Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Eating Local: UR DOIN IT RONG

Not that I want to give any more press to a person who's undoubtedly had more than his 15 minutes' worth already, but I do want to comment briefly on the "Salem Diet" guy, Justin Rothboeck. Rothboeck is a law student in Salem, OR who decided he would eat only foods grown locally for a year; this Monday, with four months to go, he called off his effort because he had gained weight and found he was driving all over the Willamette Valley to find local food, producing more carbon than he was saving.

Now, I get the appeal of gimmicks like this. They're great for launching book deals, as "No Impact Man" is well aware. But if you really have to drive everywhere to eat local--where "eating local" is defined as "within the two adjoining states of Washington and Oregon"--you're doing something horribly, horribly wrong. Either that, or failure is part of your gimmick.

Let's look at Salem Diet guy's rules. First, everything in his diet had to be produced, packaged, and processed in Oregon or Washington. So far so good. But wait: That includes everything--meaning, no salt, pepper or other spices unless they're produced locally. That's the gimmick part. He also ruled out shopping at chains--a somewhat arbitrary decision that eliminated lots of supermarket chains that sell a wider selection of products than your typical natural co-op, including stuff that's local. Bizarrely in light of all those rules, he still "allowed" himself to still eat out, although he restricted himself to restaurants that make an effort to serve local products. He also made an exception for eating at friends' houses.

Despite all his exceptions (and in part because of his arbitrary refusal to shop at Safeway or Fred Meyer), Salem Diet guy couldn't do it. In the end, he writes, he found that eating local took too much time, was too expensive (he seems particularly exercised at the idea of a $6 loaf of bread), "took the fun out of cooking," and made him fat, in part because he started eating too much meat.

Leaving aside the fact you can't say "I'll only eat local" and then get pissed that you can't find fresh bananas, I don't buy that he "had" to drive everywhere and eat tons of meat. This week, my CSA box from Full Circle Farm--which I'm picking up on foot and carrying home on the bus tomorrow--includes locally grown beets, parsnips, carrots, red onions, sunchokes, lettuce, and apples. You can't tell me I can't make a meal out of all that--and Salem has plenty of CSA options to choose from. Many will deliver right to your door -- no driving necessary! I also wouldn't consider a local-only diet without starting a garden first. In fact, the more I look at Rothboeck's diet, the more I realize how much it resembles my own.

In fairness, Rothboeck's absolutely right that the seasonality issue is a tough one. However, it's one that many, many locavores have learned to deal with. Eating locally in the winter does mean you'll be eating lots of roots and leaves. You can see that as a burden, or a challenge. When the alternative is eating out-of-season tomatoes and broccoli (both on Rothboeck's post-locavore grocery list for this week), it shouldn't be that tough a call. The fact that Rothboeck's "experiment" failed is due more to culinary dogmatism, pickiness, and an unwillingness to embrace what's available in one of the most productive regions of America than it is to the inherent shortfalls of eating local.

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