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Saturday, August 01, 2009

The 100-Mile Diet

In 2005, Alisa Smith and J B MacKinnon began a one-year experiment in local eating. Their 100-Mile Diet struck a deeper chord than anyone could have predicted, inspiring thousands of individuals, and even whole communities, to change the way they eat. Locally raised and produced food has been called "the new organic" - better tasting, better for the environment, better for local economies, and better for your health. From reviving the family farm to reconnecting with the seasons, the local foods movement is turning good eating into a revolution.

FAQs: An Interview with James and Alisa

* Why the '100-Mile' Diet?
* How difficult is the 100-Mile Diet?
* Was it mostly fun, or mostly frustration?
* Is this some kind of foodie cult?
* Did you feel malnourished?
* Were your meals repetitive and boring?
* Was it expensive?
* Did it take a lot of time?
* What did you miss the most?
* Are you still on the 100-Mile Diet?
* Will local eating save the world?
* Will I lose weight while I save the world?
* Can this be done in New York City/Alaska/the desert?
* Did you cheat?

Why the '100-Mile' Diet?

It's an easy way to start thinking local. A 100-mile radius is large enough to reach beyond a big city and small enough to feel truly local. And it rolls off the tongue more easily than the '160-Kilometre Diet'.

How difficult is the 100-Mile Diet?

We walked into the diet cold turkey for a full year, and it was hard. For example, we live on the West Coast, so it took us seven months to find a rogue local farmer who actually grows wheat. Meanwhile, we ate an unbelievable number of potatoes. Doing the diet the hard way taught us a lot about the current food system, but it isn't for everybody. A more realistic approach is to plan a single, totally 100-mile meal with friends or family, and see where you want to go from there.

Was it mostly fun, or mostly frustration?

The 100-Mile Diet is about learning by doing. Getting to know the seasons. Understanding where our food comes from, and at what risk to our health and to the environment. Sorting out how we all ended up eating apples that taste like cardboard and cakes made with petrochemicals. It was a challenge, but a good one - a genuine adventure.

Is this some kind of foodie cult?

Do we think the world would be a better place if more people ate local food more often? Yes. Do we want to pick fights or lose friends about it? No.

Did you feel malnourished?

For one year we ate only the freshest food that had traveled the shortest possible distances and was eaten or preserved at its seasonal peak. Most of it was organic, and everything we ate was prepared from scratch and nothing came out of a box. Does that answer that question?

Were your meals repetitive and boring?

At first, yes. As we found more and more local food sources, though, our meals became more interesting than ever before. Farmers and farmers' markets introduced us to foods and flavors we'd never tried before. We discovered the seasons, and the micro-seasons, and the micro-micro-seasons. What's available is always changing.

Was it expensive?

Again, only in the beginning. Most of us pay a big premium for out-of-season foods like cherries in winter or prepared foods like spaghetti sauce, usually with a long list of ingredients we might prefer not to have in our bodies. Eating locally, we bought fresh ingredients in season and direct from the farmer - and we were often buying bulk. We preserved enough food for the winter that we rarely had to buy groceries. Our bet? Most people eating a typical diet could save money by eating locally.

Did it take a lot of time?

We won't lie - it takes time to find local food sources, to make food from scratch, to do canning for winter, and so on. But it also raises interesting questions about how we're spending our time. What if we spent more time on self-sufficiency and less time at the office?

What did you miss the most?

Every region has foods that are hard - or impossible - to find. We went without wheat for seven months. We missed pasta. We missed bread. We missed pancakes. Then we found our wheat farmer, and we pigged out.

Are you still on the 100-Mile Diet?

Yes - more or less. We lived a year on the 100-Mile Diet as an experiment. Now we're committed to eating locally, but certain long-distance favorites have made it back into the larder. Like olives. And chocolate. And beer.

Will local eating save the world?

Check out our Twelve Reasons for Eating Locally (see below).

Will I lose weight while I save the world?

The world of weight-loss diets is a weird and not-so-wonderful place. Let's put it this way: a local diet is likely to involve lots of fresh produce and homemade meals, and not a lot of junk food, processed fats, additives and sugar. You're also far more likely to know where your food came from, and what's in it.

