To the right of this blog post you'll see a poll I created some time ago to see what people thought were the challenges to eating locally. I was surprised to see that in comparison to the choices I included in the poll, the single most important concern of the people who voted was that there wasn't enough variety available when it came to eating local foods. In light of this and many other local food concerns I have discovered, it never fails to strike me how similar the issues are between deciding to eat a local vegan diet and deciding to cut animals out of one's diet. The parallels between the excuses and fears can be so similar I am beginning to see that many of the vegan ethics that apply to the arguments against eating animals also apply to the ethical arguments of the pressing need to eat more locally sourced vegan diets.
For a few months now the pleasures and complexities of eating a locally sourced vegan diet is an issue that has occupied my mind on a daily basis. It's caused me to be far more conscious of the possible impacts my food choices have in my life and on the planet's health. As well, I am far more conscious of the socio-political impacts these choices have on the many people whose livelihoods and well being are affected both positively and negatively by my choices. I am also more aware of how my decision to buy foods produced from afar could be affecting my freedom to decide what it is I put into my body (I am referring to Monsanto's goal to literally own food as we know it). My greater awareness of who is involved in the production of the food I eat and how my food reaches its final destination -- my growling stomach -- has caused me to pause and consider many serious things. In particular, what weighs heaviest on my mind is that there are indeed far-reaching consequences connected to my shopping habits that make mindless consumerism an uncomfortable situation.
I long to give into my desire to simply put out of my mind the gravity of global warming and buy whatever I want, regardless how many miles my food traveled or how much oil was used to produce it. I can't deny that as much as I know it's unreasonable to include coconut milk as a staple in my kitchen cupboard I want to be able to reach for it whenever I please and not give a another moment’s thought to it. I think to myself that I appear as though I am too serious and no fun, though in the back of my mind the proverbial voice of reason tells me my so-called fun comes with a heavy price. I ask myself why my approach to something as simple and seemingly innocent as a cupcake is fraught with worries about how each of the ingredients I use has more underlying significance than I want to give them. The seeming luxury of being able to walk into any store and purchase any foodstuff I wish, sometimes regardless of the price, has become to me less of a luxury and more of a burden. Where ignorance is not bliss where veganism is concerned, similarly ignorance is far from bliss where my food is concerned.
Unlike the authors of The 100-Mile Diet who leapt into the deep waters of their experiment feet first, I was unwilling to follow in their paths and simply abandon my ethics when it comes to why I choose not to eat animals or their bodily excretions. I don't think that a locally based vegan diet is an impossibility, but I do think that it is a choice and transition that takes some serious thought. Without prepackaged breakfast cereals, soy and rice milks in handy Tetra Paks, and many of the other convenience/processed foods I have taken for granted for years, deciding what to do about what to eat has plunged me into a situation with food that I didn't experience when I first became vegan. That is, unlike the experiences some people have when becoming vegan, my own decision to become vegan never made me feel lost and uncertain when it came to knowing there were many food choices available to me. But in my efforts to rely more exclusively upon the farmers markets in my region I have found that my approaches to eating locally have increasingly left me in situations in which cooking from scratch is a burden.
So what are my options? Where is a happier medium, if there is any? What have been my pitfalls and how did I create them? And where can I go from here?
Oh yeah! It's coming! Get yer mitts on and click on the link below to sign up for a month-long blogfest of absolutely everything about vegan food goodness. It's gonna be an all out bout of apron string pulling and potholder smackdowns. And by the end of it I may be so pooped I'll have to be peeled off the kitchen floor. It's gonna be the shiznit!
Over the last month, I have begun to create a much more pleasing, close relationship with my food. With trips to the farmers' markets more a pleasure than a chore and the experience of eating food at its freshest, I am more than convinced that local eating for the sake of the planet is an wonderful privilege rather than any sort of a hardship. With more than half of my lunches and dinners being created from at least 90% local ingredients, I admit with much satisfaction that I've never eaten more luscious food than when I eat local food.
