Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Thinking Globally, Eating Locally

Melamine in pet food. Pesticides in imported food. Genetically-engineered Frankenfood. Corporate-farmed factory food. Diet-related obesity and its attendant diseases. Long-haul food transport as a contributor to global warming. Topsoil and water table depletion. More and more of us are looking at this growing pile of issues -- and starting to realize that our food infrastructure is as worn and dangerous as a Minnesota bridge or a New Orleans levee. It's coming clear that the way we've been eating all our lives is, necessarily, desperately due to undergo some radical changes.

The bad news is that changing something as deeply personal as our eating habits comes hard. (In fact, there's an entire dieting industry that owes its fortune to just how hard it is.) The good news is that simple changes in what we buy, how we buy it, and who we buy it from can make a huge difference in every one of these issues.

It's as easy as 1-2-3. One: Eat fresh. Two: Eat seasonally. Three: Eat local.

OK, not so easy -- at least not if you shop in a standard supermarket. The citrus on my Safeway shelves right now came 7,000 miles from Chile. The melons came from Mexico, and God only knows what they were sprayed with. The tomatoes and strawberries, though grown in the USA, could very well have been picked by "guest workers" who were paid slave wages. If you want to eat in ways that calm your conscience, there's not a lot of comfort to be found in the big stores -- not even at Whole Foods, which is increasingly favoring huge corporate food producers (the same ones who are working so diligently to dilute organic standards) and all but shutting small local suppliers off its shelves.

Fortunately, other options are emerging.

Last month, I took my first big step away from all that by signing up with Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (better known as -- a Vancouver-based grocery delivery company that specializes in locally-grown organic foods. For those who crave the market experience, SPUD has a nice little produce stand downtown in Granville Market; but its main storefront is a website, which draws in thousands of home delivery customers within a 50-mile radius of downtown.

Every Thursday evening after dinner, I curl up on the couch with my laptop, click the SPUD bookmark, and go shopping. I choose my fresh produce, review or amend my standing order for household staples (milk, bananas and bread every week; butter, eggs and cream every other week), add in cleaning supplies and other necessities, check out the deli for pre-made foods (nice to have for busy nights) and peruse the weekly specials for good deals on meat, fish, and other seasonal stuff.

Fifteen minutes later, when I click "send," my shopping for the week is done. No driving, no parking, no lines. I didn't have to find my checkbook and car keys. Hell, I didn't even have to find my shoes.

And next Tuesday around noon, a big blue Rubbermaid bin full of groceries shows up by the front door. Packed inside, amid the recyleable bags of dry ice, are our groceries for the week -- as well as our family's piece of a quiet revolution.

The most profoundly change-inducing part of shopping with SPUD is also the least intuitive. It's this: Every item on the SPUD site is tagged with its mileage -- how far it came from the factory or field to SPUD's warehouse. When I place my final order, the site gives me not only a total bill; but also an average mileage for all the goods I've bought. (It also offers special incentives to customers who can keep their overall average under 1500 kilometers.) This one number, all on its own, changes the way I evaluate my purchases, and helps me bring my buying in line with my values in several different ways.

1. In the short term, I'm keeping the money in the local economy, and ensuring jobs for local families. I'm also supporting the diversity of our local food culture, which in turn makes my region more economically (and gastronomically) self-sufficient.

2. In the long term, I'm doing my part to build up an infrastructure that will ensure our overall regional food security. I'm voting for the future of small mom-and-pop farms and factories that I can't find at Whole Foods -- but, given support, will be here to feed us all long after Whole Foods has come and gone.

3. I'm keeping local farmland in production, which discourages urban sprawl. It's also sweet to think that what I eat was grown in ways that respected and sustained my own local ecosystem, rather than laying waste to someone else's.

4. Local food is necessarily what's fresh in season, which nutritionists tell us is a healthier way to eat. The strawberries will be gone soon; but there will be more next May. In the meantime, the grapes are at their peak. And the first apples of the Pacific Northwest fall -- a few small green Granny Smiths -- showed up in yesterday's box. I had no idea how good a fresh apple in season could taste until I moved here. Now, I spend all summer waiting for those first ones to arrive.

5. Buying goods that require shorter truck trips cuts our family's carbon footprint -- and far more significantly than I might have imagined. Until I started tracking those mileage numbers, I had no real idea of the carbon cost associated with eating food from other continents. (Ordering just one can of Indonesian coconut milk -- not everybody's staple, but a Godsend when cooking for my milk-allergic son -- can throw my entire average off by a couple thousand kilometers.) Now, I know. And because I know, I choose those treats very, very carefully.

6. A lot of the industrial processing and genetic alteration that conventional foods undergo is aimed at increasing their ability to survive long road trips and their shelf life in the store. When I buy from SPUD, distance is no longer an issue -- and the Frankenfood manipulations that go with distance are much less of an issue, too.

7. When the food is this fresh and good -- and there's more coming every week -- it's just a whole lot less tempting to eat crap. Our consumption of non-processed fresh foods has more than doubled since we started with SPUD, and our health is already starting to show it.

Local organic food distributors are cropping up in many cities and towns. Home delivery services like SPUD are only really viable in big cities like Vancouver. But organic food co-ops are now available in many parts of the country, and it's increasingly easy to find community-supported farms that will supply weekly produce and dairy boxes as well. You can Google "organic food coop" or "Community Supported Agriculture" and your state name to find them. Don't just assume that because you live where you live, there's nothing nearby. They really are everywhere, and they deserve to be supported.

There's nothing particularly special or different about my family's diet. Apart from avoiding fast food and working around a couple food allergies, we eat pretty traditional meat-and-potatoes fare. And we've continued to eat that way since joining up with SPUD. Only now we're getting the goods in a way that's far closer to home -- and closer to our values as well.