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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

100 Miles

Last night, sick with a cold and unable to sleep, I decided to take advantage of having tv and went flipping through the channels. There's not a whole lot to watch at 3am. I ended up catching the concluding episode of The 100 Mile Diet Challenge on The Food Network. I'd briefly caught part of an episode some time ago, but nothing more.

First off, I just want to make it clear that I think there are a lot of excellent reasons for shopping local for food. These reasons run the gamut from supporting the local economy, to the improved flavour of fresh ingredients, to being more aware of where our food comes from. I think that, in general, people are too far removed from their food, and have no clue as to what's involved in keeping our grocery stores stocked. If buying local helps people become more aware and connected with their food, I think that's a great thing.

This, however, is not the point of The 100 Mile Diet. It is, according to the show and the authors of the book, actually about reducing our "carbon footprint." I'll have to assume that when they say "carbon," they actually mean "carbon dioxide." At which point, the 100 mile diet would be a failure. It's already been demonstrated that, for most things, shopping local actually has a higher "carbon footprint," than buying mass shipped, or even imported, foods in large grocery stores. Dozens of small producers bringing their products to scattered farmer's markets, or consumers having to drive far afield to find these local products, emits more CO2 than the more efficient grocery chain model. If reducing CO2 emissions were truly the goal, you'd be better off going to these big franchises than driving around to various markets, roadside stands or directly to the producers themselves. This was actually demonstrated in the show, as the participants found themselves spending a great deal of time driving around to find local produce. It was rather amusing to see how the authors brushed this off as being an example of how bad the current system is.

Leaving off the CO2 footprint entirely, there were a few other interesting things that had me shaking my head about the show. One was the location. The idea was for an entire town to take part in the 100 mile diet challenge, to varying degrees. The show itself followed the 6 households that signed on to go 100% local for 100 days. Others signed on for 80% or 50%.

The town this was in?

Mission, BC.

In the summer.

For those who don't know why that's a head shaker for me, it's a bit like setting a family up in a major grocery store and telling them they can only eat what they find in the building. The region Mission is located in is a cornucopia of food production, not only for the richness and variety of foods produced in the area, but the long growing season and mild climate, as well. A real challenge would be to do this in, say, Thompson, Manitoba.

The one episode I'd seen part of before must've been very early in the series, as it showed the families having their first 100% breakfast, after having removed from their households all non-local foods the day before. I was surprised by how little these people knew what to do with their food. Unable to buy whatever they wanted, most of them had no idea what to do with what they had, unable to "make do." A strange concept to me, since making do is pretty much the only way I know how to cook. By the end of the challenge, however, they all seemed to have overcome this lack of knowledge and did quite well. A valuable lesson, I believe.

Another thing that had my eyebrows twitching is the obvious wealth among this group of people. Of the 6 households, only one didn't appear to be rich, and they were farmers already producing a lot of their own food. Obviously, family finances weren't discussed in the show, but in looking at their homes, the equipment they had to work with, and the land they had available to start growing their own food, these were all things out of reach of a lot of people. I certainly couldn't see how someone on a retirement income, or even an average income family, could have all this. There certainly wasn't anyone on a limited income living in a tiny apartment and no balcony. Just as an example, with one couple the husband said that his wife did all the bill paying, grocery shopping, etc., and he had no idea about the household finances. Fair enough; it obviously worked for this family.

It's probably a good thing he *didn't* know it, either. His wife was meticulous about keeping receipts for food purchases during the challenge, even if it meant writing the number on a scrap of paper if no receipt was given. For their first month on the challenge, their food budget doubled to over $1200!!! Granted, as she got the hang of things, that number dropped to their usual budget by the last month. First off, the fact that they could double their food budget without him even noticing tells me they had a fair amount of financial leeway. Second, they could actually spend over $600 a month on food for their family (I believe they had 2 young children). My grocery budget for our family of four is about $800 a month. Note I say "grocery" budget, not "food" budget. My grocery budget is for whatever I buy at the grocery store, including laundry supplies, household cleaners, personal hygiene, pet supplies and even some of my husband's prescriptions. Not all, since he's had a few that would take up about half of my budget all on their own, never mind adding them all together. So when it comes down to it, my food bills probably range from about $300-$400 a month for the four of us - and this is actually the highest it's been in quite a few years. In the past, I've had to work things out with much less. I manage it because I know how to do a lot of things from scratch, and how to make do with what I can afford.

