by Alisa Smith, co-author with J.B. MacKinnon of Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet (First 10 people to post a comment will receive a FREE copy of the book. Simply post a comment and then email us with your full school mailing address).
Who would have thought that a totally local concept could travel around the world? James and I wouldn’t have believed it when we began our local-eating experiment in Vancouver, Canada, back in 2005. It was a private, personal thing. We deprived ourselves of rice, olive oil, sugar, and all packaged foods for a whole year because of what people are now calling our “carbon footprint.” We had just learned that even a simple turnip or apple travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. An entire supermarket-sourced meal could have enough air miles to span the globe. Already, we were worried about the amount of fossil fuels consumed by our modern lifestyles, so we figured our daily bread was the perfect place to start cutting back. After all, couldn’t you grow lettuce in your own backyard?
We were learning so much about the food system on what we had dubbed the “100-Mile Diet”, we thought we’d help folks in our area eat more locally, too. So we published an online column on a regional website. Before we knew it, we were hearing from people all the way from France to Australia. It turned out that everybody was concerned about the food they ate—whether it was tainted food scares, the ecological costs of industrial agriculture, cruelty to animals—or it just wasn’t delicious anymore.
Since those first lonely days when we began our experiment, we’ve been swept up in a growing international movement. By the end of 2007 (the year that Plenty: Local Eating on the 100-Mile Diet was published), the Oxford American Dictionary had declared the word of the year to be “locavore”, which had been coined by local eaters in California who shared our passion.
By now, we’ve given scores of talks across North America about local food, and how we learned that it can build healthy communities. We felt that the message resonated. However, we were a little nervous the first time when we took our message to college and high-school audiences. But it went so well that we now have deep faith in the leaders of tomorrow. They clearly care a lot about this issue. As an example, we’ll look to Alliance, Ohio, a town that chose Plenty as its annual “One Book, One Community” selection.
Alliance couldn’t be more different from the place where we live. Vancouver is a city of two-million people, and nearly half the population is foreign-born and does not speak English as a first language. Downtown, glass high-rises reflect the Pacific Ocean and the mountains looming. Our main industries are things like video game development and yoga pants design—think San Francisco North. On the other hand, Alliance is a town of 25,000 people in the Midwest, still hanging onto its steel manufacturing past. The fields surrounding the town are blanketed with corn destined to become fructose in manufactured “foods” (like Coca-Cola), or biodiesel fuel. What would we have in common? Plenty, it turned out—if you’ll forgive the pun.
While Vancouverites tend to focus on the ecological harms of the global economy, Alliance and other Midwestern residents have been burned by the global economy personally—when jobs leave for foreign lands, when Main Street shops shut down, and when family farms die out to be replaced by agribusinesses. In Alliance, they see the advantage to rebuilding local economies that look after their participants. In fact, community discussion of our book inspired a plan to build a farmer’s market, a key local-eating resource. We couldn’t be more pleased.
Despite the town hall enthusiasm, we didn’t know what to expect when we went to talk at two local Alliance high schools one morning. What would they care about a book they had been forced to read? Again, plenty. Students lined up to get their books signed. They wanted to take cellphone pictures of us standing beside them. They told us, “This book changed my life.” Or “I don’t usually read books—but I really liked this one.” One shy young person said this book offered hope that people can actually change the things that are wrong with the world. And you know what? All three of these comments came from boys. Yes, boys!
Typically, the book-buying public is predominately female, and often grey-haired. They are the patron saints of literature, but their taste in books couldn’t be more different from teenaged guys. We breathed a quiet sigh of relief when we saw it went over with them. When it comes right down to it, there was as much male as female in the writing of our book, because James and I alternated chapters. And while we did deal with relationship issues, it was honest rather than sappy. The core of the book is meaty: the politics of food, the nature of communities, and natural history, all infused with our real desire to change the world that we’ve kept since our own teenage years.
We owe a big thank-you to the youth of Alliance, as they made us feel we were doing a job worth doing. I will always remember the girl who let us know she wanted to become a writer, too. And we are grateful to the community as a whole for their warm welcome. James told them the story of the scornful big-city reporter who asked, “Isn’t local eating something only people in New York and San Francisco care about?” James retorted, “Why don’t you ask the people of Alliance, Ohio?” The crowd gave a big cheer. Later, smiling senior citizens invited us to breakfast.
So now that we’ve been everywhere with our message from Ohio to Miami to the Yukon Territory in Canada’s far north—and our book is now being published Down Under and in Chinese—we have no doubt that local food is truly a global issue. Though when I retire, as much as I love my homeland, I may just move to Alliance, Ohio, because the seniors there all highly praised the retirement home they lived in. Have you ever heard of that? Perhaps we will write a sequel there in our golden years.