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by Jillian Melnyk
It's not often that we think about where our products – or produce – come from. At least I didn't. Sure, when summer rolled around I often popped into the farm market, and two summers ago I joined my first CSA, but honestly I rarely gave little thought as to how far my products had to travel. If it was made in the good old USA it was all hunky-dory, right? Then I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where her family takes on the challenge to “live local” for a year, only buying food that has been grown in their own garden or locally produced within a few miles. It got me thinking about the food on my own table. As I browsed the supermarket aisles, I realized that my tomatoes, berries, and lettuce were coming from thousands of miles away. Even if it was homegrown in the USA, coming from California, Texas or Florida was still far. That's a lot of manpower and gas. Couldn't I do better?
With summer in full swing, I decided to take on the challenge to “go local” for a few weeks. You may have heard this trendy term flying around the farm market lately – Locavore. It's a term to signify a lifestyle choice by those who opt for local products. Being a Locavore has a lot of benefits: buying locally is good for the environment because it cuts down on shipping and gas and it stimulates local businesses. Produce can also loose flavor and nutrients during long shipments. Plus, many local farms and businesses also use good, wholesome, natural practices like pesticide-free, organic growing. I decided to test out the Locavore lifestyle and see how I fared. Like my other challenges, I started with a set of loose rules.
Here's what I did and what you can too:
I set my map. I started out by determining what was considered local. I decided to go for a 100 mile radius. It was sort of an arbitrary number, but I figured it encompassed enough area farms and businesses that I would have a good selection of products to choose from. Find what works for your family. Maybe you want to try just buying products produced in the Northeast or New York State. Having a smartphone was handy while out shopping. I could easily refer to geographic locations when browsing products and see if something fell into my territory. This can be a fun way to get kids involved too. If you don't have a smartphone, bring a small map along while you shop. Let kids help pick products and spot farm or food origin locations on a map, it can be a fun challenge to see if you can find the cheese, apple, or peach closest to home.
I made substitutions. I might have wanted cherry tomatoes (which came from California and weren’t quite in season yet here) but I was able to find a greenhouse tomato grown at a nearby farm. I simply made a swap and my salad barely even noticed the difference. It was easy and it helped out our environment.
I also picked items that were in season. Sometimes I had to wait a week or two, and that was okay, it made that product all the more special once it was available. This can be a great learning opportunity for kids, as well. Teach them about growing seasons, the local climate, and what grows in our region. Encourage your kids to observe – watch as new products hit the stands in your grocery store or farm market as the weeks pass. What is in season now? What will be available in a few weeks? Jot down notes and watch as items come and go as the season progresses.
I gave myself freebies. The goal was not to deprave myself of things I loved but see if I could make easy substitutions and swaps for local fare when given the opportunity. If I couldn't find a local substitution I made a note of it. I then asked myself “Do I really want/need this?” For example, if a recipe I was making called for the ingredient (like raisins), could I make an easy swap for something else? If the answer was “no,” I wasn't necessarily going to toss the whole recipe out on account of this experiment, but I made sure to note that the product in question was not a local one and maybe I could do better in the future. Or wait until the product was in season. I also knew that some products I love – like coffee, nuts, or certain cereal – just wouldn't be available grown locally and that was okay. In that case, for those items I tried to buy organic, fair trade and from those with good business practices.
I didn't stress.
Sometimes I failed. It's amazing how set we are in our routines. On the very first day of this challenge I was so proud of myself, I found everything I needed for my first 100% Locavore meal, but when I sat down in my car after my trip to the grocery store I realized my mistake: I twisted off the cap to my favorite sparkling seltzer. Out of habit, I had grabbed it as I headed to checkout. It was not made locally. I had spent the previous half hour at the grocery store scouring labels and analyzing my map, but I had so quickly regressed without even noticing. It will happen, but it's not worth stressing over. The point is to make conscientious changes when you can, not to punish yourself for your mistakes.
Overall this challenge was a lot of fun and a great learning experience. I found that local items did not cost much more (and sometimes much less!) Than ones transported from many states (or countries) over, and that they were extra delicious, too. In the future I'll definitely continue to opt for locally-made items when given the opportunity. I'm proud to call myself a Locavore.
Jillian Melnyk is the Editor of Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. To comment on this story email her at Editor@GVParent.com