tube network.”
There are those who set out a bit too ambitiously and have had to widen their radius, like Crumbs of Sussex, England. Founders James Meldrum and Simon Croft first tried to source food within a 4-mile radius, but when they opened in October of 2005, they had to resort to another method. “There is no way we can currently supply everything within a 40- or even 50-mile radius, so we signal what food is grown locally with a green label showing the number of miles the produce has travelled from where it was grown to here”, says Croft.
These local institutions aren’t simply helping dieters stay faithful, but also bringing the concept to the uninitiated. As Dave McLean, owner of San Francisco’s locally-sourced Magnolia Pub and Brewery, told faircompanies in 2006, “part of the fabric of sustainability is connecting, or reconnecting people to their food pathways”. This is easier said than done when these pathways have been broken for awhile.
Enough apples for the Big Apple
The push to go local isn’t easy. For most locations, it’s not a question of lack of productive land. As Deep Economy author Bill McKibben told The New York Times, 75% of the apples sold in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas, even though the state produces far more apples than city residents consume.
Neither is it a question of food grown far from where people live. According to the American Farmland Trust, 86% of U.S. fruits and vegetables, and 63% of dairy products, are “produced in urban-influenced areas.”
So while there is likely farming near where you live, our distribution methods have become so centralized it’s become very difficult to find those products in your local supermarket.
According to the UK’s DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) report on food miles from 2005, the reason our food travels so far is due not just to globalised markets, but to:
- Major changes in delivery patterns with most goods now routed through supermarket regional distribution centres.
- The concentration of a supply base into just a few, larger suppliers partly to meet the demand for year-round produce.
- Concentration of sales in supermarkets, with a switch from “frequent food shopping (on foot) at small local shops to weekly shopping by car at large out of town supermarkets.”
When Sunday Times correspondent Matt Rudd attempted to eat local for one month, he finished “convinced that supermarkets are the enemy”.
According to his report, in 2004, 2,157 independent local convenience shops closed in the UK. “Specialist shops close every day while Tesco now controls 30% of the grocery market, making £2.5 billion profit.”
Whole Foods cedes to buying “out the back-door”
Now, even supermarket chains- the ones partly responsible for this delocalization of our food- are gaining green mileage with local food sections.
While Whole Foods has played up its commitment to local farms for several years, by 2006 other chains were promoting local produce buys like Kroger, Publix, and Food Lion.
Even Wal-Mart, better known for its destruction of local economies, at the end of 2006 began running a “Salute to America’s Farmers” program in several states. They hung large “locally grown” signs above produce, and in some stores even allocating tasting space for local farmers.
Best-selling author Michael Pollan of the 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma questions the ability of supermarkets- with their highly centralized distribution centers- to truly go local. In his chapter “Big Organic”, he criticized not just the obvious targets like Wal-Mart, but even sustainably-focused Whole Foods.
To defend his company’s efforts, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey posted an open letter on the corporate website: “In 2005 in the produce category alone, 45% of our suppliers were considered to be local (within 200 miles) and 34% were regional (within 400 miles) only 21% would fall into your category of ‘Big Organic‘ national producers.”
Pollan questioned Whole Foods’ definition of “local” in his blogged reply: “I see more signage about the importance of local produce than I see actual items of local produce. You write that 45 percent of your suppliers are local, i.e. located within 200 miles of the store – an impressive statistic, but perhaps a misleading one. Given the concentration of organic produce in a tiny handful of corporate hands (with Cal-Organic/Grimmway and Earthbound dominating the market nationally), it’s not surprising that you would have a relatively high number of local suppliers among your vendors – since just two of those vendors could supply the great bulk of your produce sales.”
Mackey responded admitting that Whole Foods could do better at helping local growers sell directly to the stores: “I know that over the years some smaller farmers have stopped selling to us and have been frustrated with our Regional Distribution Centers”.
He also sent out a direct plea to farmers- along with the contact info of their produce director-: “Whole Foods Market would like to try working again with any of the Bay Area farmers you know who are unhappy with Whole Foods Market and no longer sell to us.”
Mackey followed up his words with action. In his blog in July of 2006, he announced that all stores would be required to buy “out the back-door” from at least four individual farmers, bypassing the regional distribution center. He also pledged $10 million per year to promote local agriculture and to set up Sunday farmers markets in the parking lots of some Whole Foods stores.
As supermarkets have squeezed out the local shops, the local movement has taken hold in an alternative marketplace: farmers market and box schemes.
Farmers markets, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, have doubled since the beginning of this century- from 2,863 in 2000 to 4,385 in 2006.
In order to help local farmers go mainstream- on a regional level-, community governments and action groups are pushing for more local labeling. Sydney Australia’s Food Fairness Alliance hopes to help institute a “Sydney grown” label to “boost the sales of locally grown vegetables, herbs and fruit and provide assurance to eaters that their food was regional in origin.”
The Washington State Puget Sound Fresh label was created to encourage area grocery stores and farmers markets to promote local produce. It is currently used in large chain supermarkets like Safeway and QFC (along with regional coop chain PCC, featured in a faircompanies video : Organic shoyu, pot caught fish… Seattle’s PCC, a green grocer).
In Missoula Montana, a new “Homegrown” label helps shoppers identify food grown on farms within 150 miles of their markets.
In the UK, the Whole Food Association (WFA) local symbol- marketed as “local food grown with nature in mind“- is both an alternative to certified organic and a way to identify regional food.
- Visit the second part of this article: Food (II): the carbon footprint of a smoothie.