I confess: I’m guilty of wanton lust. It happened in the aisle of our neighborhood Fresh Market this afternoon, when I was suddenly confronted with a display piled high with gorgeous imported chocolates. Here I was, on the very first day of the 2008 Eat Local Challenge — an entire month pledged to consuming only foods grown and produced within 200 miles of my front door — and I had wandered smack into the valley of the shadow of Godiva… my favorite luxury.
But I was headed for the produce department, and I was on a quest. The Fresh Market is a wonderful and eclectic grocery, a feast for the senses where classical music wafts overhead through air scented with exotic spices, and I knew it had the most impressive vegetables in town. Even better, every item is labeled with the area of origin. I live in a mostly rural state, in a city surrounded by agriculture: vast cotton and soybean fields lie just beyond the suburbs; I’ve seen sweet potatoes growing out there, and Silver Queen corn. So I naturally assumed that our local grocery stores would be well stocked with South Alabama produce, right?
Well, not exactly. Fresh from South America…Product of Mexico..Washington State…Carmel Valley, California. Feeling deflated, I spoke with a representative of the store’s produce section. He was kind and sympathetic, but he couldn’t help.
“Within 200 miles?” he repeated thoughtfully. “No, we don’t have a single thing. We had some local okra a while back, but we don’t have any now.” Suddenly, I felt the circle drawn on my map start to shrink.
My next stop was the organic produce counter at a spacious new health food market. I was surprised and disappointed to strike out again. The beautiful winter squash, broccoli crowns, tomatoes and onions, piled up in tantalizing pyramids, all wore cheerful stickers attesting to the fact that they had traveled more than 1,000 miles from farms in Mexico. (Amazingly, that’s still considerably less than the 1,500 miles an average food product travels in the US… a practice that gobbles up 100 billion gallons of oil every year. Check out the journey from the farm to your fridge with video artist Molly Scwartz in Watch Your Foodometer.)
“I’m so sorry,” said the young woman at the cash register in the health food market. “We’re working on getting a contract for some local produce. I don’t know if it will be this month.”
So, it’s going to be a skimpy menu at my table for a couple of days, until the first Farmer’s Market of the fall season kicks off downtown. We lost the contents of our freezer (including some of our summer garden bounty) last month when the door failed to close properly. But I won’t starve — outside, the tender baby kale is ready to be thinned. Our homemade yogurt qualifies for the Challenge, because it’s made from milk produced inside my map circle. Likewise the block of homemade mozzarella cheese, which I sliced at lunchtime and enjoyed with a big dollop of the green tomato chow-chow that The Perfect Man created from our summer harvest. Tomorrow evening, when I’m caught up on illustration work, I plan to do a little bread baking. It will be simple fare until Saturday, and then I’ll plot a course for next week.
Ouch, it got a little harder than expected… Isn’t it funny how proud they shout out loud that their products come from distant lands as if it was something good? You well pointed out, it wastes these zillions gallons of oil every year! Arght! I do hope you don’t get discouraged and find a way of keeping yourselves into the program, it would be great!
I’m crossing fingers for you!
Kisses from Nydia.
Thanks for your good wishes, Nydia! I’m not discouraged, just motivated to launch a serious local-food hunt. I could live on yogurt and collard greens if I really had to… but I don’t think it will come to that.
Mike on the road said:
You certainly have an original flare for illustration and information.
I enjoyed reading some post and was glad to have visited.
Hi Val – I take it you don’t shop much at Fresh Market ; ) I too have been disappointed by the local offerings at Virginia’s – right now they have only local honey and Henrietta’s goat milk (priced about $1 more per half gallon than you can get it at Jimmy Lowe’s). Unless you are driving the back roads looking for roadside stands, the only other hope of getting local produce outside of the farmers markets is at Jimmy Lowe’s. The last time I was there they had Mississippi sweet potatoes and Sand Mountain tomatoes (that’s outside the range, but at least from Alabama), in addition to the goat milk. Good luck at the market tomorrow; I’m out of town but my husband is supposed to be scouting for me. BTW, what milk are you using for your yogurt & cheese?
How discouraging that there is such a lack of local products! We have a big chain supermarket here in Vermont (Price Chopper) which has a huge produce section with no local products that I’m aware of. Our other supermarket is a locally owned business with three stores, and they carry a small selection of local products, both fresh produce and locally produced food such as bread and salsa. They started selling organic produce a few years ago, but it tends to be over-packaged. The organic pears and apples, for example, are packaged by threes on a styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic! I’m planning on asking them to change that. If I explain that the same people who will want to buy organic will tend to shun excess packaging, maybe they will listen. For the best selection of local food, I shop the farmer’s market and out local food co-op.
I love your illustrations!
It’s difficult to find locally grown anything where I live too. It’s pretty discouraging. I often settle for “grown in the USA” preferring that to other countries at least. Good luck in your quest. I would have caved at the godiva display!
Good for you! It’s definitely hard to do, I’ve never worked up the courage. Although reading Joan Dye Gussow’s book “This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader” years ago finally turned on the lightbulb in my brain about local eating. Maybe enough folks in your region will demand local produce and the markets will respond. I have heard that it’s hard to get chains to comply, since they want to use a single source to supply all their stores of a particular item, and small local farms are usually not capable of doing that. Good luck with the sourcing!
We had wonderful apples in our back yard and I’m in Alabama about 200 miles from Mobile- but they were ready to eat in August, of all things! I always think of apples as a fall fruit, but these were wonderful. We just moved to this yard and didn’t know what to expect.
I sure wish I knew how you were planning to preserve 50 cabbage plants! If I knew a good way to do that, I would grow more than the six I’ve planted.
Good luck finding everything you need!