Have you ever eaten freshly shelled English peas? Did you know that the season's first garlic bulbs, freshly dug from the ground, are as easy to peel as a banana? Want to know what it's like to cradle in your arms a beet so huge that it's half as heavy as a newborn baby and just as sweet as a tiny beet? What about eating apples so new and crisp they're still tinged with a taste of greenness from the tree they were cut from? Would you like to experience the difference in peeling an onion that has only one layer of skin and bursts with crispness under your knife?
Here is a sample of what I have made over the last few weeks: oven-roasted cauliflower; caramelized green beans; dilled borscht; creamy mashed fingering and Russian blue potatoes; basil-hazelnut pesto; strawberry-rhubarb crisp; blueberry crisp; raspberry-blueberry crisp; sauteed baby red cabbage with rosemary and caramelized onions; garlicky "buttered" peas; pan-fried green zucchini "crostini" with roasted garlic spread; mashed kohlrabi with onion; sauteed greens (kale, Swiss chard, collards, and beet); tomato-basil salad; mashed white baby turnips with wilted turnip greens; zucchini "spaghetti" with baby heirloom tomatoes. I've also eaten three different types of cherries, giant blackberries, micro greens, romaine lettuce, green onions, red onions, at least five different varieties of potatoes, yellow beets, several different types of large heirloom tomatoes, baby carrots, cremini mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, sweet bell peppers, and peppercress. I've savoured bread and butter pickles, spicy pickled garlic, bumbleberry jam, bluebarb jam, pickled hot baby peppers, and pickled sweet bell peppers.
I've had the opportunity to buy watermelons, patty pan squash, summer squash, garlic scapes, musk melons, peaches, five different types of plums, purslaine, tatsoi, bokchoi, suchoi, savoy cabbage, mizuna, hazelnuts, four different types of radishes, chanterelle and oyster mushrooms, fresh hot peppers, fresh Japanese shiso leaves, every fresh herb imaginable, any micro greens you can name, pale yellow egg-shaped cumbers and two other types of cumbers, dried apples, sundried tomatoes, apple cider, dried chile peppers, wild watercress, black currants, and crab apples, to name just a very few things I could be buying.
And with Chinese long beans, portobello mushrooms, spaghetti squash, red plums, nectarines, corn on the cob in my fridge, as well as the pumpkins, butternut and acorn squash, and late summer apples I am eagerly awaiting, I think few people would argue that my vegan diet is in any way one of deprivation. In fact, eating locally as a vegan has accomplished two things I've not easily been able to make myself do before: eat more veggies and not crave sugar. And in a recent week where I didn't eat as much fresh local food as usual, I found my daily bike commute was much less easier than it had been when I was fulled by the freshest food and coasting uphill in places I'd previously laboured to keep up a steady pace amongst all the other commuter cyclists.
It's not too late to hit the farmers markets in your area (and believe me, they are there) and enjoy the best of what the summer season has to offer. In my area, as in many other areas, the farmers' markets run until the end of October. And when the first week of November comes along, I'll be making the twice monthly trip to the local winter farmers market in eager anticipation of sweet kale and many of the other winter vegetables made better by the chill of fall and winter.
My primary reason for becoming vegan has always been strictly concerned with the suffering of animals. The environmental benefits of such a diet are a secondary but important benefit, as are any of the other benefits that come from eating a healthy, whole foods-based vegan diet. When factory farming produces more air pollution than all the vehicles across the world combined, of course a vegan diet has a significant impact in reducing that pollution. But when the secondary cause of global warming is vehicle emissions - with something like 30% of greenhouse gasses being produced by vehicles - I have to seriously question how justified I am in purchasing foods with origins several continents away from where I am now.
