Strictly eating locally produced foods can be a challenge. Good thing our foodie is a Sacramentan.
If you’re at all interested in the world of food, you’ve probably been seeing the word “local” a lot more lately. Depending on what you read, local food is the latest trend, the way to return to our roots, the antidote to our over-globalized economy and the fossil-fuel use that results from shipping every food item a much-cited average of 1,500 miles to our plates, the salvation of our obese high-fructose-corn-syrup-guzzling society, or just likely tastier and fresher than food flown in from the southern hemisphere. But what does local mean when it comes to food? Is it really better for you, for the region, for the world as a whole? Can you or I eat that way, truly? Is it, to use another buzzword, sustainable?I took a month to try to find out. During June, I vowed to eat only food grown, produced and processed within 100 miles of my home in Sacramento, with certain strategic exceptions. This is not, I freely admit, an original idea. Others have done it, and done it for longer. Two books out now—Plenty, by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon (based on their blog at www.100milediet.org), and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—tell of attempts to eat locally for a year, in Vancouver and Virginia, respectively. I know of locavores, as they’re called, in the San Francisco Bay Area. But I hadn’t heard about a lot of people trying to feed themselves from their own foodshed (as the food-producing area is called, by analogy with “watershed") here in the Central Valley. That’s surprising, in a way, because it’s hard to imagine a better place in which to eat locally. Within 100 miles of Sacramento there is an astounding diversity of agriculture, from nuts to stone fruits and berries to vegetables to meat and poultry to rice and wheat. Our 100 miles includes a little slice of ocean, so seafood is a possibility, and if you know a hunter you could get wild game. Where you can source all of this and whether such a lifestyle would feed you well or leave you hungry is what I wanted to find out.
In order to do the local-eating experiment, I had to make some rules—and a few exceptions, as other locavores do. Kingsolver and her family, for instance, each picked out a food item they would exempt, and they also bought pasta and other items. MacKinnon and Smith exempted social situations and work lunches—but allowed themselves no particular foods as a pass. In this area, I spoke to two other women who had eaten locally for a month (February, no less): Ann Evans, the co-leader of Slow Food Yolo County, and Annie Main of Good Humus Farm. Both of them chose a few exemptions: “I gave myself five ‘passes’ a day,” Evans said. “I was drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. I still ate avocados and used sugar, and then if I would use something like soy sauce. Salt and pepper were one of my passes, too.” Main exempted salt and sugar.
For myself, I defined a few “trade goods” I would continue to consume: coffee, which I sourced from local roasters; a square of chocolate a day, which I likewise got from regional sources such as Scharffen Berger; and salt. I held leavening—yeast and baking powder—in reserve, in case I was able to find local flour for baking. And I didn’t impose purely local eating on my whole household, which includes a banana-loving 2-year-old, though my family ate the local dinners I cooked. The biggest exemption, however, was that I had to continue to eat out in restaurants for work purposes, as a restaurant reviewer. Otherwise, however, I was cooking my own meals, sourcing food from local farmers and producers (and markets that carry them), and eating from within 100 miles of here, from June 1 to June 30.
The first step was to find my 100-mile circle. It stretched from near Corning in the north to Merced and Los Gatos in the south, all the way to Carson City in the east and west to the Pacific Ocean off San Francisco. That’s a pretty impressive span in terms of what’s available. As Main said, “We are in an amazing place. The Central Valley does offer everything. What happens if you live in Kansas?”
After a trip to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op on May 31, I started off the month fairly well stocked. Breakfasts weren’t hard, being mainly fruit and yogurt with nuts—though it took a few days to get accustomed to the lack of cereal or granola stirred into that mixture. (And since I’d exempted coffee, I wasn’t starting the day surly.) Lunches, however, were hard. No sandwiches for the breadless. I tried to keep leftovers from the previous night’s dinner around for lunch—or to stretch out a big salad, which was my other main lunch option.
For afternoon snacks, I lost whole categories of food: cookies, crackers, chips—all that was out. I relied instead on rice cakes (lots of rice cakes) from Lundberg Family Farms; the rice cakes are manufactured in Richvale and have two ingredients: rice and salt. They were surprisingly good with a smear of blue cheese. Handfuls of almonds or walnuts and some fruit were also standbys. Some days, though, the 3 p.m. post-lunch trough was deep indeed; I wanted a cookie.
For dinners, I reverted to the meat-and-two-veg model of childhood, plus potatoes or rice when I was after a starch. As for dessert, there wasn’t any, except for a square of chocolate now and again. OK, pretty much every night.
