Saturday, June 14, 2008

Local Living - our plan

We are embarking on a one year “experiment” to challenge ourselves to see if we can eat only locally-produced food for an entire year. Yes, we know it’s been done (and written about) before. We’re not trying to do something new to the world, only new to us. We weren’t intending to blog about it either, only document it for ourselves, but we’ve had so many inquiries into our project that here we are in the blogosphere.

It all started when Kevin came home about five years ago after having heard a spot on NPR about a guy who was eating locally-produced food for a year. He had learned so much about his community and found so many new sources for things and found that he actually ate a better and more diverse diet in that year than in any other. Kevin was excited and thought it was such a cool idea. Food, you see, is important to us. Or should I say, good food is important to us. I always joke that there is a good reason why we aren’t skinny.

Well, that sounded like a fun and interesting thing to try, only we were both working well over 40 hours a week in jobs that we enjoyed, we lived in the woods where I could manage about two ripe tomatoes per plant before the season turned cold again (consequently I have several great green tomato recipes), and we just didn’t feel like we had the time we thought it would take to organize that lifestyle change.

For the next few years we had new excuses. First, I was pregnant and we were preparing for baby. The following year we were renovating the kitchen and a year later we were packing and moving houses. Last February we moved to an old farmhouse above the Rock River and, for the first time, we had sun in our yard! But, I was pregnant again and by the time I would be ready to harvest anything, I figured I wouldn’t be able to bend over comfortably. Yes, I know, generations of women did far more than that while pregnant for millennia… but I didn’t feel up to it. Additionally, we were renovating the “new” house and much of our free time was taken up with that (we didn’t have a kitchen until July).

So here we are, 2008, and we’re still renovating and, yes, now we have an eight-month-old who is crawling and into everything as well as a precocious three-and-a-half year old. But we decided that if we planned well and did our best, this was as good a year as any to make our attempt.

The Plan
To eat only food produced within 100 miles of our home for one year. Our year is to begin on the day we receive our first box of veggies from our local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, Angelic Organics in Caledonia, IL and to end on the day we receive our first box in 2009 (or exactly one year from our start date if the first box comes earlier next year).

We will put away food for the winter. I am hoping to find some good sources for potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash, and the like so we will have those staples in our new root cellar (the crawlspace in an addition we’re having put on the house). We are also purchasing a large freezer and last year I learned how to can. We don’t care for the texture and flavor of most canned foods so I intend to rely more on the frozen foods than canned. Although I do hope to can lots of tomatoes, tomato sauce, apple sauce, jams, and pickles.

Kevin used to keep honey bees but we haven’t had any for a few years now so we’ve started again with two new colonies and I am to be the main beekeeper. We plan to rely on our bees and other local honey producers for our sweeteners for the year, eschewing cane or beet sugars (still looking for a reliable jam recipe that uses honey!).

We are building and planting what I’m considering my experimental vegetable garden. I have little vegetable gardening experience (except for green tomatoes) so it’s all pretty new to me. My parents had a nice garden when I was little but they moved when I was eight and didn’t plant vegetables at the new house so my only memories are really of the harvesting of things… strawberries and cantaloupe, mostly – I was just a kid, after all.

I also hope to buy locally and freeze, can, or dry what I can to ensure we’ll have enough to get us through the winter. This will be another learning process... how much will my family of four need? What are the best ways to prepare and store things? It is all a work in progress (like so much in my life right now!).

In the end, this is a challenge, meant to be fun and to teach us things. We won’t let the family starve if we run out of supplies in March. We’ll just admit defeat, go to the store, and plan better next year.

We don’t intend to make this change permanently, although we do expect some things to change us forever. When the year is done, we expect that we will have found such great sources for things and such unusual variety that we will no longer need to buy some things anywhere but from within our own community. I hope to establish relationships with the people who produce what we eat and to strengthen our community by committing to it monetarily, not just socially. I do think there will be certain things that come from afar that I will admit back into our lives but some things will probably never be the same.

The Exceptions
One of the first questions we get when someone learns about our project is, “Will you have xyz?” or “Is there anything you are allowing yourselves that isn’t truly local?”

