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Are You Up for the Eat Local Challenge?

Locavore: One who eats only locally grown foods.

Are you a locavore?    Would you like to be, or are you simply interested in adding a few more local foods to your repertoire? You’ll have the opportunity late this summer when Willy Street Co-op holds our first annual Eat Local Challenge. As an eater who has taken a similar challenge, I can tell you from personal experience that you won’t regret it.

The reasons for eating a more local diet are many and varied. Local food takes less energy to get from field to table; buying it supports small farmers and our local economy; it’s fresher and healthier; it’s usually tastier; and it roots us to our place unlike anything else can. If we are what we eat, and if what we eat comes from where we are, then we are undeniably a part of the place where we live. Deep, huh?

It was with these thoughts in mind in September 2007 that I started my experimentations with hard-core locavorism. I’d heard of people who were inspired to challenge themselves to eat more locally, and I impulsively made the decision to join their ranks. I had no idea what I was in for. For the whole month I vowed to eat nothing (with the exception of salt and pepper) but what had been grown in the Northern California county where I lived. This meant taking grains, sugar, oil, vinegar, and many other “necessities” out of my diet. Not an easy task, but I figured it was just a month, how bad could it be?

The month that followed was a transformative one. I gained a new appreciation for the versatility of my sole carbohydrate-rich food: the potato. It figured in almost every meal I ate, and somehow I never got sick of it. I learned to cook without oil and vinegar; discovering how hard that was gave me a new appreciation for these staples and set me to wondering why on earth no one in the county was growing and making these things.
I was determined to find wheat to make bread, and ended up tracking down a farmer who gave me a sheaf right out of the field. I learned to laboriously thresh it by hand, separate the chaff from the grain, and grind it into flour. I caught wild yeast out of the air and in the last week of September I finally made an incredibly dense but delicious loaf of purely local bread.

I learned to make my own cultured dairy products and churn my own butter. Yogurt and sour cream and buttermilk took on a new importance in my cuisine, and I learned just how divine these things can be when you make them yourself.

Despite my lack of certain staple items, that September was one of the most delicious experiences I’ve ever had. I found that by concentrating on the wonderful foods I did eat—local eggplants and tomatoes and eggs and beef and butter and a plethora of other delights—rather than concentrating on what I wasn’t eating, it was easy to summon the willpower I needed to get through. I rediscovered the incredible flavors of simple fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, dairy products and meats. These ingredients were grown well by people I knew and they didn’t need dressing up with fancy vinegar or oil or ketchup or sugar.

An added benefit of taking the non-local refined grains and sugars out of my diet was that I felt great physically. I had more energy. I lost weight while stuffing myself full of all the butter, and cheese I wanted. Not a bad diet at all.

Though I have never gone back to quite the extreme locavorism I achieved that September, that month completely transformed my relationship with food. To this day the produce, meat and dairy that I buy is almost exclusively local. It’s so good; I really don’t want anything else. Non-local products have become a luxury, and I value them in a way I never did before. I have ceased to ask myself what I want to eat, but instead ask what’s available. If asparagus is in season, I eat asparagus. When tomatoes are in season, boy, do I eat tomatoes. I extend seasonal foods by preserving them for winter, and I get intense pleasure from eating my own frozen sweet corn and canned tomatoes in February. Eating this way can be a challenge, but it sparks creativity in the kitchen like nothing else can.

Willy Street Co-op’s first annual Eat Local Challenge will run from August 15th until September 15th, 2010. Everyone is welcome to sign-up: Owners and non-Owners alike. While you’re encouraged to go hard-core like I did a few years back, we realize that many people don’t have the time or inclination to take it that far; plus we have many skilled local vendors who use non-local ingredients to make delicious locally produced foods.
We’ll include as many challenge takers as possible by providing several different levels of challenge to choose from, from Hard-Core Locavore (everything you eat is grown locally), to Toe in the Water Locavore (at least one ingredient in each of your meals is either grown or produced locally). That way, you can have local tomatoes and your Gail Ambrosius chocolates, too. If you don’t want to choose one of our levels, you can make it up yourself and be a Choose Your Own Adventure Locavore.

Participants will get a packet with information about where to find local foods, coupons for local products, recipes and menu ideas, a food diary to record their meals and their thoughts, and access to online networking with other challenge-takers. We’ll also be hosting events throughout the month, including a celebration potluck at the end where participants will have the opportunity to share their favorite recipes and experiences. Not only will this Eat Local Challenge offer participants a chance to get to know their food, but it will allow us to get to know each other, too.
We’ll have more details about the challenge in upcoming issues of the Reader, and on our website. For now, keep an eye out for our purple “local” signs and shelf tags. Signups for our first annual Eat Local Challenge will begin in July. I know I’ll be signing up—will you?