Essay from WBUR reporter Andrea Shea.
On a drab April morning I opened my eyes and immediately felt bereft. I sighed, then pouted. My usual cup of comfort and courage was off limits. While the beans in my coffee press are roasted in Sudbury, they’re harvested in Ethiopia.
If you’re like me — and about 66% of Americans — drinking coffee is a beloved, maybe even medically necessary, daily ritual. But I volunteered to go without it and countless other edibles sourced from far away for a week-long experiment in eating a 100% local diet.
Advocates say consuming foods grown, raised, caught or foraged nearby is better for the planet, our communities and our health. But how would it actually feel to live like a locavore for seven days?
At first I thought, “oh, fun!” I love to cook. I eat mostly fish, grains and piles of vegetables. I frequent farmers’ markets. I’ve joined CSAs. I drink New England beer. But I did not suspect a week of participatory journalism would rock my state-of-mind and foodie identity to the core.
But first, what does eating ‘local’ mean?
“Local” is tricky. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as food that travels less than 400 miles, but hardcore locavores often eat within 100-150. For this challenge, my editors ultimately landed on 200 miles and gave me a budget of $115 (about half the average grocery bill and food stamp allotment for a two-person household in Massachusetts).
An assumption I had going into this was that some widely available regional foods would be fair game. For example, Cabot Creamery in Waitsfield, Vermont, (about 200 miles away) uses milk from 800 co-op family farms throughout New England, but also New York. As communications director Amber Sheridan explained, the company’s products labeled as “Vermont cheese” meet the requirements of the Vermont Origin Rule. That, in part, requires at least 50% of the product’s ingredients be sourced within the state — not 100%.
Still, whether my geographic range was 200 or 400 miles, staples of my existence were eliminated: avocados, salmon, tahini-filled hummus, canned beans, lemons, nuts, protein bars and olive oil. While taking stock, I realized most of my condiments and pantry goods (salt, pepper, mustard, pasta, rice, vinegar) weren’t allowed, either. The list of no-nos grew (and would keep growing).
Hunting, gathering and GPS
I headed out hoping to find some New England spring veggies. Stop and Shop’s produce department was a bounty of untouchables: grapes, bananas, lemons, broccoli, avocados. I was surprised to find fiddleheads from Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts (90 miles away). Hooray! I popped them into my basket along with greenhouse baby lettuce grown at Devens-based Little Leaf Farms (38 miles).
I spotted a little shelf unit topped with a “Shop Local” sign. There was bottled tea, salsa, granola and Italian dressing — all crafted by area companies — but their ingredients like coconut, sugar and cinnamon were definitely not allowed.
I found cod at the fish counter, but it was Alaskan. Instead, I grabbed Country Hen eggs (Hubbardston, 43 miles) and a bottle of 100% organic, pure Vermont maple from Island Pond (173 miles). After an hour of scouring shelves and GPS-ing origins, I started worrying about the supply chain. If it crashed, I thought, we’d be doomed.
I did not suspect a week of participatory journalism would rock my state-of-mind and foodie identity to the core.
They had ramps (also from Czajkowski) and Baer’s Best Maine black turtle beans (65 miles). I picked up onions and garlic, but employee Emma Gohlke explained they weren’t local because inventory was low after winter. Instead, I bought what was available on the cusp of spring: the farm’s carrots, apples, radishes, cabbage, celeriac root and greenhouse arugula.
Gohlke and her colleague Casey Robinson were fascinated by my experiment, especially the 200-mile radius. “That is tight,” Robinson said. “So many people just don’t question too deeply where our food comes from and it’s hard to get information. Makes you think about how much more time people put into procuring their food throughout human history.”
I wondered if I could find local oil for salad dressing and cooking (I don’t like butter). While ringing up local parsnips, onions, a beet and some more carrots, Stillman’s Farm (59 miles) employee Lainey Chippero pointed to my holy grail: butternut squash seed oil from the same Hadley farm that foraged the fiddleheads and ramps. It was $15 (about 7.6% of my budget).
I moved on to Red’s Best Fish, a Boston company that includes the port, vessel, fishermen and even the gear they used on their labels. About to leave, with Chatham-landed Hake in hand, the flavor freak in me buckled and bought a bottle of 100% local thyme and mint blend from Soluna Garden Farm (8 miles).
Total spent: $101.56.
Bending (or breaking) the rules
Once home I felt dark. Stupid. Spoiled. And my head was throbbing without coffee. Being location and cost-conscious was stressing me out. Why did I buy maple syrup and herbs instead of more dried beans or fish? Would my impulsive buys break the experiment?
The rest of my week was filled with folly. Exercising without caffeine was a slog. I felt foggy, frazzled, grumpy and embarrassingly deprived after trying repeatedly to be creative with root vegetables, beans and eggs. I did have some Maine Grains farro in my cupboard. Would this be my saving grace? I ate a bowl. Then, I got confirmation it was grown more than 200 miles away. Whoops, too late!
Craving salt, I searched online and discovered Curio in Cambridge sold some harvested on Martha’s Vineyard (about 70 miles, $7.25 for 2 ounces). That company specializes in sourcing spices directly from small farmers around the world, including New England.