That’s the basic outline of my meals, but there was a lot of time underlying each. When you start on a 100-mile eating project, every meal means a certain amount of work. On a hot day, there is no lying on the couch fanning oneself while one’s husband heads to the taqueria for takeout. No: If what came in my organic box that week was new potatoes and beets (as it often was; summer vegetables had not started in earnest), I was going to be turning on the oven or the stove and cooking them for dinner, however hot or cranky I felt.
I also had to do a lot of extra thinking about and shopping for food, researching my options and then making time to seek out food that fit my criteria. Main, as a farmer, could rely on her own produce and trading with other farmers. But, she said, “If I had to walk into a grocery store, even the Davis Food Co-op, and try to figure out where everything came from, I felt like it would be daunting to do that.”
There was also the extra cost. I was paying for much more of my food in cash, at the farmers’ market, and was spending perhaps $50 per week there (more if I bought fish), plus a hefty chunk of change at the market, usually the Co-op, and spending $15 per week on the community-supported agriculture box. I was eating more meat because there were few non-meat protein sources, like beans. Local, organic milk and yogurt are pricey, and cheeses made in small batches will cost you, too.
It all points to the global food chain’s economies of scale, from which we as consumers benefit every day. By removing oneself from a global food economy and immersing oneself in the much smaller, more personal local one, you might get some deals—such as cheap peaches when they’re falling off the trees with ripeness and the farmer has to sell right that minute or lose the crop—but you’re also going to end up paying for the true cost of the food, the land value and labor and sheer life that goes into every bottle of milk or package of pork chops.
The easy stuff
Produce was, predictably, the easiest thing to find. The Central Valley in summer is overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables—though in early June some of the winter and spring vegetables are still on their way out, and not all the summer produce has come in. I wasn’t eating tomatoes or corn. I signed up for Full Belly Farm’s community-supported agriculture box, and got a weekly delivery of everything from fingerling potatoes to green garlic to apricots.
I’m also lucky to live near the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, which labels most of its produce with point of origin, and I shopped there frequently. On my first visit of the month, I quickly found that I needed to brush up on the geography of very small towns in California. There are a lot of them, and they are all over the labels of the Co-op’s produce. Of course, I quickly ruled out apples from Chile and Washington State, and navel oranges from Temecula, but I was at a loss as to whether I could purchase plums from Dinuba, blueberries from Livingston, potatoes from Shafter, peaches from Arvin, or Valencia oranges from Rumsey.
I made some notes and headed home to check MapQuest. Dinuba is south of Fresno, so that was a no. Livingston: 97 miles! It turns out there are two Shafters: one 97 miles away in Marin County, the other 268 miles away in Kern County. Arvin—alas for those peaches—is more than 300 miles away, south of Bakersfield. Rumsey is in the Capay Valley, so I went back to stock up on oranges. Otherwise, I would have had a largely citrus-free month.
I did eventually spot a few lemons, grown in Oroville, at the Sunday-morning farmers’ market, my other shopping standby. As Evans noted, when you’re eating locally, the weekly farmers’ market trip shifts from being a pleasant outing to being a necessity. “It was not just ‘Oh, let’s go to the farmers’ market,’” Evans said. “It was ‘I gotta go, are you kidding? This is my food.’”
The farmers’ market was a good place to find meat, as well as produce. John Bledsoe sells pork weekly, as well as lamb. (I also had a freezer full of lamb thanks to my father, who buys a Chico-raised lamb or two each year and divvies up the frozen packages.) There are also several fish vendors. I didn’t find an easy local source for beef, however.
Chicken from the Petaluma area, under the Rosie and Rocky Jr. brands, is widely available. Similarly, most of the eggs sold around here seem to come from close by, and I relied heavily on them. Dairy products, too, were fairly easily available—milk, yogurt, and a variety of cheeses (soft goat cheese, some cheddars and other firm cheeses, and even blue).
Meatless local eating, however, would be difficult, and vegan local eating for any length of time, I think, would be nearly impossible: There just aren’t any reliable local protein sources. You occasionally can find dried beans; Evans and Main told me that they had belonged to an area dried-beans CSA.
One week at the farmers’ market, I did find fresh chickpeas, still on the gnarled, leggy plants. I bought them: just $2 for a huge, grimy bunch. It was up to me to get the green garbanzos out of the pods, a time-consuming task. The pods hide among the leaves, and not all the pods hold a chickpea, though some hold two. The empty ones—or ones with tiny, undeveloped chickpeas—pop under your fingers with an audible burst, which is fun but not productive, like destroying bubble wrap. The good, full pods have to be scraped from the beans.
