Eat Local Challenge

Eating (and Cheating) Locally

by Janice Cook Knight


October 2009 was the month to take the “Eat Local Challenge,” sponsored by the Santa Barbara Farmers Market and Edible Santa Barbara, in conjunction with I had done this before, two years ago. What would it be like to take the challenge again?

During my first local eating experiment I had just finished reading two inspiring books: Plenty by Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. These authors had decided to source most of their food within a 100-mile radius, and they kept it up for a full year. If they could do it, in far more challenging climates (British Columbia and Virginia), I figured I could survive a month in Santa Barbara. I would try to eat most of my foods within a 100-mile radius as well (although I made a few notable exceptions—more on that later).

That first time, especially at the beginning, I found the challenge just that: challenging. I would reach for my bottle of olive oil on the counter and realize it was from Italy, not California. Sliced turkey from Trader Joe’s, which we normally stock in our refrigerator and had become a staple of our teen children, turned out to be a Midwestern product even though the company that produced it was in San Francisco (I called the company to find out). Parmesan cheese was put on hold for the month, as were goat cheeses from France, frozen shrimp from Thailand and (gasp) most prepared and packaged products, including ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and pickle relish.

I began to shop from our farmers markets even more earnestly than usual, bringing home meats, dairy products, Santa Ynez bread and fresh pasta made from locally grown wheat, nuts, dried fruits, walnut and olive oils and seafood, besides the usual fruits and veggies. It changed the way I shop for the better. By the second week, I was in the swing of things. I made jam from fresh strawberries and sweetened it with honey. I started saving bones from the local chickens we ate and cooked that up into chicken stock I could keep in my freezer to make soup.

I also decided that anything at our farmers market was fair game, even if the producer came from several hundred miles away, and several do. In those cases they are bringing in foods our farmers don’t produce locally—such as cheeses and butter, certain nuts, dates, etc. And I made exceptions for tea, coffee, spices, salt and (of course) chocolate.

In many ways, this second time around was easy. I already keep local foods in my pantry and freezer most of the time. I had made tomato sauce and pesto in August and frozen it for the months ahead. I know where to get a few local packaged foods, like Lundberg Farm’s rice, rice pasta and crackers, all grown in California. I had already done most of the research. And, we are lucky to have such great local wines.

In other ways, I was more lax. That’s where the “cheating” starts to come in. Since I already eat so many local foods (and we grow quite a lot at home too—fruits and herbs year-round, plus summer crops like tomatoes and squash) I felt justified in the occasional cheat. I’d sneak some rye crackers because I was tired of rice (they are made in Sweden—yikes) and they were already in my pantry. I didn’t worry about things like ketchup and mayo this time, because they make up such a small part of our diet.

Attempting to eat locally sure raises your awareness about food: Where it comes from, how much it costs to produce and what’s in season at any given moment are all good topics for consideration and discussion.

I still find the quality of local food startlingly good, even after all these years of farmers markets. The freshly dried beans available from farmer Tom Shepherd (garbanzos, limas, pinquitos and small white beans) were amazingly good, their texture far better than the canned variety so often used for convenience. Because they were grown in this season, they are more tender and flavorful than most other dried beans.

Is eating locally cost-effective? In one way I saved money, because I wasn’t buying many packaged products. No boxes of cereal, frozen pizzas or waffles, canned anything, potato chips, candy (except a dark chocolate bar or two), drinks. Products at the farmers market don’t necessarily cost less, however, than produce sold at your supermarket. Small farmers do not have access to the government subsidies available to the large industrial and factory farms, so their products might actually cost you more. Still, most fruits and vegetables are quite reasonable, and their fresh taste and quality are unsurpassed. But the meats at farmers markets will set you back. Beef and lamb and even chickens can cost two to three times more per pound than supermarket meats, though the cost is similar to organic meat prices from a natural food store.

Which brings me to my biggest cheat. I stopped by Whole Foods, late on a Sunday afternoon. My husband and I had just returned from out of town. It was raining. We had a hankering for Irish stew, a simple comforting dish made with lamb shoulder chops. Perhaps, I thought, Whole Foods will have some local lamb?

But it was not to be. Their lamb was from New Zealand, far outside my local comfort zone. Interestingly, it was only $5.99 per pound. Much of the lamb in the United States comes from New Zealand and Australia, though Whitefoot Meats on Milpas carries Colorado lamb. While I would have preferred to buy at least domestic lamb, if not local, I knew the other store would be closed. If I had only planned ahead, I could have kept some local lamb chops in my freezer. Of course, I could have bought something else that evening—they probably had a California-grown chicken; or we could have made something vegetarian—but we didn’t! We bought the New Zealand lamb, cooked it up with local vegetables, and enjoyed it, though I chewed rather more thoughtfully than usual.

Clearly, the local challenge requires planning. You can’t always stop off for lunch somewhere and know that your meal is going to be made from local foods, though some (mostly high-end) restaurants do offer that in Santa Barbara. You need to make it to the farmers markets on the days they are open and ask questions at the grocery stores. I shop at Mesa Produce, which stocks mostly local items. Lazy Acres, Whole Foods, Gelson’s, Isla Vista Food Co-Op and Tri-County Produce have lots of local produce. Trader Joe’s and Alta-Dena Dairy in Southern California have some fairly local products. The Santa Barbara Fish Market at the harbor always has local fish. All of these businesses are happy to tell you about their foods and where they come from.

I like having farms nearby, and I love knowing the people who grow my food. Local food is fresh, which is a big part of why it tastes so good.

The Eat Local Challenge has become an annual event. Click here for more information about this October’s Challenge.



Janice Cook Knight is the author of Follow Your Heart’s Vegetarian Soup Cookbook and The Follow Your Heart Cookbook: Recipes from the
Vegetarian Restaurant. She has taught cooking for over 25 years, and currently teaches a cookbook writing workshop. She lives in Santa Barbara with her family.

Categories Winter 2009