Monday, May 17, 2010

Learning Through Doing

While chopping mint last night I realized that Charlie and I are nearing the 2-month mark for our year-long locavore project. It's amazing to think we're just shy of being 1/6 of the way through! In that short period of time I feel like I've already learned so much. Since lists are easy to navigate, here's a collection of 10 things I've learned this far into our locavore project.

10 Things I've Learned So Far

1. Eating locally doesn't have to be expensive.
I start with this because it addresses one of the great fears I had when this project began. Going into this I knew there would a number of cooking challenges and that we would have to do without some things, but I didn't know if we would really be able to afford to eat this way for an entire year. Sure, I could put together one local meal, but could we actually eat 80% locally for a year without destroying our budget? It turns out that we can. I've been carefully tracking our food expenses since we started, and we're actually spending about 30% less on food than we did before the project. Yes, you read that correctly -- 30%. Isn't that huge! There are several factors that contribute to the drop in our food costs: we're not eating out as often, we buy fewer "fancy" ingredients (i.e. truffle oil), and we eat almost every scrap of food we purchase (more on that in a moment). Since we're eating seasonally we're planning menus around what we have instead of planning a menu and then hitting the grocery store. It's surprising how cost-effective that can be.
Which leads me to...

2. When it's all local there's less waste
March 20 was the official start date for this project, but we started easing into it last November. I really didn't see any way we could go from shopping and eating like most people to an 80% local diet without a fairly lengthy transition period, and I'm glad that's the way it happened. Aside from the shock of actually saving money I was also happily surprised by how thoroughly we cleaned out the fridge each week without throwing away any food. In November there was only one farmers market available to me (the glorious Morningside Farmers Market), and almost all of our veggies came from my single Saturday trip. I was surprised how much our refrigerator changed throughout the course of a week: on Saturday our refrigerator was packed with fresh vegetables, and by Friday it was almost completely empty! Since our choices were limited, we ate every bite of every vegetable including beet greens and carrot tops. Instead of hitting the grocery store when we want something a little different we now "shop" in our previously-overstocked pantry. We've eaten our way through all the lentils I stocked up on over a year ago (now why did I do that?), bags of dried beans, boxes of noodles, powdered lemonade, and one tasty box of Duncan Hines brownies. The pantry supply lessens every week, and soon we'll be down to nothing but a few sheets of nori and that box of powdered sugar I've been saving for something special.
So, we now have almost no food waste at all. It's a wonderful little bonus this project has given us.

3. Eating locally means giving up some things.
Of course I knew this before we started the project, but I did not know which things would actually be missed. My guesses were things like white sugar, chocolate, bananas, avocados, and ginger ale. Two months in I don't really care about any of those. The things I actually miss the most are popcorn, citrus, seafood (!), and chicken. Yes, chicken. I live in the chicken capital of the world and can't find a decent source of local, free-range chicken! This is like that whole ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife thing Alanis was talking about.
Bottom line: you can't eat locally without giving up some things.

4. Adventurous eating is a requirement.
Ever tried a rutabaga? I hadn't until this project began. When it's the middle of March and you're staring at the same vegetables you've been eating day in and day out for the last 3 months it's time to try something new. This is how I discovered that rutabagas are amazing! Not just okay -- really tasty! Whole wheat berries, duck eggs, sunchokes, kohlrabi, ruby turnips, watermelon radishes, and tatsoi are also wonderful, each in their own way. I hadn't tried any of these foods until this project began. Not everything has worked out (for example, lamb's quarters -- not my cup of tea), but most of the new foods I've tried have been really great. If you want to eat locally I think adventurous eating is a must.

5. This isn't for everyone.
I'm really enjoying the challenge of eating locally, but I know it's not for everyone. This project would be much tougher if I had kids, dietary restrictions, or didn't like to cook. There are plenty of ways to eat that are ethical, sustainable, and healthy. I believe the local diet meets all of those requirements, but it's a lot of work.
Having said that, however, I do think most people can easily add a few fresh, local foods to their diets. Farmers markets are springing up all over the country, and they offer tons of delicious local goodies. Just changing a few shopping habits (asking about local produce at the grocery store, buying local veggies when you can, planning one meal a week that focuses on a local ingredient, eating in restaurants that buy from local farms) can go a long way toward supporting small-scale farmers devoted to sustainable farming practices.