After an hour of this, my cuticles were dirty and I had maybe two cups of green and yellowish chickpeas. I cooked them with green garlic, lots of carrots and some chopped-up Bledsoe slab bacon and ended up producing two very small bowls of a quite tasty soup. It would have been great with some bread.
A good carb is hard to find
Eating locally was like embarking on the South Beach Diet inadvertently. The main starch I found, aside from potatoes, was rice. While there’s a lot of rice grown in this area, the only producer I know of that is branded (and thus certain to be from within a 100-mile radius) is Lundberg Family Farms, which also produces rice cakes and other items at its plants in tiny Richvale, 73 miles north of here.
Lundberg’s rice is sold nationwide, but they’re grown in a belt stretching from the northern Sacramento Valley, near Red Bluff, south to Pleasant Grove and west to Willows. The Lundbergs operate their own mill, which is unusual in the rice business. When the company, a pioneer in growing rice organically, wanted to sell directly to customers, they couldn’t find a mill that was willing to handle such small quantities, so they built their own. “My dad and uncles built the smallest rice mill in California at the time [in 1959],” said Jessica Lundberg, board chairwoman. “They were able to mill orders individually, and we work on the same system now, with the flexibility to mill product as needed throughout the year, but it started out very grass-roots, just responding to customers.”
Lundberg noted that while the company has long since gone national, support for their enterprise in the Sacramento Valley is still strong. “We’re members of the community,” she said. “We live here, and my dad and uncles and cousins were all involved in the community. I think people like to have a relationship with their food and know where it’s coming from and who grows it.”
I agree. I grew up in Chico, not far from Richvale, and my father’s almond orchard is just four miles from there. When I buy a bag of Lundberg rice, I can picture the flat North Valley landscape ringed with blue mountains, the crossroads of the small town, and the Richvale Café. If the rice is good—as Lundberg’s certainly is—so much the better. My favorite discovery during the month was compensating for the loss of traditional breakfast cereal by improvising a not-too-sweet apricot rice pudding made with Lundberg basmati, Blenheim apricots, milk, eggs and honey.
But what about bread, the staff of life? There isn’t any, not that I could find. Wheat is grown in this area, and flour is milled in this area, but flour mills mix wheat from all over together, so you can never be sure of just where it comes from. “It’s hard to source [strictly local] grain products,” said Lundberg. “It’s much more efficient for people to commingle all their rice or grain crops together and sell to processors.” This is a problem with all processed foods when you’re in the local mindset. Take canned tomatoes: Vast quantities of canned tomatoes are grown and processed in the Sacramento Valley. But pick up a can of tomatoes at the supermarket and there’s no way to tell what tomatoes it holds or where they came from.When it comes to mass-produced flour, the closest thing I found came from Giusto’s Vita-Grain, which offers an enormous variety of specialty flours, including custom flours (if you’re willing and able to buy in commercial-sized bulk). I talked to Dan Weggenman, vice president-purchaser, who told me that Giusto’s actually sources quite a bit of its wheat locally, including a lot from within 100 miles (of the company’s location in South San Francisco, as well as here in Sacramento). “Most of our wheat is from California, with a lot from the Woodland area,” he said. “Though a lot of the conventional wheat is coming from Montana.” He could guarantee that Giusto’s cracked wheat was coming from the Woodland area, well within the 100-mile radius.
Last year, he said, Giusto’s participated in a local-eating summit. “They put all the foods together that come from within a 100-mile crow’s fly of this area,” he said. “At that time we were doing a whole-wheat pastry flour from here, but we’re not doing that right now because our farmer had a bad year.” The farmer, he said, came from Pleasant Grove (just 21 miles from Sacramento).
Asking the bulk-bin manager at the Sacramento Co-op about local flours earned me a blank stare, but I did find another source: Full Belly Farm, the same place from which I got my CSA, offers whole-wheat flour that they grow and mill from heirloom wheat varieties. I ordered 5 pounds, at a buck a pound, and tried making my own bread. Unfortunately, the wheat is a softer variety, too low in protein to form adequate gluten for rising. (The farm’s Web site warned that was the case, but I wanted to try it anyway.) I kneaded my loaf of bread for nearly 20 minutes, but when it came out of the oven it was the exact size, shape and density of a wheaty, golden brick. I ate it anyway, slice by heavy slice; it wasn’t bad toasted. On another evening, I made some sandy-textured biscuits.
