Locally grown, nationally loved

ADDISON COUNTY — “The real pleasure is not just the delicious food one gets to eat, but the abundance of new relationships that are formed, the growing knowledge of where I live — the people and the geography of where I live,” says Ripton resident Bill McKibben of his stint as a “localvore.” 
Localvore refers to people who eat only locally grown food, and is a national movement that is growing quickly in the state of Vermont, as many people become educated on the multitude of benefits of eating foods grown close to home. McKibben, and author and Middlebury College visiting scholar, went seven months eating all Vermont fare and wrote about the experience last year for Gourmet magazine.
Nine local groups and businesses led by the Addison County Relocalization Network, or ACORN, are offering up a challenge to local residents to follow McKibben’s lead. The groups are encouraging everyone in the community, not just its members, to make foods grown within 100 miles of home the center of their diet for the month of September.
Addison County’s “Eat Local Challenge” is one of five localvore  challenges around Vermont this summer and fall.
Organizers point out that there are several good reasons to eat local foods. It is better for the environment because fewer resources are used to get the food from field to table. ACORN cited one estimate that says the average American meal now travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles, for seven to 14 days, to get from the farm to the plate.
Another bonus is health — fresher food retains more nutrients.
There is the old pocketbook, too. Money spent on local goods — like food — circulates around the community. According to Burlington economist Doug Hoffer, if Vermont substituted local products for only 10 percent of the food it  imports, it would result in $376 million in new economic output, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3,616 jobs.
Supporters of this effort also point out that Americans spend billions of dollars subsidizing multinational agribusinesses and are left with the expense — financial and environmental — of getting rid of the excess packaging that a global food market demands.
But supporters say the a big reason is also taste. “If you prefer to eat foods free from genetically engineered ingredients and that are picked at the peak of their flavor, your best bet is local,” said a flier produced by ACORN.
Organizers are serious about the commitment, but to make the challenge more palatable for those unsure of their ability to deny themselves the random kiwi or cup of coffee produced halfway around the world, there are several options.
• One full day eating only food grown or raised within a 100-mile radius of home.
• One week of eating local — this could challenge one’s creativity.
• One month of eating local — which could have a long-term impact on one’s food choices.
• Organize a potluck of locally grown foods.
• Set your own threshold — one local ingredient in every meal, for instance.
In McKibben’s localvore experiment he took what some call the “Marco Polo exception.” That meant he allowed himself to eat anything that a 13th century explorer might have been able to carry in a pocket or saddlebag on a return from a faraway land, like spices or a knob of ginger root.
East Middlebury resident Reiner Winkler has already pledged to eat local foods for an entire month. Winkler, who is a manager at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, which is a local challenge sponsor, said he is planning to hold strictly to this local diet, even avoiding foods that might be made in Vermont but include ingredients that were produced elsewhere.
Winkler has already looked into substituting local ingredients — if he can find them — for some dietary stables that more often come from afar. He knows, for instance, of a farm in northern Vermont that has made small quantities of sunflower oil, which he is hoping to include in his diet.
“There are lots of things that will be going on such as potluck dinners, support groups, recipe exchanges and more. There are also different levels of commitment,” Winkler said. “This is not meant to be a difficult exercise for anyone, but an enjoyable one that changes one’s focus, to raise awareness.”
Winkler is so committed he plans to begin the local challenge in August, and he knows of maybe 10 others at his work who also are seriously thinking of doing this for a longer period of time.
Far from seeing a localvore diet as a hardship, Winkler is excited, and he emphasizes that residents will be supporting the growth of creative small farms.
“This exercise will teach everyone to not take things for granted,” he said. “It will show us what we rely on, it will be a healthy discovery, as we will be more conscious of what we eat and do everyday, and more importantly we will be supporting the local economy.”
ACORN and others have scheduled special events around the county, including a kick-off local foods potluck open to the public on Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. at the Methodist Church in Middlebury. Information about the different options of the Eat Local Challenge as well as the upcoming food events associated with the challenge can be found at the co-op or online at www.acornvt.org.
Buying locally grown also doesn’t mean staying away from restaurants. Most local restaurants already include many Vermont products in their dishes, and places like the Waybury Inn (where a locally raised venison burger is on the pub menu) and American Flatbread (which will offer a pizza during the month of September that has all local ingredients) prove to some that the concept is not far outside of the mainstream.
“No one can be sure if it is a liberal or a conservative idea, as it is bringing these two together, supporting your neighbor is the most basic, the most important idea there is,” McKibben said.
He went on to point out that “eating locally is far more important than eating only organic foods. If a food is organic and local that is great, but if one has a choice, one should always choose local, it is better to buy from the neighbor who is doing his best to put the freshest local food on the table. They want to preserve the land and the relationships more than anyone else.”
Vermont is ideally suited to becoming a localvore type of economy, with many of its residents having realized the economic and nutritional benefits of eating locally, said author and environmentalist Bill McKibben.
The Ripton resident points to the advantages of a strong local economy, great land, small farms and communities, a committed population, as well as the support of colleges and other institutions as the Green Mountain State’s strengths.
“Shelburne Farms has been leading the way, along with Amy Trubek, a Cornwall resident,” he said, referring to the University of Vermont food anthropologist who initiated and ran the Vermont Fresh Network. That group builds bridges between farmers, chefs and consumers to strengthen Vermont agriculture.
But McKibben also points out that the government could do a great deal more if people would start to think more creatively.
 “If the state could become more creative, and get behind this movement, spend small sums of money to rebuild the infrastructure to support this growing commerce within the state, this would make it a lot easier to haul the goods,” he said. “For example there is no one to haul oats anymore.
“There are seven breweries in the state of Vermont now. It would serve the state well to support this economy — the state could build a malting plant for these breweries to use. Farmers could then grow the barley, which would help with the endless decline and frustrations associated with the dairy industry.”
McKibben said it is important to be innovative, and that this requires some imagination on the part of the state government.
“There is an increasing strand of thinking from groups like ACORN pointing out that the kind of eating that we (Americans) do is dependent on cheap fossil fuel — if we are ready for this change then we should build the infrastructure to support this. We are lucky, Vermont is uniquely suited for this type of economy given its size and geography.”
McKibben’s upcoming book, with a working title of “Deep Economy,” will be published in December. It is largely about local economies and will include a chronicle of his seven-month localvore experience.

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