Food Lovers’ Guide: The Locavore’s Dilemma

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It seems everybody’s eating local these days. But what exactly does that mean? And just how easy is it to do?

Cynthia Goldberg is an unlikely foot soldier in the eat-local movement.

Goldberg, a career counselor at UC Davis, considers herself a city girl. But this past year, she and seven women from her book group decided to raise their own livestock. For meat. For themselves.

It’s slightly insane, she admits.

Goldberg and her buddies are at the far, far edge of the burgeoning locavore movement, which encourages people to eat locally grown and produced food. Sparked in recent years by concerns about the environment and food safety, and fueled by a rash of books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the trend reached its apogee in 2007, when it seemed you couldn’t turn around without hearing somebody wax poetic about the beauty of the 100-mile diet or brag about how she’d used up the salsify in that week’s CSA box. It was the year of the locavore: The New Oxford American Dictionary even named it the best new word of 2007.

But as people were embracing the idea of eating local, they were confronting some thorny questions. What is local food? Is it food produced within 100 miles? 150? How much are you willing to sacrifice in order to eat local? And is eating local actually good for the environment&emdash;or does it just make you feel good?  

For Goldberg and her friends, the decision to eat local had immediate ramifications. The women&emdash;all Davis residents in their 40s and 50s&emdash;had just finished reading Michael Pollan’s critically acclaimed The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which shines an unsparing light on unsavory practices in the U.S. food industry. They were discussing how to incorporate the book’s lessons into their own lives when one of them suggested they raise their own meat.

Member Carla Hunt, who lives on the outskirts of Davis on a 9-acre property with a barn, offered to keep and care for the animals. So the women got two lambs, a pair of calves, three pigs, four ducks and several dozen chickens. Soon after the animals arrived, Hunt was called out of town on family business, and the other seven women had to take over Hunt’s duties. That meant, among other things, driving out to the farm twice a day to bottle-feed the calves.

I was saying to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ recalls Betty Giles, a stay-at-home mom married to a UC Davis professor. We realized this was going to be a lot of work.

Once Hunt returned, the women agreed it was too much work for one person. Pitching in, they faced a steep learning curve as they struggled to master the art of animal husbandry. Throughout the next few months, they tracked down antibiotic-free feed, oversaw the dehorning and castration of the cattle, mucked out stalls and built a portable chicken tractor that allowed them to periodically move their flock to fresh pasture. The worst part of the project, they all agree, was the day they slaughtered the ducks. There were eight women and only four ducks. They decided that, to get a duck, you had to kill a duck. One of the women was so traumatized by the experience, she swore off eating duck for life.

They had the rest of the animals professionally slaughtered, then divvied up the meat. Today, they take pride in knowing that their animals lived, as Goldberg puts it, like kings. I know exactly what they ate, what medicines they were given and how they were treated, she explains. They were happy while they lived, and they died very quickly.

The women say that the process changed them for the better. Yes, they still eat meat, but now they’re mindful that eating meat has its costs&emdash;both for the animal and the person who raised it. We take meat-eating more seriously, says Donna Dekker, one of the group’s members. We don’t eat meat casually any more. We value very highly the meat that we raised.

Patsy Byers doesn’t raise her own meat; she’s a vegetarian. But ever since she heard the term locavore two years ago, the East Sacramento resident has been searching for ways to eat in an environmentally responsible fashion.

Like many locavores, she worries about the carbon footprint of the food she consumes: the amount of water, petroleum and other resources it takes to produce her food, and the resulting effects on the environment. Food miles&emdash;the distance a food travels to far-flung markets&emdash;is another concern.

So she eats local foods in season&emdash;no Chilean strawberries in February, thank you very much. She gets a weekly box of local produce through a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA.

As a member of a group called Relocalize Sacramento, which promotes local food, green design and other sustainability issues, Byers helped organize an eat local potluck at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op in January. Participants were required to make dishes using only ingredients produced within a 100-mile radius of Sacramento.

I was shocked at how hard it was, says Byers. Even at the co-op, I was surprised at how many things come from beyond 100 miles. She couldn’t find local onions or garlic, for instance, or wheat and other grains.

Her weekly CSA box comes from Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, owner of Del Rio Botanical farm in West Sacramento. Peabody Ashworth may be the closest thing to a strict locavore you’re likely to find. (It’s virtually impossible to be a true locavore, especially if you like things like chocolate, coffee or spices that aren’t grown in this hemisphere. One wag came up with the Marco Polo rule, which allows a locavore to eat anything the 13th-century explorer might have had access to.) With her 68-acre organic farm, Peabody Ashworth is so self-sufficient that she almost never goes to the supermarket. Sometimes I need shampoo, she points out.

But in the Sacramento region, even people who don’t live on a farm should be able to eat quite nicely yet still be responsible stewards of the environment, says Peabody Ashworth. You don’t have to limit yourself to 100 miles, or even 150. I should think that staying within Northern California would be more than sufficient to reduce your carbon footprint, says Peabody Ashworth. Or eat within the state. Good grief, that’s just about everything.

