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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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"Eat Local for Global Change" - 09.12.06
By Rose Dickson, The Navigator (Malaspina College)

If the ingredients of an average meal have traveled 2400 kms from the field to the table, then our dinner is better traveled than most of us are.

Enter a seemingly new, yet obviously very old idea: The Hundred-Mile Diet. Like the slow-food movement that contests fast food culture and reminds us of the virtues of a home-cooked meal, the Hundred-Mile Diet seeks to keep us close to our roots, literally. Unlike most, this diet isn't about losing weight, unless you count kilograms of diesel exhaust. The goal is to consume food that is produced within a 100-mile radius of where you live.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, a new idea called the "green revolution" sparked the beginning of industrial agriculture. With the intention of feeding the hungry and creating food security for all, the era brought high yielding hybrid crops, a concentration on cereal crops such as wheat and corn, the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and increasingly mechanized means of production.

As well, it was the beginning of mono-cropping, where only one crop is grown over huge expanses of land, and the increasing dependency of farmers on external sources, namely seed companies and fertilizer manufacturers, to sustain their farms. Another impact was the localization of agriculture; regions that could not support the new trend of huge mono-crops stopped being growing regions. People in those areas now had to import food from other regions.

In addition to greater quantities of food, a firm dependence on the monetary and transportation systems was being produced. Biodiversity, that is the existence of a wide variety of species, was greatly reduced in both wild and cultivated plant and animal species due to the increasing dependence on fewer and fewer crop varieties and the pesticides applied to those crops. While a few were able to grow more, mechanization meant that many lost their jobs on farms. People migrated to urban areas to get new jobs so they could afford to buy their food.

Today, this system is the norm. Genetic engineering is like the new "green revolution", creating pesticide-ready seeds and "terminator technology", crops that do not produce seed, further perpetuating the farmer's reliance on corporations. Developing nations that were once self-sufficient in their food production now grow crops like coffee, cotton, sugar, and bananas, selling them for very little to the international market. Workers are dependent on food aid to survive, as their wages are too low to meet their needs or their region is growing only non-food crops. In Canada, the ingredients for the average meal travel at least 24,000 kms to get to the consumer.

Vancouver-based writers Alisa Smith and James B. MacKinnon began as an experiment, a year-long commitment to eating locally on March 21, 2005. Deciding that 100 miles was a reasonable distance, they set that as their local limit. The idea, and name, was so catchy that it quickly spawned offshoots all over Canada and internationally as the couple published popular articles about their experiences on (now also available on their website <100milediet.org>).

There are many reasons why it is a good idea to consume locally grown and processed food. Local food travels less and therefore is the cause of less fossil fuel consumption and the resultant pollution. Also, as a general rule, smaller farms tend to use less or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, resulting in farms that are easier on the ecosystem and produce that is easier on your body.

In addition, by buying local we are directly contributing to our local economy. We are also helping to maintain biodiversity, as smaller growers often grow unusual and heirloom varieties of fruit not available commercially. Finally, food that doesn't have to travel for a week before it makes it into a grocery warehouse can be picked when it is actually ripe, sold before it begins to wilt or rot, and needs no chemical ripeners or anti-sprouting agents commonly applied to commercial produce.

It also tastes better and has more vitamins. In fact, it tastes so much better that with some foods, it's almost hard to believe it's in the same species as what is sold on grocery store shelves. Anyone who has ever eaten a fresh-picked, sun-warm tomato knows the sweet tang and full juicy burst of flavour is no comparison to most of the grainy, bland reddish balls commercially available.

Once one begins considering where food comes from and how it is grown, processed and transported, a price discrepancy may be noticed. For instance, why is that fruit shipped half-way around the world, grown with fertilizers and pesticides that had to be purchased, and covered in waxes, often sell for cheaper than local, organically grown and unwaxed fruit? The truth is, there are many factors at work affecting the cost of our food. Labour costs in other countries are often less than what they are here in Canada, so in the case of produce from Mexico, harvesting and shipping combined may still be cheaper than harvesting something locally. Furthermore, the largest agricultural companies who have greater assets and can absorb more losses often set the prices. Smaller growers who experience a bad growing season, or who may have higher operating costs than the agri-giants, have to keep their prices competitive and therefore make less money. So the true costs of growing aren't always accurately reflected at the super-market. In addition to these, Smith and MacKinnon describe another important factor: "externalities."

"Externalities - the term economists use to describe the costs (or benefits) of producing an item that affect people other than the producers themselves. Externalities are typically not reflected in prices." They go on to point out that "those hidden costs might include government tax breaks and subsidies to oil companies (which reduce costs of chemical fertilizer, shipping and packaging); government-funded water diversion projects; subsidies to industrial agriculture; support of expensive highway systems; and the downstream costs of agrochemical pollution such as health care and water purification." In other words, the true cost of building and maintaining highways, using fossil fuels, preventing and dealing with the health and environmental problems associated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and exhaust fumes are all "externalities," and therefore are not evident in the food costs. Where they do show up is in our taxes. As Smith and MacKinnon explain, "Instead of each of us paying the true cost of our food choices up front, we buy our food cheap and pay the hidden environmental and social price later as a society." Buying local, while it is occasionally more expensive, has fewer long-term costs.

In their adventures, Smith and MacKinnon have discovered a nearby community where local eating is really taking off: Powell River. The "50 Mile Local Food for Change Challenge", based on the size of the peninsula that is home to Powell River, has over 250 people committed to eating between 25-95 % local food. The challenge, originally started with far more modest intentions, has become so popular in the community that "four different restaurants now serve at least one 50-mile meal each week". Vancouver and Victoria also have restaurants committed to using local producers. Hopefully soon there will be restaurants in Nanaimo also serving local fare, thanks to the efforts of Jenn Lam and other local 100-Mile Diet advocates.

