The Hundred-Mile Diet
McDermott is unalloyed in her enthusiasm for the payoff in all this effort. If pipeline food promotes a kind of roboticism and mindlessness--every food always at hand, strawberries blooming in the aisles in icy January, the beef perfect in T-bones and strips always fresh--she believes that localvorism promotes intelligence, discretion and choice that go hand in hand with a recognition of limits. Consider the problem of asparagus. "There is a short period during the year, maybe three weeks, when I can get asparagus," McDermott tells me. "You can bet that I know when asparagus time is. I also know when strawberries, peas, spinach, tomatoes and corn will be available, and I plan for them."
There are two other big payoffs: one healthwise, the other as a stand for economic freedom. First, pipeline food is often polluted with additives, preservatives, pesticides and, not least, the germs of the many human hands and environments through which it passes (the latter most evident in the recent rash of Chinese food scandals--toxic fish, filthy shrimp, contaminated pet food). Second, if there's one big winner in the absurdist world-food supply line, it's large corporations that don't care about local economies. Just five companies control 75 percent of the global vegetable seed market; a handful of transnational companies control 90 percent of the trade in coffee and cocoa; five retailers account for 50 percent of all food purchases in France, Germany and Britain; the ur-predator among corporate retailers, Wal-Mart, is now the largest food retailer in the country.
On the other hand, if Vermonters shifted 10 percent of their food purchases to locally grown products, it would add more than $100 million to the state economy. Part of this added benefit is the infrastructure that arises to grow, process and distribute food (packinghouses, slaughterhouses, dairies, canneries). A study by the London-based New Economics Foundation concludes that food that stays local generates nearly twice as much income for the local economy as food exported or imported.
This spring I met two hippie vegetarians, Buck Butcher and Greg Marchand, as they wandered the West in a pickup chasing indigenous plants to eat (pinyon nuts in the high deserts of Nevada; strawberries, raspberries, currants in southern Montana). During the previous winter, in the hills of Tennessee, the two men culled at least half of their diet foraging in the richness of the temperate woods. Within a mile of their home--a notable 1/100th of the localvore limit--they gathered oyster mushrooms, watercress, wintercress, wild onions and Jerusalem artichokes. They roasted breadroots in olive oil with salt and pepper or boiled and mashed them like potatoes. "That was 50 percent of the time," said Buck. "The rest of the time we ate pizza."
Granted, most Americans have neither the leisure nor desire to wander the woods pulling roots, nor the skill and time to sow or kill their protein. We are bound to the diet that's most accessible--fast food, TV dinners, the wilted things at the supermarket--because of pressures of rent, work and children and, most important, because that's what the big food distributors make available. "I don't see this as an all-or-nothing proposition," says food scholar Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which devotes a chapter to localvorism. "Trade in food goes back thousands of years. It's not inherently evil, but we're trading too much. I can't see us going all the way back to local or even regional food production. But we can try to move in that direction, and the localvores are teaching us that. They're also teaching us how hard it is to go back."