I don't really need to be buying foods from the places I mentioned in my last post (and several other places besides) as though they are staples I must have. I really don't need coconut milk or shitake mushrooms to survive. And when I can get a bounty of fresh produce from the farmers market to fill up my fridge each week, why do I need to be buying ingredients from far-flung places? Sure, I look at the sesame oil and soy sauce in my fridge, as well as the tub of Earth Balance, nut butters and nutritional yeast, and I realize that were I to dedicate myself to eating an entirely locally sourced diet my shelves would be bare of the convenience foods I have so long taken for granted. But as I consider my feelings about no longer regularly purchasing many of the processed and fresh foods I have come to love, my hesitation in giving up something I love to eat begins to sound, to me, very much like the response meat-eaters have when asked to consider stopping their eating of animals. "But I don't want to stop eating (steak, chicken, ham, lamb, etc.) because I like it." Well, I like fresh pineapple and I'd like to continue eating it. But when the pineapple I'm could eat at any time of the year is flown in on a jet, I need to hold myself accountable for the part I play in consuming a product in which a ridiculous amount of fossil fuels was used to get it to my table. And I love my Earl Grey tea, but when the leaves are grown all over Asia and the final product created in Great Britain before it gets to Canada and, eventually, into my teacup, I really need to ask myself how much more important the pleasure of my tatse buds is than the impact my epicurean tastes have on my home and the people and animals that live on it. And, frankly, I like the relationship I have developed with the food I walk home with from the farmers market. Being nourished by a bowl full of the freshest Rainer cherries is just as wonderful but more responsible for me than a bundle of bananas.
When I first began to question the airmiles my food was racking up, one response to my musings was "What about all the people whose jobs rely on you buying the food they help produce, no matter where it comes from?" That was not a question I could answer, and for some time I thought about how those livelihoods would be affected if a significant number of people stopped buying things like tamarind paste, goji berries, jicama, and mangosteen. But what I have since discovered is the idea that perhaps these same people - like those who live in places such as Australia, Korea, and Malaysia - could possibly have more food to eat. I am talking about people who are farm labourers or factory workers who get paid pennies for producing products that are sold at higher prices in affluent countries or neighbourhoods while they themselves might not have enough money to eat or places to buy affordable food (this happens even here in British Columbia). And I am talking about some of the same people in countries whose governments have bought into trade agreements that leave their own people undernourished and their farmers dirt poor. Perhaps if the global food industries weren't tied up in exploiting resources and food for profit people would not be sitting mere miles away from silos filled with grain while their children starve to death or harvesting fields of soy created by the razing of rainforest while they and their cultures perish for the sake of my soy milk. Undoubtedly this is a complicated issue.
Money lust and convoluted politics have created a marketplace where I can buy garlic from China for dollars cheaper than garlic from the Fraser Valley. If I want a simple head of garlic, why must it be the very old, dried up, and sometimes mouldy garlic that's travelled much further than I ever will in my entire life? I wonder if it's not so unreasonable to demand that something as simple as garlic, easily grown even on my patio, could come from somewhere within my own province? It's even less unreasonable for me to go ahead and grown my own garlic, along with the fresh herbs on my ledge that aren't trucked in from Oregon or Alberta, and better appreciate the time and effort, as well as savour the result of producing something as simple as a bulb of garlic (and the garlic scapes to go with it).
For me, questioning the viability of a vegan diet that relies on ingredients that have travelled 8,000 miles or more to my plate is an issue I am beginning to take seriously because I feel I need to. My awareness of many of the converging environmental, social, and political catastrophes developing the world over creates an unavoidable sense of urgency to do something right now about how my lifestyle habits impact animals and people living halfway across the world. When I first became vegan, adjusting to my choice meant discovering new ways of shopping for, cooking, eating, and enjoying food. Now, my choices as a vegan have led me along paths that have me thinking perhaps my answer to making an even lighter impact on the planet (and the animals mercy to the detrimental effects of human activities) lies in a greater focus on eating locally as much as I possibly can. Just like I once realized that life of a chicken is more important than my self-serving culinary interests, I also believe that my enjoyment of a perfect Haas avocado from Mexico is not as important to me as the effects my shopping habits have on the planet and its creatures.
As with many things that come and go in the mainstream of everyday life, The 100-Mile Diet was something I’d heard murmurings about but not paid much attention to. I’d noticed the book several times in small and used bookstores in Toronto and Vancouver. But my ambivalence toward most new fads prevented me from swaying into the path of the eating bandwagon and perusing the book’s pages. At some point recently this changed as one hot Sunday afternoon I found myself clutching a used edition of the book, telling myself that if I was going to have an opinion about food and how it’s produced I ought to know what people are saying.