We have identified a few key items to be exceptions to our 100-mile radius rule and here they are:

  • Cooking oil – we haven’t decided between olive and canola. Canola oil would, at least, come from North America but we use olive oil quite a bit and prefer the taste (except in baked goods where I prefer to use canola). Sure, we can use butter, but we appreciate the health benefits of oil. We’ll decide which one to keep before we begin. Then again, we may just use melted butter.
  • Chocolate – anyone who knows us will likely know that Kevin is a chocoholic. He told me very early on in the discussion stage that he didn’t believe he could survive a year without chocolate. So, we’ll allow it. Not just any chocolate, however, there will be no Snickers or Kit Kats or the like. We will stick to fine dark chocolates (which we, by far, prefer and are healthier to boot). The jury is still out on whether or not we’ll allow anything in the chocolate (mint, nuts, caramel?) – we’re thinking not.
  • Coffee and Tea – I really enjoy my morning coffee and we both like tea. We like having an available caffeine source (I know, if we were really hard core we’d break ourselves of the habit!) and just enjoy a hot, steaming cup of herbal tea in the winter (and I adore my summer sun tea).
  • Spices, Vinegar, Salt, Pepper – If variety is the spice of life than spice is the variety we need in our lives. We love the tastes of fresh foods for themselves but we also enjoy the variety of flavors and types of cuisines we can replicate with spices so we will allow these.
  • Leavening - I plan to bake bread and other things and will use yeast, baking powder, and baking soda. I also plan to use "local yeast" to make sourdough but won't rely on it.
  • The Kids – We have two young children but only one of them can talk so we’ll work with her to determine her one thing (as long as it’s reasonable) and add it here later. The baby, well, he’s at our whim. If I determine there is something he is truly lacking then I may allow that… I am considering fortified cereal.
  • The Social Life Clause – We’re not big on eating out but we do enjoy the convenience and some of the great food you can get at local Rockford eateries. We will miss these things. However, we don’t want to turn down opportunities to spend time with friends just because we’ve been invited over for dinner or to a wedding reception and we can’t eat the food. So, we may go to a friend’s and eat what we’re served or celebrate life events of those dear to us with dinner and a champagne toast but we can’t have standing dinner dates or vie for invitations to every wedding in town. And except for those life-event celebrations, we won’t be eating out.
  • The Travel Clause – We do enjoy traveling and tend to do so several times a year. If we’re taking a day trip, we’ll be packing our own food. If we’re staying somewhere overnight or longer, we will eat where we are… whether it’s the house of friends or family or a restaurant at our destination or along the route. Will we try to make that local? Sure, but it won’t be a hard-and-fast rule.
  • The Second Travel Clause – Anything we pick up that comes from within 100 miles of any of our travel destinations is also fair game for us to return with and put on our table at home. However, we can not travel to a place just because we want something from there (although I’m sure everyone wishes they could take a jaunt to Italy when the craving for Italian food strikes!).

Why are we doing this?

Another question we get (a lot) when someone we don't know learns about our little experiment. Well, there are several reasons really.

  • Flavor - we expect to find some fantastic local flavors and look forward experiencing food at the peak of freshness.
  • Environmental Health - we've done quite a bit of reading lately about our food sources, farming methods, and "food miles." The average meal travels thousands of miles to reach an American's table. We want to substantially reduce the average for ourselves this year.
  • Personal Health - fresh foods, I mean really fresh, have more nutrients. Produce in the grocery store that has traveled great distances and then sat there for a few days has lost much of its nutrition. Frozen food maintains more in suspension but it's not the same as fresh. Don't even get me started about highly pocessed foods. This is minor in our reasoning but maybe it shouldn't be.
  • Community Support - we want to spend our money and invest our energy in our own community.
  • Personal Edification - to learn something along the way.
  • Fun


UU Jerri said...

I think community support is one reason most people (even non-locavores) may relate to. If you can post/list your local suppliers then they can get increased business. And of course we want to encourage local economic successes.

VI said...

OK, I see you are not as strict as your Plenty inspirations. Good!

I don't try for local cooking oils either but a couple of things. First, you can surely get California olive oil if the "North America" thing matters. Second, there are other lipid choices beyond butter. The obvious one is lard. I'm sure you can find some source. You can use all sorts of animal fats including makinng your own schmaltz. I am convinced that there's some local corn oil around too.