September 6, 2006
By David Welch
When you sit down to eat dinner tonight, consider this: an average piece of produce travels 1500 miles from farm to table. Even if your broccoli or squash is organic, that doesn't mean it came from nearby.
Organic crops are increasing grown by large agribusinesses. So the "organic" label doesn't ensure that it was grown locally. That fact was the impetus for the Portland environmental group Eco-trust to pose what it calls the "eat local" challenge.
The challenge is to draw a one hundred mile radius around your house, and eat only food from within that circle for a week. Reporter David Welch tried it himself.
When I considered taking Ecotrust's Eat Local Challenge my first thought was 'no problem, it'll be easy'. That's because I'm married to a chef.
I say this not to flaunt my wife's skills in the kitchen or the fact that she spoils me rotten with delicious meals. No, I say this because we pretty much eat local already. Most of our food comes directly from local farmers and ranchers. It's one of the benefits of having access to a commercial kitchen. But when I really started to look into the diet, that is to say that when I opened up our pantry to see what food originated within a one hundred mile radius of our Portland home, I started to worry.
David Welch: "Pasta from Italy out. Trader Joes Pretzels, no. Can of Black Beans, goodbye. English breakfast tea? Coffee? Hmm."
That's when I called Deborah Kane. As the director of Ecotrust's Food and Farms program, she's the mastermind behind the Eat Local Challenge. Kane assured me that even if I stayed within the strict
one hundred mile radius, I wasn't going to go hungry.
Deborah Kane: "We live in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the US. Everything from fruits to vegetables to meat to milk to cheese, there's so many items that we can purchase locally that honestly it would be hard to not buy local products when you live right here where we do."
True, Oregon grows and raises some of the most sought after meat, fish, and produce in the United States. Still, sticking within a hundred mile radius might prove a bit limiting for many Oregonians.
But Kane points out that the one hundred mile border is simply a starting point for consumers. Ecotrust's goal isn't to get people to stop drinking coffee grown in Kenya. They simply hope to make people more aware when they're shopping for groceries.
Deborah Kane: "The eat local challenge is first and foremost simply an attempt to get people to think about where their food comes from."
I started thinking about it at New Seasons Market. There are eight of the stores in and around Portland.
CEO Brian Rohder is guiding me through the aisles of the Southeast location. We're looking for food that fits within the one hundred mile diet. It's a bit tricky, even with an Oregon brand like Kettle Chips.
Brian Rohder: "Let's just take this one right here, so it's honey Dijon chips and if you look at the ingredients on it there's the first ingredient select Russet potatoes. So these chips are being manufactured in Salem, which is sixty miles from here, but the potatoes are being grown in Eastern Oregon or in Idaho, which is hundreds of miles away from here. So would we consider this part of
the 100-Mile diet or not, I don't know I'm not exactly sure."
Rohder says shoppers will have no problem finding products that New Seasons labels local. They call it Home Grown, and they use bright yellow labels to identify products that are grown, caught or produced in Oregon, Washington, or Northern California.
It's a region that is a lot broader than a one hundred mile radius, and Rohder says they decided to use state lines to define the local food shed for two reasons: One, it was easier for shoppers to understand, and two, it made economic sense for everyone involved.
Brian Rohder: "Our mantra on this is the closer the better. That's what we're trying to accomplish, the closer the better but it's got to make sense for the people that are growing it, and it's got to make sense for the people selling it and its got to make sense for the people that are buying it."
Simply put: You can't grow everything a consumer wants within a one hundred or even a two hundred mile radius. By expanding the umbrella of Home Grown beyond a one hundred mile radius, farmers can focus on the many microclimates that exist in The Pacific Northwest.
Rohder says the expanded boundary delivers a superior meal to consumers without the pollution and waste that's associated with food grown thousands of miles away. And more important, it keeps the local farmers and ranchers in business.
Brian Rohder: "If we don't support our local farms, our local ranchers, if we don't buy fish from the people who are in our area the opportunity to do so in the future will go away."
And that's something I thought about a lot while taking the eat local challenge.
To be clear, I elected to adopt the version with the expanded bioregion. And no, I didn't give up coffee. But when I brewed a cup, I made sure the beans were roasted by Stumptown. And one thing became clear to me on the diet: eating local in the middle of the summer isn't that difficult.
In fact, it was sort of romantic. But perhaps even more important, knowing that my money was going directly into the pockets of Manuel and Laurie at Viridian Farms or Tom and and his wife Elizabeth at Denison Farms felt really good. And that made the diet, with or without the coffee, more than worth it.