N.Y. Group Trying to Eat Only Local Food
SCHENECTADY, N.Y - Dick Shave got a duck for dinner. It was firm, fresh and — this is very important when you're only eating food grown within 100 miles — raised nearby .
"We're going to have it with local new potatoes from the farmers' market and beans from outside our door," Shave said.
So goes a typical menu for a group in the Albany area taking support of local agriculture to an extreme.
Shave and more than 55 other people involved in the "100 Mile Diet Challenge" pledge that throughout the month of September they will only eat food produced within that distance, more or less.
That means no barbecue chips. No Midwest beef. No bananas. And very little of the stuff stacked on supermarket shelves.
They want to raise consciousness about how local meat and vegetables can be fresher and cleaner, and also to show it's possible to avoid food that requires a lot of fuel to ship from thousands of miles away.
"The craziness of out-of-season lettuce flown in from California," Shave said. "Nuts!"
This is the second annual 100 Mile Diet Challenge, which was started by Cheryl Nechamen, an energy-conscious molecular biologist from Schenectady.
She was inspired by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, two Canadian writers who set out on their own "100-mile diet" for a year starting in the spring of 2005. Nechamen just shrunk the timeframe and invited her friends to join in.
The Albany challenge and others like it fit with the spirit of a time when "eat local" is a buzzword, new farmers' markets crop up often and more and more community-supported agriculture programs offer weekly farm deliveries. Participants rely heavily on farmers' markets.
It helps to run such a challenge in upstate New York in September, a time when the region is flush with harvests. A challenge in March might have required participants to eat of lot of tubers from the root cellar.
But still, there are issues.
While finding local meat is easy, the Northeast is lousy for growing popular items like rice, oranges and coffee beans. Finding local flour can be a challenge too.
The 100-milers try to make up for the lack of dietary variety with elan.
On a recent day, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student Ella Braco ate a breakfast of eggs with tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese. For lunch she had a monster salad with carrots, apple chunks, basil and parsley. Dinner was tomato soup.
"The hardest thing is giving up the free food on campus," Braco said. "I've already missed three barbecues and a dinner date and a lunch date."
Nechamen said it's typical for participants to do a lot of whining in the first week about all the food they're missing, but "by the end of it, you're thinking of the things you've discovered."
Nechamen learned to make biscuits. Shave has honed his skills as a local meat maven.
A frequently cited 2003 study found conventional produce traveled an average of almost 1,500 miles from farm to markets in Chicago and St. Louis. The study's author, Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, said distances could be even greater on the East Coast, given that so much produce comes from California.
But Pirog cautions consumers not to focus exclusively on so-called food miles. For instance, grapes shipped from Chile to Philadelphia might require less energy to transport than California grapes carried cross country by truck.
"Food miles have some limitations," Pirog said "They are not the best indicator of either total energy used in transport or of greenhouse gases."
Then there's a more personal problem with following the 100-mile rule: it's really hard. Participants routinely make exceptions so they can enjoy a cup of coffee or serve orange juice to their kids.
Nechamen, for instance, waives the 100-mile rule if she's making food from scratch. That allows her to put rolled oats in her granola. And she didn't fret about jazzing up her local-sourced chicken tortillas with some non-local lime juice.
"We try not to be obnoxious about it," she said. "We try to be fun."
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