In Search of the 100-Mile Meal

In his wonderful book about eating more deliberately, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan has pointed out the absurdity of some of our moral metrics. We congratulate ourselves on our eco-consciousness in eating organic, grass-fed beef even though it may have traveled 10,000 miles from New Zealand. Meanwhile, we see local farms turned into parking lagoons for big-box retailers and strip malls. What may make sense economically from the narrow perspective of a big industrialized farm is — let’s face it — ecologically insane. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that the ingredients for a typical North American meal travel at least 1,500 miles before they reach our table.

The problem, to my mind, has always been: how can a concerned individual begin to change a food production and distribution system that is so deeply entrenched and seemingly impervious to change? The Food Bank Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts, has come up with a fascinating innovation: Tag food products with a sign disclosing how many miles the food traveled to get there. It’s a small step, but one that is already showing results.

When farm coop members were given a choice of eggs from a small family farm 19 miles away or eggs from a factory farm in Pennsylvania, sales of the local eggs soared by 50% even though they cost $3.00 and the factory-farm eggs cost $1.78. While it was not easy for the Food Bank Farm to calculate the travel mileage for all of its products (it settled for 150 products), the labels are starting to have an effect. When a customer saw that the coop was buying dried beans from 2,000 miles away, they suggested a closer source, in nearby Vermont. The labels are a gentle tool for helping people reconnect to their local environment, farmers and food.

It turns out that the “eat local” movement is growing some legs. There are now more than 4,000 farmers’ markets in the U.S., twice as many as ten years ago. And the idea of eating a “100-mile diet” is gaining in popularity. For a recent potluck supper, a church in my town recently asked its members to bring foods that had been produced within a 100-mile radius. The idea was that the church should be supporting conservation, sustainable development and the local economy.

A recent article by my local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, noted that Alissa Smith and James MacKinnon, a couple in Vancouver, British Columbia, started a website — http://www.100milediet.org — that describes their experiment in eating only foods that were produced within 100 miles of their apartment. It was a challenge, but they got to know what foods were in season. They learned to eat unfamiliar foods. They met their local farmers. They ate fresher, healthier food. A similar experiment by Gary Paul Nabhan is described in his book Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods.

Given the way that food is produced and distributed, eating local can be difficult. Nabhan, who lives in Arizona, occasionally resorted to baked giant lizards, and Smith and MacKinnon had to take great pains to find one of the few wheat farmers living near Vancouver. But who says that individuals, and individuals alone, have to be the lever for change? Imagine if more coops and supermarkets began to label the “mileage” that their foods traveled, or began to shop around for local and regional sources? Such collective action just might begin to change the demand-quotient enough to propel a re-alignment of our food marketing system.