Can this be done in New York City/Alaska/the desert?

We recently ate a 100-Mile Meal in New York, and we'd only been there for one day. We've also managed totally local eating at 55 degrees north latitude and on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. There are places where it's easier and places where it's harder, but with a little planning, local eating is never impossible. And yes, that's a direct challenge to scientists in Antarctica and astronauts in the International Space Station.

Did you cheat?

Read our tell-all book about a year on the 100-Mile Diet:


Twelve Reasons for Eating Locally

1. Taste the difference.

At a farmers' market, most local produce has been picked inside of 24 hours. It comes to you ripe, fresh, and with its full flavor, unlike supermarket food that may have been picked weeks or months before. Close-to-home foods can also be bred for taste, rather than withstanding the abuse of shipping or industrial harvesting. Many of the foods we ate on the 100-Mile Diet were the best we'd ever had.

2. Know what you're eating.

Buying food today is complicated. What pesticides were used? Is that corn genetically modified? Was that chicken free range or did it grow up in a box? People who eat locally find it easier to get answers. Many build relationships with farmers whom they trust. And when in doubt, they can drive out to the farms and see for themselves.

3. Meet your neighbors.

Local eating is social. Studies show that people shopping at farmers' markets have ten times more conversations than their counterparts at the supermarket. Join a community garden and you'll actually meet the people you pass on the street.

4. Get in touch with the seasons.

When you eat locally, you eat what's in season. You'll remember that cherries are the taste of summer. Even in winter, comfort foods like squash soup and pancakes just make sense - a lot more sense than flavorless cherries from the other side of the world.

5. Discover new flavors.

Ever tried sunchokes? How about purslane, quail eggs, yerba mora, or tayberries? These are just a few of the new (to us) flavors we sampled over a year of local eating. Our local spot prawns, we learned, are tastier than popular tiger prawns. Even familiar foods were more interesting. Count the types of pear on offer at your supermarket. Maybe three? Small farms are keeping alive nearly 300 other varieties - while more than 2,000 more have been lost in our rush to sameness .

6. Explore your home.

Visiting local farms is a way to be a tourist on your own home turf, with plenty of stops for snacks.

7. Save the world.

A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed seventeen 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". Or we can just keep burning those fossil fuels and learn to live with global climate change, the fiercest hurricane seasons in history, wars over resources …

8. Support small farms.

We discovered that many people from all walks of life dream of working the land - maybe you do too. In areas with strong local markets, the family farm is reviving. That's a whole lot better than the jobs at Wal-Mart and fast-food outlets that the globalized economy offers in North American towns.

9. Give back to the local economy.

A British study tracked how much of the money spent at a local food business stayed in the local economy, and how many times it was reinvested. The total value was almost twice the contribution of a dollar spent at a supermarket chain .

10. Be healthy.

Everyone wants to know whether the 100-Mile Diet worked as a weight-loss program. Well, yes, we lost a few pounds apiece. More importantly, though, we felt better than ever. We ate more vegetables and fewer processed products, sampled a wider variety of foods, and ate more fresh food at its nutritional peak. Eating from farmers' markets and cooking from scratch, we never felt a need to count calories.

11. Create memories.

A friend of ours has a theory that a night spent making jam - or in his case, perogies - with friends will always be better a time than the latest Hollywood blockbuster. We're convinced.

12. Have more fun while traveling.

Once you're addicted to local eating, you'll want to explore it wherever you go. On a trip to Mexico, earth-baked corn and hot-spiced sour oranges led us away from the resorts and into the small towns. Somewhere along the line, a mute magician gave us a free show over bowls of lime soup in a little cantina.


Alisa Smith is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Outside, Utne Reader, and many other publications. Based in Vancouver, she spends her summers in a wilderness cabin in northern British Columbia.

J B MacKinnon is the author of the acclaimed Dead Man in Paradise (2005), which won the 2006 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction. He is the winner of three national magazine awards as a freelance writer, and is a former senior editor at Adbusters. He lives with his co-author in Vancouver.

Bill Totten


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