So this was another area where I found the challenge to be unrealistic for a lot of people. Buying local is, quite frequently, more expensive. Unless one is able to grow/raise a lot of the foods themselves (which quite a few of the challengers did attempt), going local is financially out of reach for many people.

It was particularly interesting to hear what the participants had to say about the challenge at the end of it. Of the 6 couples, one found it to be quite a negative experience, and they couldn't wait for it to be over. They found the whole thing was a lot of bother, took up too much time, and wasn't worth it. Time was a factor mentioned by most of the participants. Finding, prepping and preparing the foods took up inordinate amounts of time. As someone who grew up helping produce most of the food for our family of 7, this was no surprise to me. There is a lot of time and effort required, even if you're not actually growing/raising the food yourself. For one family with an autistic child, it actually interfered with the mother's ability to follow the special program they had for their son.

The reactions to this family that had a negative experience was part of what made it so interesting. The authors had me chuckling with their holier-than-thou, they just didn't try hard enough attitude. The other families, however, seemed to resent this couple quite a bit. You see, they travelled a great deal, which means they "cheated." They actually got caught on video drinking coffee. This was a sore point among the group to the point that a new "rule" was established by the authors, and this couple had to perform a penance to make up for their cheating ways. Eventually, it was reveled that pretty much everyone else cheated at some point, too. They just didn't get caught.

A few other details stood out with me. There was a lot of talk about how much "healthier" they were eating by eating locally, and how much better they felt. The implication, of course, is that food outside 100 miles is less healthy somehow. There were some hints, however, that each of these families actually had quite poor dietary habits to begin with. Despite the implications, eating locally produced food isn't going to be that much healthier than the same food shipped in. All fresh food begins to loose nutrients as soon as it's harvested, whether you buy it at a roadside stand or from a store. From my experiences on an organic food service, where locally grown fruits and vegetables were delivered to my door weekly, they are more susceptible to bugs and fungus.

At the end of the challenge, when the families got their bins of non-local foods back, and they could start buying whatever they wanted again, things were particularly revealing. Pretty much every adult on the program started off with coffee. The sheer bliss on their faces as they took their first sips was amazing. There was also chocolate, pop, foods with sugar in them, and even tequila. One guy was in heaven over a glass of orange juice. Even though all the families said they'd learned a great deal and would continue to buy local more often, most were only too happy to return to their "forbidden" foods. The authors seems rather disappointed about that.

For all the benefits that come with buying local, clearly, restricting people's diets this severely made them simply want those foods/drinks even more.

As much as I like the idea of buying locally, and especially growing and raising our own food, I completely disagree with the authors that following a 100 mile diet would be of benefit to the world. The main reason for this is that it's inherently selfish. Such a limitation is the ultimate in protectionism. Until recent years, humans have never willingly limited themselves so severely. Instead, we have always been eager to import foods, drinks and spices. Such trade didn't just make importers wealthy. It gave producers new markets beyond their local sphere.

If we really want to make a difference in impoverished nations, giving money to large charities isn't going to do it. Most of the money doesn't make it to those who need it. Donating food doesn't work, either. The donations often end up propping up warlords, or get sold in the local markets. Neither will provide people with a permanent hand up, rather than temporary hand outs. That means buying their goods. Exporting their produce to other countries allows producers in some of the poorest nations to make a living; to make a life for themselves and their families. Increasing their personal wealth leads to improved conditions for the entire community, which in turn leads to improved environmental conditions.

If you want fresh ingredients, buy from a local producers. If you want to reduce your "carbon footprint," buy at a big box grocery store. If you want to help your local sphere, buy local produce. If you want to help someone on the other side of the world, buy imported goods.

I think there's room for both.


  1. Really enjoyed this piece. I actually once tried to read the book, but found the holier-than-thou attitude a bit too much to take. I live on Vancouver Island so buying local is both good and reasonably inexpensive. I always try to cook from scratch, partly because it's better for you, but also because I really enjoy cooking. So I find the idea that you should only use ingredients from within 100 miles both narrow-minded and restrictive. What purpose is served by denying yourself coffee simply because it is not grown locally, for instance ?

    The 100 mile diet is an interesting idea, but like all ideas taken to an extreme, it loses appeal and validity the more restrictive it becomes.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Jad. I haven't read the book yet, so it's interesting to hear that the attitude I saw on the show also came through in the book.

    I think you make a good point about extremes, too. I think extremism of any kind is almost always harmful, no matter how noble the intention.


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