Why did I buy maple syrup and herbs instead of more dried beans or fish? Would my impulsive buys break the experiment?
Owner Claire Cheney said my week-long mapping exercise was similar to what she had to do to earn her sustainability-driven company’s B corp status. “It really makes you do the work to look under every stone to know exactly how far away we’re sourcing,” she said.
On day four, I broke down and called my friend Susy Jones who works at MIT as a senior sustainability project manager. “Pantry items are a killer,” I grumbled. Surprised by my “hangry” tone she agreed to join me for 100% local dinner over the weekend.
The ‘Marco Polo’ exception
After a flurry of messages, Barbara Moran, author of WBUR’s latest newsletter “Cooked: the search for sustainable eats,” offered a few lifelines, including a “secret infusion of local food” from her CSA. Her family was up to their eyeballs in yams, radishes and turnips. Wouldn’t that be cheating, I asked? “If we were really in a totally local economy we would barter, right?” Barbara replied. “And give each other surplus?” Sharing would also prevent potential food loss.
Then she let me in on something known as the “Marco Polo Exception.” Some locavores allow themselves to purchase stable foods – think salt, coffee, oil, vinegar and spices – that Marco Polo could have brought home from China on an unrefrigerated boat.
Huh. Something shifted inside me. I moved from obsessing over what I don’t have to what I do.
Final days and takeaways
After picking up Barbara’s donation, I felt relieved. To mix up my flavors, I bought local shiitake mushrooms and shallots from Allendale Farm and sautéed them with fiddleheads. But the next morning, a Saturday, I caved to the power of suggestion and brewed some coffee. I rationalized, “I could be a 400-mile radius, Marco Polo locavore…”
My brain, even with just half a cup, burst back to life. I made stock with my vegetable scraps and started a loaf of bread with Vermont flour (Nitty Gritty Farm, 237 miles).
Later, Susy and a friend arrived bearing gifts: local hake and scallops. I allowed myself a 100% regional grain beer sourced from within 400 miles. Marco Polo!
Over dinner (roasted fish with greens, beets, hard boiled eggs, radish, shallots and a zesty ramp dressing), Susy celebrated my experiment’s lessons. At MIT she researches actionable, accessible ways to reduce our impacts on the planet. She lauded my restrictive, $115 budget, even with inflation and high food costs in the Boston area.
“A healthy food system means a healthy food system for all — not just the highest earners or people who have tons of free time,” she said. “If you had an unlimited budget it would’ve been easier.”
“A healthy food system means a healthy food system for all — not just the highest earners or people who have tons of free time.”
SUSY JONES, SENIOR SUSTAINABILITY PROJECT MANAGER AT MIT
What I experienced firsthand, Susy added, is that eco-conscious eating is way harder than we might think. “Making decisions when you’re stressed is really difficult and that’s why I think it’s hard for anyone to eat healthy or local. That’s why people at the end of the day end up getting fast food. So, we have to reduce the barriers for purchasing healthy, local food.”
Now that my week is over, I can’t stop thinking about how it will change the way I shop and eat in the future. Did this experiment fail? Yes … and no. I didn’t make it through seven days, and I blew my budget by about $30. But, I feel much smarter.
Food looks, and even tastes, different now. I’m excited for New England summer’s local bounty, when this exercise would have been way easier to pull off. Still, no matter the season, I’m sure I’ll picture picture an egg or radish in a local farmer’s hands before I reach for my next avocado.
Andrea’s groceries for the week
- Protein: 1 dozen eggs, ¾ pound hake, 1 pound black beans
- Produce: Two 4-ounce containers baby greens, 8 ounces of fiddleheads, 1 bunch of ramps, a few purple daikon and watermelon radishes, 1 head of cabbage, about 1 pound carrots, 3 apples, 1 celeriac root, 1 bag of arugula, 3 parsnips, 2 onions, 1 beet, 1 sweet potato, 2 shallots, 1 pound fingerling potatoes, a package shiitake mushrooms
- Pantry: maple syrup, butternut squash seed oil, Lime Thyme, Martha’s Vineyard sea salt, Vermont apple cider vinegar
- What she bought and later learned she couldn’t eat: Vermont cheddar cheese
- Cheats: Maine farro, coffee, a pint of 100% regional grain beer at Craftroots Brewery
Total spent on food: $146.08
Gifted (mostly local) food: 3 more beets, 2 sweet potatoes, 3 radishes, smoked Massachusetts mussels (made with oil, salt and sugar), hake, scallops
- Eggs with greens or cabbage
- Baked sweet potato drizzled with maple syrup
- Baked hake seasoned with garlic and lime thyme + roasted parsnips and arugula
- 2 salads with carrots, radishes and hard boiled eggs
- 2 meals of black beans with lots of garlic and carrots + sautéed fiddlehead and shiitake mushrooms
- Maine farro with steamed cabbage
- More hake with fingerling potatoes, shallots, radishes, beets, lettuce and ramp dressing
- Braised cabbage with roasted carrots, fingerling potatoes, hard boiled eggs, ramp dressing, over-cooked celeriac root and chives from her garden
- 1 can of beer
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