I began to wonder, as I imagine most people who have read the book have also done, about how much of the foodstuffs I used to concoct my kitchen creations come from a further distance than the 1,500, 2,500 and 4,000 miles oft quoted by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. From Mexican agave nectar to coconut milk from the Philippines, from the dried shitakes grown in China to the rice vermicelli from Thailand, I have begun to realize that some of the food staples I rely on seem to travel far further than those of the average vegetarian and meat-eater. As much as I think of my vegan diet as being the healthiest choice for me, it has become clear that it was not necessarily a healthy choice for the planet. Veganism makes complete ecological sense, but not when the Philippine mangoes in my dessert bowl have traveled much further than the Penticton or Salt Spring Island apples I could use in apple pie.
Last summer, while still living in Toronto, I had discovered the joys of farmers markets. With two markets taking place on weekdays within a few minutes walking distance of my Front Street workplace, I began to shop for my produce almost exclusively at these markets. I was nothing short of enthralled by the excitement of finding dozens of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, three varieties of currants, golden raspberries and the freshest white onions I’d ever seen. Before these farmers markets, I’d never seen a onion with it’s thick, deep green stalk still attached, and I was awed by the visual and taste differences between these and the older, many-layered dried onions at the grocery store. I was so affected by the differences between locally produced and imported produce that I started to scrutinize the origins of the produce in the stores near my home. And I began to wonder, with much frustration, why nearly everything on the shelves came from the US when I could buy the same but fresher produce grown in Ontario’s Green Belt less than 50 miles way from my home.
One chapter into a book now famous for starting a local eating revolution, I have started to consider how my own diet might be changed to rely on seasonal eating of locally produced foods. A recent Monday lunch trip to an IGA on Burrard Street in Vancouver showed me that I might be up against more of a challenge that I am ready for. Label after label amongst the fruits and vegetables showed me that if I intended to eat a local lunch, I was almost completely out of options. I was cautiously surprised when I came across a banana label that boasted “grown in British Columbia.” I gazed at the clusters of bananas and remembered I’d heard of a banana plantation in the province’s interior near Osoyoos. But the bananas I was looking at were emblazoned with stickers declaring Ecuador as their origin. Last time I checked, Osoyooswasn’t in Ecuador. Rather than eating a local lunch, I left with Finnish rye bread, baked beans from Greece, Tofutti cheese slices from the US and Yves vegetarian ham slices from Richmond, made with soy that might not have been grown in North America. For that matter, I could see that perhaps none of the things I'd bought included ingredients grown in either Canada or the US. During that week, several more trips to grocery stores on the west side of the city showed me that the labels identifying the origins of my apples, kale, and potatoes may not be as straightforward as they pretend to be. And my success in attempting to create a vegan 100-mile diet has become more dubious to me as the days go by.
Reading several chapters further, it dawned on me that the couple who wrote The 100-Mile Diet lived just mere blocks from my current abode and shopped at all the very same stores I now frequent. And, it seems, my dilemma about “going local” is much the same as the dilemma they faced in 2005. While I don’t eat much tofu, I do eat a lot of rice and rice-based products. If I choose not to buy rice milk made with rice most certainly not grown in British Columbia, what would my options be for breakfast? While Smith and MacKinnon’s breakfast solution was to abandon their so-called “near-vegan” diet for eggs from a farm located less than 10 miles away from our respective homes, my staunchness in remaining vegan is as permanent as the 100% vegan tattoo on my wrist. Fearing they would not get enough protein in their diets, I suppose they never thought to find out that vegetables contain protein and that even something like a 1/2 cup of cooked collards contains 4 grams of protein.
The authors of the 100-Mile Diet had a car and could drive. I neither have a car nor a license. Biking to Agassiz to get hazelnuts or out to Langley and other suburbs to the u-pick farms is not really an option available to me. With just my bike and the regional transit to rely on, is a truly vegan 100-mile diet possible?