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Eco-Challenge: Eating Local

Potato chips and Popsicles top the list of favorite snacks for my husband, Dave. So there was some sulking when I proposed that we try eating only locally grown foods for a month. Why would I suggest this? For the past couple of years, I'd noticed a surge of interest in eating a local diet.

Books focused on it, blogs became dedicated to it, chefs advocated for it, and supporters even coined their own term -- "locavore," subsequently named the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007.

Behind all the fuss, I learned, lies the fact that today's food travels an average of 1,500 miles to get from farm to table. By eating locally, we could cut our carbon footprint (no long-haul trucking or air travel required), potentially support sustainable growing practices, and help out our own farming community. On a more basic level, food simply tastes better freshly picked.

Of course, we knew that local producers may or may not use pesticides. But since the cost of organic certification remains a prohibitive challenge for many small farms, at least by shopping locally, we would be close enough to the source to ask the right questions in person.

Finally won over by the evidence, Dave agreed to ditch the Popsicles and give it a try. To keep things easy for our first attempt, I suggested we pick the month of August, since it's the most bountiful time of year for the region's fruits and vegetables. With that decided, I jumped on the local bandwagon -- and embarked on a mission to fully commit my Boston kitchen (and my husband) to a diet of foods grown or produced only in New England for a month.

The Game Plan
As it turned out, we were already off to a strong start. I shopped at farmers' markets regularly, and we're also members of a meat CSA, or farm share, which brings us 10 pounds of locally raised beef, pork, lamb, or poultry every month. (You can find similar programs at localharvest.org.) A quick Google search of locally sourced foods led us to a nearby family-run market that sells homegrown butter, salt, honey, and produce, as well as a free-range poultry farm 15 miles away.

But before we could even take a bite out of our first local tomato, we hit a stumbling block. How could we live without olive oil? Or coffee, for that matter? So we made a few exceptions to the rules, keeping oil, spices, and our morning brew in our repertoire. I'd look for coffee brands roasted in Massachusetts. We'd swap out sugar for local honey -- and for everything else, we'd either find it, figure out how to live without it (goodbye, lemons), or cut way back on it, as in the case of Dave's morning Dunkin' Donuts fixation and our restaurant outings (once a week for both). 

To make up for the occasional bags of vending-machine potato chips I'm sure he snuck in at work, I planted a few cucumber and tomato plants in a container out back and basil, mint, and rosemary in pots indoors.

Doing the Math
Our first forays into all-local shopping left me with a loaded fridge -- and a sense of frustration. We had made four stops and traveled 40 miles, whereas my big-box grocery store is less than five miles away. Plus, we'd spent 50 percent more on our weekly groceries than usual. After tallying up the numbers, though, I realized I could easily justify both: We'd canceled out thousands of food miles by sacrificing bananas from Costa Rica, and spent a chunk of that week's budget restocking pantry staples with ones that would last well beyond our designated month.

The realization did prompt us to shop smarter. To keep miles from adding up, I stopped by the farmers' market on my way home from business appointments. The strategy helped our budget, too. I only bought things I needed for the next few days, and, in a lot of cases, items from the farmers' market cost less than their grocery store counterparts.

As the month moved along, we discovered that eating local wasn't as hard as we thought it was going be. I found plenty of eggs, greens, root veggies, herbs, handmade cheeses, and fruit at the farmers' market. Each week, I'd stop by a few stalls and chat with the farmers, who would tell me about the squash they'd grown and offer serving suggestions for their homemade goat cheese. By my third visit, one of the farmers I had befriended set aside a couple of his best heirloom tomatoes just for me.

With September around the corner, we assessed our progress. Our grocery budget was in good shape, since we'd taken smaller, more frequent shopping trips and cut out boxes of unnecessary snack foods. Overall, we both felt healthier (I'd even lost a pound or two in the process). So the thought of stopping just because the month was up seemed silly -- at least, it did until we remembered that a Boston winter can last from November until June. Very little grows outside of greenhouses during that time of year, which left us facing only three local prospects: dairy, eggs, and meat.

We didn't completely give up, though. We spent a few days roasting and freezing a huge bag of tomatoes I picked up at the market. We bought a long stem of garlic, which would keep for a few months in a cool, dry storage space. Of course, my husband did go back to eating Popsicles and potato chips, and I occasionally caved in to the lure of blueberries in the middle of winter. But at least we had trained ourselves to think twice about our decisions. Now we'll always look for local, pesticide-free options before buying anything else. 

Text by Erin Byers Murray

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