Many times each month, people ask us exactly how they can begin to eat locally. The questioner invariably understands the 'whys' of the proposition, but is daunted by the 'how.' So this month we offer a short primer on eating local food, with emphasis on the notion of transition. Let's start there. The first thing to remember is that eating locally is a continuum. If you allow yourself to get drawn into an all-or-nothing mindset, the proposition will seem impossible. You will get derailed by the list of the imported foods you think you can't live without. Bananas. Coffee. Chocolate-covered yum-yums. Don't start with those things. Don't even put them on the table the first year. Eating locally is about doing what you can. It is about making the most of your region's agricultural strengths. It is about beginning to pay attention. Where should you start? Focus on whole foods first. Highly processed foods are made with many ingredients that are shipped from afar, processed, and shipped again. It is simpler, not to mention healthier, to put your efforts into simpler foods. Start with one or more of these food groups: produce, meat, dairy products and eggs. In many cases, you can buy these foods directly from farmers, which is often a highly satisfying experience in and of itself.
A few years ago, a friend whose family loves chow-mein hotdish and Cheez-its asked me what three things she could do to better her family's diet without triggering a lot of grumbling. She was clear: she was not ready to take on the whole pantry, and neither was her family. Sound familiar? She knew that if she felt overwhelmed, the changes wouldn't stick. But three things seemed reasonable to her. After talking more about her food buying habits and priorities, we came up with this: Buy high quality chicken. Get organic milk. Shop at the farmers market when you can. Now, we live in Minnesota, where small-scale farmers make good meat and quality milk readily available, but the growing season is short. Other places in the country will have a different list of logical first steps. My LH colleagues, for example, live on the Central Coast of California, where gorgeous fresh veggies are available almost year round, but meat and dairy from small farms is a little harder to come by. For people there, just committing to shop at the farmers market or to join a CSA would bring local foods into their diets much of the year. Another regional difference concerns food preservation: neither my colleagues in California nor my friends in the South spend much time canning and freezing. Here in Minnesota, we do, because that is the way to enjoy local produce in the long winter. Getting to know what grows well in your state - and when - is a valuable part of your education as a locavore.
As you begin to dig more deeply into your region's specialties, you will find that some of these cost more money than their anonymous counterparts at the supermarket. If you are one of the many Americans experiencing real financial distress, this may dissuade you from choosing them. But it is important to remember that there are ways to work around price if you have some flexibility in your food budget. For example, you might choose to buy high quality meat and cheese, but eat it less often, and instead eat more lower-cost whole foods like grains, beans, and in-season produce. Check out the LH blog for a close-up look at the home economics of my family's local foods-based diet. Finally, it pays to remember that for most human beings, change is difficult. Food is so fundamental to our sense of well-being that changes in that arena may be met with a lot of resistance. If that is the case in your house, go slowly and look for small windows of opportunity. For example, enjoy lots of local strawberries when they are in their glory. If you can, go out to the farm and have fun picking some of your own. Really pay attention to how good - and how different - they are. Acclimate your taste buds and over time your family may decide that the local ones are worth waiting for. You may even decide to throw a few bags of berries into the freezer for later. And you're on your way...
In sum: Start with whole foods. Don't make it too hard. Study your region's agricultural strengths, and play up to them. Look for ways to be creative with your budget. Be gentle with your self and your family as you try out new habits. Do these things, and you will set yourself up for a highly satisfying adventure in local eating, and a deeper connection to your food.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Posted by Chris F. at 5:39 AM