If local communities continue to commit their support to local farmers, those farms have the confidence to expand to meet a growing need, thereby creating a win/win situation for both producer and consumer. By depending more on local growers growing diverse crops, communities ensure a safe and fresh food supply no matter what. Consider this point stated by 100-Mile Diet Nanaimo's Jenn Lam during her recent interview on the radio program 'Changes', that there is only enough food in most community grocery stores to feed the local population for three days. Having a near-by supply of fresh and on-going meat and produce could be life saving in the event of an emergency. Imagine if oil becomes so depleted that its prices skyrocket, taking transportation costs and food costs with it. Imagine if a natural disaster half way across the world means you can't get your staple foods. On Vancouver Island we are dependent on successful land and ocean transport to get our food to us. So far everything has gone relatively smoothly, but there are a lot of variables there that our lives depend on. Personally, I want an established, local food source completely removed from all those "externalities" to ensure the healthy survival of my family. Considering that before the 1950s, Vancouver Island produced 85% of its food needs, including animal feed, I know it is possible to be more self-sufficient again.

Already there are a huge number of diverse food products available in the central Vancouver Island area, selling their food at Farmer's Markets in every community throughout the summer, and some are even open all year round. Within our Nanaimo 161 km range, that is our 100-mile radius, there are local cheese producers, pork and bison farmers, and dozens of farms growing fruits, vegetables and nuts. There is a farm in Sannich growing wheat, and plans in the works for more grain growers and a collective of bakeries committed to using local grains. Our local radius also includes farms as far as Agassiz on the lower mainland. In the summer, even some of our local grocery stores like Thrifty Foods are selling things like Gabriola Island apples, Comox and Sannich blueberries and a whole assortment of produce from the lower mainland. Not only that, our temperate climate means that anyone should be able to grow some vegetables in their own yards all year long.

So do we really need California strawberries in December? By learning to can, make jam, or freeze fresh fruit and berries in season, a person can keep enough local fruit in their house to completely replace their winter foreign fruit purchases. Things like apples store well in a dry, cool, dark place if kept in cardboard boxes with a layer of newspaper between each layer of fruit, or you can turn them into applesauce and can them. Local cherries, or any fruit, can be canned for a summery treat all winter long. Berries can be frozen on a cookie sheet and then transferred to a bag or other freezable container to prevent them from sticking together. Potatoes can be stored over winter, similarly to apples, and things like carrots, beets parsnips, turnips and cabbage may keep in the refrigerator for many months. So don't be afraid to buy bulk produce when it is available. Yes, you spend more money in the beginning, but then have food available year-round, and are totally prepared if an earthquake hits. Harvesting and preserving can be done with friends, so it is more of a social activity than a chore, and it sure beats television as a way to spend your time. "I encourage people to try, do one more thing [to increase their consumption of local foods]" says Lam. "Then when they are comfortable with that, do one more thing."

Community Gardens

If you don't have a yard, or don't know how to start gardening, the Community Gardens are available to anyone wanting to be involved in growing their own food. Nanaimo's Community Garden is located near downtown at 271 Pine St., with another location being started on Irwin St at the Princess Royal Family Center, formally Princess Royal school. Unlike many Community Gardens that allocate private plots to individuals, Nanaimo's garden is a shared system. That means anyone interested can come and get involved at any time, working on existing growing projects. When one gets into the garden, there is usually a board listing the chores that need doing that day, and a handful of people already there working. Ask around and get involved. Your help is welcome, and there may even be produce to take home that day as your immediate reward.

Also working out of the community garden location is the Gleaning Program, which works all over the city picking fruit or nuts in people's yards. If someone has a tree that is ripe and they don't have the time or skills to deal with it, they can call the Gleaning Program. A team will come and pick the fruit, distributing the resulting food between the tree's owners, the gleaners themselves, and the Community Kitchens or local food banks. The Community Kitchens is also operated out of the Pine St. location and is a rentable food-safe kitchen for local community groups to use. In the past they have had workshops teaching people how to can and preserve foods. To contact the Community Kitchens and the Gleaning Program, call 753-7470. To contact the Community Gardens, call 722-2292.

Kale Recipe: Kale is a leafy green vegetable that grows here all year long. It can easily be grown in large quantities in a small yard and even a patio box. Pick the leaves, rinse them, stack them one on top of the other and chop them into 1/2 inch wide strips. Fill a pot (they shrink when cooked) then add lots of water and boil the leaves for about 20 minutes, depending on your kale variety. Kale is a hearty vegetable and takes a lot longer to cook than things like spinach or beet greens. Once they are tender, strain the cooking water, saving it to water your plants (after it cools, of course) or to use as soup stock. Add butter, a bit of apple cider vinegar and salt to the kale. This is the most delicious way I have found to eat kale, and the vinegar helps break down the minerals, making them more absorbable by our bodies. A cup of this eaten daily provides plenty of calcium.

Related Reads:

Saving Seeds As If Our Lives Depended On It by Dan Jason. Jason is a seed supplier based on Salt Spring Island, who also seeds for a wide variety of vegetables and herbs as well as grains and beans. Order this book and others, including growing and natural pest control manuals at

Raising Less Corn, More Hell by former agricultural reporter George B. Pyle. In it, he explains that it isn't a lack of food causing hunger in the world, it is a lack of money and an ineffective agricultural system.

Or Listen to:
Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated radio program produced at Kooteney Co-op Radio in Nelson and broadcast Thursdays from 11am-noon on Radio Malaspina, 101.7fm.

Join the Challenge

September 11-17th is the Nanaimo 100-Mile Diet Challenge Week. At the website 100miledietnanaimo.com you can sign-up to show your support and commitment to local food producers. There you'll also find links to great local eating and growing resources.


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