My breaking point came last Tuesday at 8 pm in the form of three gnarled purple potatoes, the size and shape of mottled baby fists, and two raw, globular beets as red and calloused as a scab.
I was hungry. I was groggy. And I was reeling with indigestion. I tore open my fridge and yanked a tub of Greek yogurt from the second shelf. It was all over from there.
Now don't get me wrong. I like potatoes. (Who doesn't?) And truthfully, I love beets. Roasted with rosemary or steamed with goat cheese — when beets are on the menu, I rarely pass them up. They're my favorite vegetable — subtly sweet, moist and earthy, rich in potassium, fiber and folate. I'll even eat canned beets with impunity. When it comes to beets, as controversial and maligned as they are, I am firmly in the pro-beet camp. Beets are the best!
But beets are inconvenient. That's why I usually buy mine pre-steamed and vacuum-sealed from Trader Joe's. And last Tuesday evening, I was in no mood to spend 15 minutes peeling them, five minutes chopping them and another 40 minutes waiting for them to roast in the oven while I scrubbed beet juice from my cuticles.
My challenge for this week's issue: Eat only local foods for one day, which at the outset of my experiment, I arbitrarily defined as anything produced or sourced within 100 miles or so. For shopping advice, I called Craig Goodwin, the pastor of Millwood Community Presbyterian Church, who in 2008, along with his family, ate only local foods for a whole year. (He chronicled his experiment in the book Year of Plenty.)
To make it work, Goodwin's family relied heavily on local farmers markets during the summer and fall. In the winter months, he got vegetables, left over from the growing seasons, from farmers in Green Bluff. Meanwhile, he and his family learned to live without fast food, seafood, and sugar: The closest sugar beet factory, Goodwin learned, was in Boise. Honey, thankfully, is produced in abundance in the region. The Goodwins made at least one compromise that year: allowing themselves to buy rock salt so they could make their own ice cream from local milk.
"There's got to be some room for flexibility," Goodwin says. "We do the best we can." Now, he says his family isn't nearly as strict as they were in 2008, though they still take advantage of farmers markets and raise their own chickens for eggs.
"A strict 100-mile diet would be awfully difficult to sustain over the long haul, primarily because of convenience, time — those are the things that tend to drive our consumption patterns," he says. "My fear is people would go into it as an all-or-nothing, and if you're too puritanical about it, I don't think it's sustainable."
As it turned out, I couldn't have picked a less convenient time than mid-April to engage in local-only eating habits. Farmers markets don't open until May or June, and winter vegetable stocks are thinning out.
When I walked into the Main Market Co-op, I initially was overwhelmed: tomatoes from Mexico, pears from Argentina, almost everything else from California. Thanks to a couple of helpful employees, I quickly identified a few items from the produce section and bulk bins aisles that met my criteria. Those particular beets came from Ronnigers Farm in North Idaho (114 miles), and my purple potatoes were from Deer Park (25 miles). I also purchased some carrots from Latah (39 miles), raw lentils from the Palouse (70 miles) and a dozen free-range eggs for $3.85 from a family farm in Spangle (18 miles). While I eat a lot of fish — usually twice a day — I don't eat meat; if I did, I would have had more options, like local beef, chicken, goat and lamb. Main Market's fresh seafood, on the other hand, was sourced from Alaska.
I prepped two of my main meals and a couple of snacks for the following day. After I got home from the gym on Tuesday morning, I had a ramekin of cooked, spiced lentils and split peas waiting for me in the refrigerator. I dug a small hollow in the center and cracked an egg inside before popping it in the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. For lunch, I concocted a salad of shredded carrots and purple and green cabbage, which I topped with yellow lentils and boiled egg whites. For snacks at work, I brought some chopped carrots and, yes, two more boiled eggs.
Here's the thing about lentils: They're delicious and stick-to-your-ribs satisfying, but if you don't soak them for a couple of hours before cooking them, you're in for a world of hurt. I learned this the hard way. Lentils are also high in tryptophan, an amino acid that makes you sleepy. I had planned to make a beet-and-potato hash with my leftover eggs, but when I got home from work, I was exhausted (and I couldn't have any coffee all day). I slumped over on the couch next to my dog and woke up two hours later.
It all seemed so unjust: Here I was — doing something good for the environment and our local food system — and I felt like crap. And was I even making a difference?
The next day, I asked Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, an associate professor of soil science at Washington State University, about the benefits of eating locally. Economically, she said, you can make a strong argument in favor of choosing local foods: When you buy from local farmers and stores, more of your dollars stay in your community. But environmentally? Making that case is a bit more complicated.
Reducing the distance your food travels means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and a smaller carbon footprint. But there are other factors to consider beyond transportation in your food's life cycle, like water use, energy consumption and dozens of other cultivation and harvesting techniques that impact our earth and climate.
"Because we ship, for instance, massive truckloads of food from California," she says. "Pound for pound, that's actually energetically efficient, to move goods from California to your grocery store. Whereas it's inefficient, pound for pound, to move a few boxes of food from an individual small farmer using an inefficient 1960s small pickup truck from the local market to your home. You're not necessarily saving much, if anything."
There's an environmental trade-off, just as there are trade-offs in cost, convenience and personal preference when you choose local food. So I took Craig Goodwin's advice that night and did my best: I made a trade-off. I promised myself I'd make the best damn beet-and-purple-potato hash with $4 eggs this weekend, as long as I could have my probiotic yogurt tonight.♦