Fifty miles, fifty days, fifty percent (or more)

By David Parkinson

It's the time of year when the autumn-planted garlic sends up delicious scapes, and soon the bulbs will be ready to harvest.

It's the time of year when the autumn-planted garlic sends up delicious scapes, and soon the bulbs will be ready to harvest. (Photo taken well within fifty feet of my kitchen.)

This year, we will be celebrating the fourth annual Powell River eat-local challenge, also known as the “50-mile diet”. This event is our very own regional spin on the 100-mile diet, which started out with two Vancouverites named Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who decided to try to spend an entire year eating only food from within 100 miles of where they lived.

Alisa and J.B.’s main reason for carrying out this experiment was to learn about the ins and outs of eating from sources as close to home as possible. And they certainly learned a lot, experienced some real difficulties and challenges, and in the end wrote a book about the whole thing. In this day and age of increasing sensitivity to the ‘carbon footprint’ of food, one way we can control the fossil fuel consumption of the food we eat is by eating food which is produced close to us. And the idea of spending a period of time devoted to eating local food is catching on in all kinds of places.

Meanwhile, as those two were just getting going on their year of eating locally, Lyn Adamson, the Program Director at Career Link in Powell River, caught onto the idea and decided to start a similar project up here. But, this being Powell River, she had to go and change the formula: since the extra 50 miles doesn’t really get us much more food production, we limit the radius of the foodshed to 50 miles (80 km, more or less). This takes in the entire Upper and Lower Sunshine Coasts, much of the east coast of Vancouver Island from Campbell River down to Nanaimo and inland to about halfway across the island at its furthest point.

The idea is simple: anyone who wants to participate is welcome to do so at their chosen level of participation. The usual ‘entry level’ is 50%, meaning that you will attempt to get half of the food you eat from sources within 50 miles of where you live. Some participants go for 75%, some for 95%, and the real hardcore cases might go for 100%, although that level of commitment is not for the faint of heart. Like most diets, it works better if you can convince the other people in your household to go along with it — no one wants to be eating local potatoes and kale while surrounded by others eating Chilean grapes, Thai mangosteens, and Turkish taffy. That’s just not fair.

The period of the eat-local challenge has traditionally been six weeks, but this year we have decided to step it up a little bit in the interest of getting the numbers to line up. So we’re proposing a 50-day stretch to go with the 50 miles. Right now it looks as though the challenge will begin on Saturday August 9, 2009 and will end on Sunday September 27, 2009, which is the second day of Powell River’s annual Fall Fair.

What do participants get from being part of the eat-local challenge? First of all, they get a sense of how difficult it is to eat even half of our daily intake from nearby farms and gardens. In the summertime, this region produces a considerable amount of vegetables and fruit, but very small amounts of grains, legumes, meat, poultry, dairy products, oils, sweeteners, and other components of a balanced diet. Even getting your hands on local produce is not always simple: some of our grocery stores might carry produce from this region or from within the 50-mile radius on Vancouver Island. You’ll have to get good at asking questions and snooping around. The best place to buy really local food is directly from a farmer or at one of the markets in the region (the Open Air Market just outside of the City of Powell River, or the Texada Farmers’ Market).

Even if you do have good access to one of these markets or to a local farmer’s farm-gate, of course there are many necessities you will have to do without. There is no significant grain production within the 50-mile radius, and that means no bread and no pasta (and no cake! unless it’s potato cake). People talk about the Three Killer C’s: coffee, citrus, and chocolate. Citrus we might just about get away with— I have heard tell that some locals are getting lemon or lime trees to grow in a greenhouse, but if they are you can be sure they’re hoarding the fruit. And no way are we about to have any cacao or coffee plants growing here anytime soon. So either you go without or they fall into the percentage of your intake that can be non-local.

Here’s a good experiment: take a look in your fridge and cupboards and ask yourself for each item you see there:

  • Is this from within 50 miles of here?
  • If not, could it be produced within 50 miles of here?
  • If it could be, is it being produced in sufficient quantities that it could supply the needs of the local population?
  • If not, why not?

These are questions which anyone who has participated in the eat-local challenge has to ask themselves repeatedly for 50 days (and nights). Doing this is an amazingly powerful consciousness-raising tool: once you have examined where all your food comes from, you will have more respect for our local food producers. Quite possibly you will feel a new desire to grow some of your own food, or — if you are growing food already — a commitment to producing more food next year.

In my work as coordinator of some of the local food security efforts, I have talked about the 50-mile challenge with many people in this community and elsewhere. Sometimes people who are aware of the challenges of eating locally will disparage eat-local challenges because, as they say, we already know that we don’t produce enough food locally for everyone’s needs, so why go through this big exercise every year to prove the same point over and over? I think the best answer is: because the eat-local challenge is about more than just proving something which could as easily be expressed in the form of a chart. It’s about:

  • educating individuals about where their food comes from;
  • bringing families and households together in a common project;
  • getting the community thinking and talking about its food production, present and future;
  • creating positive connections in the community among food producers and food consumers, and among people sharing ideas, recipes, and (above all) food;
  • demonstrating to ourselves and to our politicians that there is public interest in eating more local food.

This year I will be part of a team of eager organizers. If you would like to get involved with the fourth annual eat-local challenge, please contact me. We are hoping to kick things off this year with a tour of local productive food gardens, in the hopes that that might inspire people to start growing more food. We have all kinds of ideas about involving local restaurants and grocery stores. We would like to have lots of information going around the community about where the eat-local challengers can find food: weekly emails, blog posts, possibly even a podcast! Potlucks and other opportunities to get together and compare notes and progress. T-shirts. Local art from local artists. Maybe some kind of a celebration at the end, with prizes and a final local food banquet.

We’re blogging! We’re on Facebook! We’re on Twitter! The sky’s the limit, so if you would like to help us celebrate local food and the joys of the relocalized palate, we can use your help. There will be a potluck and brainstorming meeting this Wednesday, June 10, at 5:00 PM at the Community Resource Centre in Powell River (4752 Joyce Ave., just south of Alberni St.).

And if you simply would like to participate, you can sign up here. Once you’re on our email list, stay tuned for updates and information as we get closer to the challenge. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell the neighbours! Let’s make this year’s eat-local challenge the biggest and best yet!

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