It’s a pitiful thing to contemplate: By my estimation, close to 85 percent, perhaps even 95 percent, of the food that feeds my hometown of Moab, Utah, population 5,000, gets trucked or flown in over the red-rock desert, often from continental distances. Cut off that supply line–an absurd, wasteful and polluting operation where the average morsel travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate–and the city would starve to death in a week.
Eighty years ago Moab fed itself. The locals ate beef from cattle that grazed in the cool of the nearby mountains in summer or on the warm canyon floors in winter, where the townspeople also tended melons, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, romaine lettuce and much else. The last of the old melon orchards are gone, bulldozed to make way for condo sprawl named after the destroyed gardens–a classic pattern that holds even for big cities. Among these is Washington, DC, where as recently as the 1950s most residents got their produce from Maryland farms next door that are now subdivisions of tarmac and drywall.
A few of my fellow Moabites balk at this foolery and plant their own gardens to take advantage of the desert sun. Jon Olschewski, who is 29 and pays his rent waiting tables at one of Moab’s restaurants, where the food tastes like salted rubber, gets up to 70 percent of his family’s diet from his 2.5-acre farm, depending on the season. He and his father, a stonemason, tend twenty-three types of fruit and vegetable and herb–melons, kohlrabi, cilantro, squash, edamame, garlic, dill, chocolate peppers–and cull the eggs of as many as ten chickens a season. “In the first half of the twentieth century, a semi truck of fruit rolled out of Moab every day,” Olschewski tells me. “Out of acres and acres of orchards. Under 5 percent are still here. This town has turned a blind eye to its agricultural roots. And it’s something that nobody wants to talk about.” He likes to quote Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Grower, who notes that an average 2.5-acre farm suffices to provide enough produce for 100 locals for a year.
In an era when transcontinental food consumption has exploded–the value of international food trade is up threefold since 1960, the tonnage of food shipped between nations up fourfold (while population has only doubled)–Olschewski and his ilk are a beleaguered minority, to be sure. But their numbers across the nation are growing. They even have a name: They call themselves localvores. The term is the invention of a group of Northern Californians who on the occasion of World Environmental Day in the summer of 2005 saw an opportunity to fight global warming by eating only from their Bay Area “foodshed,” defined as foods sourced within 100 miles of one’s doorstep. Thus was born Locavores.com and the annual Eat Local Challenge, which has flowered into a nationwide movement that asks participants to spend several months out of the year confined to the “hundred-mile diet.” Gourmet magazine, in an article by activist-author Bill McKibben, has featured the pleasures and challenges of localvorism, while alt-supermarket chain Whole Foods now dedicates shelf space to delectables identified as “locally grown.” Novelist Barbara Kingsolver this spring published Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a memoir–eleven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list–that chronicles a year of eating locally after she and her husband fled the deserts of the Southwest for the farms of Virginia. “Our highest shopping goal,” Kingsolver writes, “was to get our food from so close to home that we’d know the person who grew it.”
Kingsolver was inspired to engage in this all-consuming experiment by the same concern that drove the pioneer localvores in California: Transcontinental foodism is destructive, unsustainable, irrational. According to the Worldwatch Institute, an imported long-distance meal of typical value–meat, grain, fruits, vegetables–consumes up to four times as much energy and produces four times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the locally grown equivalent. In 2002 food transportation was among the largest and fastest-growing sources of British greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, trade studies in Britain find that the British import huge quantities of staples such as milk, pork and lamb, while exporting comparable tonnages of these same products–trapped in lunatic “food swap” trade agreements made possible by cheap oil, subsidized transport and centralized purchases by massive retailers. Perhaps localvorism is best understood as an act of rebellion against a system that should not–cannot–stand.
The one state in the union that appears most inclined to cut itself off from the industrial food pipeline is Vermont. A recent study by a graduate student at the University of Vermont found that the state leads the nation in localized movement of agricultural goods, with the highest per capita direct sales of farmers’ products–1.2 percent–among the fifty states. Less than 2 percent is not a lot, of course, but it’s a start. With this in mind, last winter 133 Vermonters in the Mad River Valley, accompanied by scores of others in five separate localvore “chapters” statewide, joined to exploit their state’s market advantage in the so-called Winter Challenge. The Challenge required that participants survive only on a 100-mile foodshed for up to a week in cold February. Robin McDermott, who moved to Vermont with her husband three years ago and co-founded the Mad River Valley Localvores chapter in 2006, is somewhat harder on herself: Her challenge lasts all year.
By early summer, McDermott is planning six months of survival, from the first snows of September until the April melt. She cans, dries, cellars, preserves or freezes almost all of what she eats–her cellar stocked with carrots and potatoes, onions and beets; her freezer stocked with half a pig and half a lamb and many chickens, because “we know it is no fun for a farmer to slaughter chickens in the middle of the winter.”
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.”