On the first day of spring last year, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon made a drastic decision: For a full year they would eat only food grown and produced within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Their aim: to have an eye-to-eye relationship with the people growing their food, to cut down on fossil-fuel use and to reconnect with their community.
The couple, both writers, called it the 100-Mile Diet and chronicled the experiment in a local online journal. They were overwhelmed by the response. Their cybercolumn attracted 40,000 readers, and they heard from people around the world.
They finished their yearlong trial in March but still advocate local eating and launched a Web site in April. They share their experience with Tracy Loew for USA TODAY.
Question: What prompted you to start this?
Answer: The defining moment was when we were at our cabin up north in northern British Columbia. It’s very remote. We bring in supplies for a two-week period. We were running out of food, had friends visiting and had to feed them. We made the meal entirely out of food available there: fish, mushrooms grown in the forest. It was delicious. We thought to ourselves, “How can we eat like that in the city?”
Question: Was it more expensive?
Answer: Initially what we were finding was very limited and very expensive. But overall, it was cheaper. As summer advanced, we started buying vegetables in bulk. Sometimes it would feel expensive if you were buying 50 pounds of tomatoes, but we would can them. By winter, I could walk to the freezer and the cupboard for things we’d canned and put together a meal as quickly as people do with microwaveables from the grocery store and at a lower cost.
Question: What did you miss most?
Answer: We lost weight at the start, mainly because we didn’t find a local source for wheat. We were suddenly going without bread or pancakes or pasta. Life was good as soon as we got past that.
We did do without tropical fruit, olives, lemons, citrus. We couldn’t find olive oil.
Question: Did you feel healthier?
Answer: We definitely felt healthy. People would ask us, ‘Are you wasting away?’ To the contrary: The things we were eating were picked that day. Things in the grocery store can be picked weeks before.
Question: Did you discover new foods?
Answer: We ate all kinds of things that we’d never had before. Purslane, amaranth, an herb called yerba mora. We ate enormous numbers of decadently delicious berries that we hadn’t even been aware of until this experiment. Some of the surprises were foods we didn’t know were grown in our region, like cantaloupe and walnuts. If you see them in the store here, they’re always from California.
Question: Did you cheat?
Answer: There was one product we never could find a local source for, and that’s salt. Salt is pretty important for basic survival. We do intend to try to manufacture sea salt this winter.
Question: Do you have tips for people who want to try this?
Answer: Farmers markets are the very best place to start. Go there every week and make it the first place you buy your produce. The things you can’t buy there, get at the supermarket. Try to grow some of your own food if you can. Also, try preserving. That way you can have local food through the winter.
Question: Are you still on the diet?
Answer: When the experiment was over, certain things did creep back into our diet: chocolate, olives, some cooking oils. But it’s not hard to continue eating 90 percent local foods.
Question: Eating locally isn’t exactly a new idea. What makes this different?
Answer: We come at it from a consumer point of view. By putting it in this 100-mile framework, we kind of give people a simple, accessible way to start thinking about how they might eat locally. We did it in a very strict way as an experiment so we could learn as much as possible. But the message we bring out is anybody can try this at whatever level they feel comfortable.
More on the Web
● For more information or to join the 100-Mile Diet: www.100milediet.org
● If you are interested in taking a similar approach to eating, check out these groups:
> Slow Food Tucson: http://slowfoodtucson.org
> Community Gardens of Tucson: www.communitygardensoftucson.org/index.html
> Heritage Foods USA: www.heritagefoodsusa.com/index.html
> Native Seeds/SEARCH: www.nativeseeds.org
> Arizona farmers markets: www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/States/Arizona.htm
> Tucson-Pima Public Library: www.lib.ci.tucson.az.us