6. If you want to eat locally you have to cook. A lot.
I really, really, really love to cook. It's one of the few things I still regularly pour my creative energy into, and I find it to be a great stress reliever. Even so, this has tested me. Aside from a salad, everything has to be cooked! There are no potato chips for snacking on, and there's no quick bowl of cereal for breakfast. If I want to eat it then I have to cook it, and that takes a lot of time. Usually I don't mind so much, but it does occasionally feel like a chore.
Not only is constantly cooking a huge part of making this work, there's also a ton of planning required. Here's a very simple example. We didn't have any bread last week. We went out of town the previous weekend, had plans every night, and there just wasn't a 4-hour stretch in which to make it! I would have made quick biscuits instead of a yeast bread, but I didn't have any buttermilk, and it has to be ordered a week in advance. So, no bread for a week. This is not the worst thing in the world. We had plenty of other delicious things to eat, but the bread was blown because of poor planning. These are the challenges this project presents, and I gladly accept them. Still, sometimes it would be nice to just pick up a loaf of bread at the grocery store!

7. Local, fresh produce really is better.
No carrot at the grocery store can ever compare to a sweet baby carrot eaten 6 hours after it was picked. It's just not possible. I've been complaining a little bit about the challenges this project presents, but let me tell you, the food is amazing. Even the simplest dishes are fresh, bright, and flavorful. When this year is over I'm sure I'll go back to buying some things at the grocery store, but I'm sold on fresh, local produce forever.

8. If you eat high quality meat you require less of it.
The majority of the meat we've been eating comes from Riverview Farms. They raise Berkshire pigs using traditional farming methods and grass-fed cows. Wow! I've never been a die-hard carnivore, but I love the meat we've been getting.
My husband, Charlie, sits in a completely different camp from me on the whole meat thing. He requires it and can tear through a steak like no one I've ever seen (slight exaggeration). Even he has been really pleased with the meat and has been satisfied eating less of it. Grass-fed burgers, steaks, pot roasts, and such are more filling than beef that comes from a CAFO. It is more expensive pound for pound, but since we need less of it to be satisfied it works out.

9. Losing weight may be a side effect.
I debated over whether I should even add this to list as weight loss was not a goal of this project. I am at a healthy weight, and I've long given up the idea of being supermodel skinny. Having said that, I have unintentionally lost a little bit of weight since we've started this project. It's not much, maybe 5 - 7 lbs, but my jeans are noticeably looser on my hips. This probably has more to do with knocking processed foods completely out of my diet more than anything else.
Ummm...that's not something that happens to me. I have NEVER accidentally lost weight. Like I said, that wasn't a one of the reasons for doing this project, but I'll take it!

10. Treats are treats.
This could actually be split into two things I've learned: treats are treats and seasonality is exciting. Instead I've decided to put them together because eating seasonally and cutting out processed and non-local foods has changed the way I categorize treats. Before, a treat generally consisted of a bowl of ice cream, a slice of cake, or a Snickers bar. Those are still wonderful treats, of course, but other things now hold spots on the treat list as well. Strawberries, for example, have been the most amazing spring treat, and when I found local, heavy cream from grass-fed cows to accompany them I was in absolute heaven. Each time a new veggie that I love shows up at the market I get that oooooh-I'm-going-to- get-some-cake feeling. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I swear it's the truth. It is a truly exciting day when you find spring onions and new potatoes at the market after going months without. Treats are now treats again for me, and I love that.

So, that's my list for now. What do you think?


  1. This is a great post, with some really surprising insights. I have readers at my blog try to tell me all the time that healthy food or local food is too expensive--and therefore it's elitist and not an option for "normal" people on a budget. Thanks for showing concrete evidence that this thinking is limiting and clearly not true.

    Keep it going!
    Casual Kitchen

  2. LOVE your blog. Found the link at Daniel's site.

    And I LOVE tatsoi too. And am happy I live where avocados are plentiful.