That covers the old-fashioned food groups: fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, and breads and cereals. But what, as a friend asked me, about sugar? I used honey at breakfast, but without flour there was no point in trying to bake. Cane sugar was obviously out; I heard that there’s white sugar being produced in Tracy from Central Valley-grown sugar beets, but I had nothing to put white sugar in so I didn’t bother trying to seek it out. (At one point I simmered some apricots in a bottle of a white Clarksburg dessert wine, which made a lovely dessert.) Fats, though, were a little easier to come by than sweeteners. Local olive oil is plentiful and excellent, and butter was also available.
I missed something else more than I thought I would, though: spices, as well as condiments. Despite all the food writing that waxes lyrical about the deep intrinsic flavor of fresh local food, a lot of it would be much more interesting with a sprinkle of black pepper on the pork chops, or some crushed coriander seeds on the salad, cumin in a lamb burger, or Dijon mustard in a salad dressing.
I had plenty of fresh herbs from my garden—mint, basil, parsley, oregano, sage, rosemary, tarragon, chives, even shiso—and onions and garlic, so those added flavor. But by the end of the month I was beginning to see why spices were once so desirable as to inspire discoveries and imperial conquests. The appeal of perfect ingredients cooked simply so they taste like themselves is strong, but sometimes you want food to taste just a little more complex than that.
By the last couple of days of my local-eating experiment, I was ready to be done with it already. My growing apathy showed in the last meal I made, on June 30: I roasted a chicken in the morning, and we ate it cold for dinner, with some beets I’d roasted at the same time. I sprinkled the beet wedges with some goat cheese, but I was tired, not terribly hungry, and unambitious.
The all-but-naked beets were really the part that seemed sad, especially when my husband got up to get a bag of arugula he’d bought, as well as some salad dressing, to augment them. I love arugula with beets. They’re a perfect match, the peppery leaves against the earthy-sweet roots. I looked for the place of production somewhere in the bag’s fine print.
“Oh, just eat the arugula,” said my husband. “Who cares?”
“Irwindale, California,” I said, and went to get out the atlas. It turned out to be somewhere outside of Los Angeles, and so I left the arugula off my plate—not because it really mattered at that late stage. The next day I was going to eat regular food again, and my husband already had bought and paid for the arugula. But I would have felt pretty stupid for breaking down over a few greens with five hours left in the month.
The next day, indeed, I did go back to non-local eating. It was my daughter’s second birthday and I baked a cake, and set out goldfish crackers at her birthday party (as well as some local fruit). But I also went to the farmers’ market and picked up some Bledsoe pork and peaches from Newcastle (now I know which orchard grows my favorite) and more of the other local foods I’d been relying on all month.
Will I continue eating locally? Is there a way for us all to reduce food miles and the impact of our food? Well, no and yes—a qualified no and yes. I am not going to become a permanent locavore, even with the exceptions that I employed during my local-eating month. Sacramento yields an awful lot of great produce year-round, and there’s plenty of meat, but a life without bread is not really one I’m prepared to live. There is a reason for trade and specialization in agriculture: There are plenty of areas that can grow, say, wheat but would be poor for growing apples, and so it makes sense to use those for highly portable wheat—and to transport that wheat to areas that can’t produce it for themselves. On the other hand, some areas that ought to be rich, diverse growing regions—for instance, Iowa—now rely on single crops, such as corn, and produce them to wretched excess.
It was, however, eye-opening to see just how well I could eat and how rich Sacramento’s foodshed is. We spent much of July traveling, but now that I’m back I want to continue relying largely on local produce and meats. And I’d like to continue reducing processed foods, the stuff that comes from nowhere and everywhere. Not throwing handfuls of that stuff in my mouth absentmindedly was one of the primary benefits of this month-long experiment, as was feeling a greater connection to the surrounding agricultural community.
Evans reached similar conclusions after her local-eating experiment. “Trade is a good thing, but we’ve lost the knowledge of how to feed ourselves from our place,” she said. “This is the point: to regain that knowledge about your place and how to feed yourself, and to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It’s not to say you can never eat another lychee nut or chocolate bar. I gained an incredible appreciation of what we do have.”
Perhaps the enduring lesson from my month of local eating was this: In the Central Valley, you can feed yourself better and more healthily on food from the farmers’ market than on the stuff trucked in from goodness knows where. If you know where your food comes from, you probably also have a pretty good idea what’s in it. We all make dozens—even hundreds—of choices about what to eat every day. If we consciously choose local foods even one-tenth of the time—in season, and in areas where it’s feasible—it will benefit small farms and cut down on the use of fossil fuels in transporting food. If we all try to seek out some local foods, we’ll be doing something good for our region and ourselves. It would be a start.