One recent Saturday, Byers and her husband, Richard Marens, drove out to Peabody Ashworth’s farm to pick up some Guatemalan black beans. I got a pound in my CSA box, Byers explains. They were so wonderful that we wanted more.

Gail Feenstra, a food systems analyst at UC Davis, might have something to say about the wisdom of driving more than 30 miles round-trip for beans, if reducing food’s carbon footprint is your goal. Feenstra is involved in a study to determine whether locally produced food actually is better for the environment.

In her farm to fork study, re-searchers will track local, organic and conventionally produced foods to quantify all their effects on the environment&emdash;not just food miles, but energy and water use, air pollution, soil health and so on. People just assume, says Feenstra, that local produce is better for the environment than conventional. But a local food that is trucked to many small farmers markets and CSA pickup points might have a greater carbon footprint than a conventional product piggybacking on a big truck along with many other foods.

By looking at the data, we’re hoping to shine a spotlight on some of these trade-offs, says Feenstra.

Carmichael resident Jennifer Finton isn’t doctrinaire about eating local. The 34-year-old stay-at-home mother buys most of her produce, as well as some cheese, eggs and olive oil, from local growers at the farmers market. She likes Lundberg Family Farms rice because it’s grown nearby. When she started introducing solids into her 9-month-old daughter Sadie’s diet, Finton made her own baby food using locally produced organic squash and carrots. She chooses Foster Farms chicken because it comes from the Fresno area. But she’s not as diligent when it comes to other meats, and when she needs large quantities of cheese or oil, she’ll buy nonlocal because it’s cheaper.

It’s not always easy, she says of eating local. It’s not convenient, and it can be expensive.

Almost every Saturday morning, rain or shine, Finton goes to the farmers market at Country Club Plaza. With baby Sadie in a front pack, she wanders from stall to stall, talking to the farmers and sampling their wares.

This guy is actually from San Diego, she says one Saturday in early March as she stops at a table piled with flats of fat, red strawberries. Personally, I can wait for strawberries until they’re available locally. The farmer urges her to try a sample. She takes a bite, makes a face and throws the rest away. The berry is sour. That’s another reason to eat local, Finton says: taste. Fresh, local food in season simply tastes better.

Wandering through the market, she selects broccoli, spinach and a big head of red-leaf lettuce from Houa Yang Gardens, a Sacramento farm, and stuffs them into a canvas shoulder bag. She gets excited when she spies Asian pears from Arbuckle, in Colusa County. I’ll steam these for the baby, she says, buying several. At the Spring Hill Cheese Factory stand, she discusses the merits of raw versus pasteurized cheese with the Petaluma cheese maker and spends $12 on small blocks of feta and cheddar. This is a splurge, Finton concedes. But I’ll use it sparingly on salads, and it will last me a couple of weeks. A few minutes later, she plunks down $15 for a slender bottle of Olinda Ridge olive oil. I’ll use this when I can actually taste the oil, like to finish green beans, she explains. For everything else, I use inexpensive olive oil from the supermarket.

Cost is definitely an issue for Finton. Last year, when she participated in a monthlong eat-local challenge sponsored by a locavore website, she set a budget for food purchases&emdash;and went over it at least $20 every week.

But Finton says she’s going to continue to eat like a locavore, cost be damned.

I get a really nice feeling when I talk to a farmer who picked the asparagus I’ll eat tonight, she says.             

How To Eat Like a Locavore

Read labels.

Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Taylor’s Market and Whole Foods Market label many of their products by place of origin. And Taylor’s recently started applying a Taylor’s 100 tag to any item produced within 100 miles, including produce, meats, cheese, dairy and wine.

Shop at the farmers market. Most (but not all) produce sold at area farmers markets comes from within 100 miles. Everything’s labeled by farm, so you can be an informed consumer. Some markets also carry locally produced eggs, meat and fish. To find a market near you, go to california-grown.com.

Join a CSA. Subscribe to a community-supported agriculture program and, for $15 or $20 a week, you’ll receive a box of fresh, seasonal, locally grown produce. Local CSAs include Soil Born Farms (soilborn.org), Del Rio Botanical (delriobotanical.com), Eatwell Farm (eatwell.com), Full Belly Farm (fullbellyfarm.com) and Good Humus Produce (goodhumus.com).

Buy local foods in season and can, freeze or dehydrate them.
If it was good enough for our grandmothers, it’s good enough for us.

Plant a garden. It doesn’t get more local than your own backyard.

Dine at restaurants that support local farmers. Several area restaurants, including Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, Roxy and Paul Martin’s American Bistro, make a point of buying from local growers and producers. 

Read a book.
Some of the best are The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, whose family grew their own food for a year; and Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice, who coined the term locavore.

Attend a potluck.
Relocalize Sacramento will sponsor an eat-local potluck on Saturday, May 31. Go to relocalizesacramento.org for details.

Commit to an eat-local challenge. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op will hold an eat-local challenge during the month of August, encouraging participants to eat at least 80 percent of their food from within a 150-mile radius of Sacramento. Go to sacfoodcoop.com for more information. And check out eatlocalchallenge.com, which sponsors challenges and provides lots of information on local eating.