Sage Van Wing was managing a small bookstore when she became captivated by a book about food, though not just any book. Not Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay, but "Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods," professor Gary Paul Nabhan's one-year quest to eat foods only within a 250-mile radius of his home in Arizona's Sonoran Desert.
"I thought, If this guy can do this in the middle of the desert we ought to be able to do it in California," she says.
Why not? She was an enthusiastic customer of Berkeley's farmer's market where she'd made friends with several people, including Jessica Prentice, an author and teacher of local cooking classes. When Van Wing told her about the idea to eat only local foods for a month, Prentice signed on, the first of several enthusiastic partners.
"The more I thought about it, the more I thought this was just a great idea," Prentice recalls. Within a day, they had a web page outlining an eating locally challenge on Prentice's “Wise Food Ways” site and had issued a press release, which attracted the attention of a newspaper reporter looking to do a story on food and sustainability.
However, there was a problem with their nascent movement: the name. Van Wing’s moniker, Foodshed for Thought, wasn’t appetizing enough, according to the reporter. So Prentice, a self-professed word fan began bopping around the Internet looking at Greek and Latin roots for ideas and came up with a name: Locavore. Within days of the story's publication on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, googling "locavore" turned up dozens of hits.
A movement -- or, more accurately, one version of a movement -- had been born. Van Wing and Prentice soon discovered they were just a couple of the many foodies worldwide exploring similar alternatives. One couple in Toronto was writing about their adventures on the “100-Mile Diet.” Evidence of the growing passion for local foods was clear in the steep rise in farmer’s markets, which have roughly doubled in number to about 3,800 since 1994.
“It was an idea ready to bubble up to the surface,” Prentice says.
Locally grown produce, meat and fish, they say, tastes better, is more nutritious, and is sustainable, a far better choice for the Earth.
To them, it’s a return to simpler, more practical and wiser days. Modern industrial farming relies extensively on fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and the transportation to get products to a global market.
Richard Pirog of the LeopoldCenter for Sustainable Agriculture at IowaStateUniversity calculates that produce travels an average of 1,500 miles in three days to reach his state — and even more to the East Coast. Locally grown food traveled an average of just 45 miles. By comparing the fuel necessary, he concluded that the global food distribution system uses four to 17 times the fossil fuel and emits five to 17 times the total carbon dioxide – greenhouse gas – than a local system.
A head of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C. requires 36 times as much fossil fuel energy just to transport as it provides in food energy, notes Brian Halweil, a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Institute.
“Everyone is dependent on foreign food, which gobbles a tremendous amount of oil and as oil goes up in price, imported food will be less and less viable, “ says Halweil, the author of “Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket.” “We’re going to pay for this cheaper long distance food down the line, whether it’s the consequences of all the energy use and the greenhouse gas emissions or whether it’s in the form of food safety disasters. It’s not hard to argue that the big spinach recall we had recently was directly a result of how concentrated and dependent on shipping our food system has become.”
The Sierra Club, noting the “huge impact” eating habits have on the environment, last year (2006) unveiled its “True Cost of Food” Campaign, urging people to eat sustainably by buying locally grown, organic food as much as possible.
When the locavores delved into the food system, ironies abounded. Prentice discovered, for instance, that though California is a major grower of almonds, it was almost impossible to get locally grown nuts because they were spoken for on the export market.
Their first challenge was simple. For the month of August 2005, Van Wing, Prentice and dozens of others pledged to eat only foods grown within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco. What struck Van Wing was how difficult it was, even in California, where the Central Valley is a major breadbasket for the world. Neither she nor Prentice are doctrinaire about the pursuit; they note that different locavore groups have different rules with some permitting "Marco Polo" exceptions -- exemptions for items like spices and herbs you can fit in your pocket. And anyone is free to make their own rules. Coffee, for instance, is unavailable and some have decided they simply can't go without it.
"The really important thing about this movement is to put it in a global context," Van Wing says. "It's localization vs. globalization and we think maybe there's a better paradigm, maybe relying on the Third World to grow monocrops isn't the best way. When you go to the grocery store, think about where your food comes from and make choices based on that."
It seems eaters – at least some eaters – are thinking about those choices. Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” became a bestseller. Prentice, who has been championing sustainable and organic foods for years, published “Full Moon Feast,” a book chronicling the 13 lunar cycles and offering seasonal recipes for each. Web sites and blog posts proliferated, including www.Eatlocalchallenge.com, www.localharvest.org, and www.sustainabletable.org. Whole Foods, the 187-store grocery chain, last year started acting as a host to weekly farmers’ markets in some parking lots and set up an annual $10 million loan program for local farmers.
In the 2007 Zagat restaurant survey, almost three quarters of restaurant goers on the West Coast and more than half on the East Coast said they would pay more for food raised sustainably. Last fall, organizers at the American Culinary Federation national conference predicted that sustainable and seasonal ingredients as well as "authentic, natural and fresh" would be two of the four major trends of the coming year for restaurants.
Of course, Alice Waters has famously championed organic and local products for more than three decades, using her award-winning restaurant, Chez Panisse, as a bully pulpit. The trickle that followed has developed into a strong current. The Chefs Collaborative, an organization of chefs devoted to promoting sustainable cuisine was founded in 1993. An increasing number of restaurants as diverse as the trendy Cookshop in Manhattan's Chelsea, which lists favorite local producers on a bulletin board, and Vintage Kitchen in Norfolk, Virginia, which credits them on the menu, showcase eating locally.
"It's the right thing to do," says Phillip Craig Thomason, Vintage Kitchen's owner and chef. "We've moved so far from our roots that it's important for me to support the locals and, in the process be supported by them. The products are fresher and more nutritious because they're closer to home."
Thomason focuses on Virginia products, offering artisan cheese from Everona Dairy, pork from nearby Smithfield Farms and a changing array of local vegetables and seafood. It’s a restaurant version of what Prentice, Van Wing and an increasing number of other locavore chapters from New Hampshire to Ohio to Washington state are doing in their kitchens.
Prentice and Van Wing are not food Luddites. They don’t think we can or should return to the agriculture of a century ago. But they think it’s vital for the pendulum to swing back some. “It’s not a return to the old, but some interesting and hard to predict hybrid, something efficient enough along with the things that have worked for thousands of years,” Prentice says.
"To me, “she adds, “eating locally for a month takes somebody on this path to really understanding what it takes to get the food to your table. The eat local challenge is really about setting a chunk of time aside where people come face to face with their food, where it comes from, and then they start to make choices about that. "
“Food, “she notes, “is not just about a full belly.”