Eating Locally—and Vegan—In the Wintry Northeast

When I embarked on a local food diet challenge in the fall of 2008, I started my senior year blissfully optimistic that I could be a locavore and vegan as a college student. September through November offered a plethora of vegetables and many opportunities to stock up at my local farmers" market. In December and January, I started to tap into my canned and frozen goods that I put up this summer. But, now, in the frigid February temperatures, when my pantry shelf stocks are dwindling, eating locally and vegan has become a real challenge.

Is eating hydroponic greens in the winter "cheating"?©

The Local Philosophy: Restoring Regional Tastes

The local diet is not a new phenomenon. Before the emergence of conventional mega grocery stores and commercial transportation methods, people only ate what they could grow or buy that was locally sourced. Sure, mainstream grocery stores offer the ease and convenience of satisfying any craving during whatever time of year, but this model has come to the detriment of historic regional food systems and overall environmental health.

North America has an extensive list of endangered foods. Disease, pesticide application, toxic runoff and monoculture (one-crop) farming have all threatened historic plant, animal and seed varieties. Over 1,000 American foods face the threat of extinction, according to "America’s Most Endangered Foods". Yet, with the efforts of seed and species-saving organizations such as Seed Savers, Slow Food USA, Chefs Collaborative and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, farmers have been trying to protect and restore these endangered foods.

And America’s food culture faces another problem: its dependence on fossil fuels. Large-scale farms utilize gas- and oil-powered machines, not only displacing human labor but also contributing immense amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere. The transport of food cross-country or globally only adds to the release of CO2, methane and other GHGs into the air.

To put this into perspective, consider food miles, or the distance an individual’s food travels from production to market. In a 2001 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, scientists found "the weighted average source distance (WASD) for locally grown produce to reach institutional markets was 65 miles, while the conventional WASD for the produce to reach those same institutional points of sale was 1,494 miles, nearly 27 times further."

Although this is only abbreviated evidence of the large energy and fuel use of conventional agriculture, the arguments are rooted in common sense. If one travels close to home to buy locally grown and regional food from small, preferably organic family farms, the overall impact of a person’s carbon footprint remains considerably smaller than among those who drive longer distances to buy food that traveled cross-country.

Without getting bogged down in the politics of local eating, there is one universal reason why people should give local food a chance: It tastes really good.

Local red potatoes provide antioxidant protection and the complex carbohydrates much needed for energy in a cold climate.© Alexandra Gross

Cheating the System

There are some obvious disadvantages to living in New England and going local in the winter. Add to that list what some might find restrictive, my vegan diet, which eliminates locally sourced diary, eggs and meat from the menu options. Once the ground freezes, one can only hang on to the colors, smells and flavors of the growing season. I am glad I have vivid memories of working on an organic farm in the summer and harvesting (and eating) the overabundance of buttery spring spinach and the baskets full of heirloom tomatoes to get me through these cold months.

I can’t complain all that much about access to food; I work at a farmers" market on Saturdays and stock up on supplies. I have managed to eat really well and not jeopardize my health, and, in the process, save money and considerably reduce my overall waste output. Celeriac, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, mushrooms, artisan breads, tofu made in-state and dwindling stocks of frozen and canned goods have been my saviors, but I do miss green leafy vegetables. With the help of organic hydroponic growers who sell at local markets, I’ve satisfied this urge, but I do so sparingly.

To me, eating hydroponic greens feels somewhat like cheating, and many would agree. The debate over hydroponic growing is mixed, varying from environmental and ethical standpoints. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in nutrient-rich water solutions. The use of greenhouses for this type of cultivation brings up issues of energy costs and use. Other debates concern the validity of the organic certification for hydroponic growing based on the elimination of soil and land use. Yet, high crop yields, effective water-saving measures and prevention of fertilizer run-off make hydroponic greens an attractive option during the winter months.

Surviving the Winter

As of February, eating local in the winter has proven challenging. But while the range and choices of winter foods may not be as varied as during harvest months, there is still delicious food out there from local farmers. For omnivores, your diet will be more varied than mine, but vegetarians and vegans can still survive as locavores. March, however, may be a different story; it’s a fickle month dotted with the hints of spring but the threat of winter not far behind. I"ll tackle that when I get there.

With any lifestyle decision you make, it comes down to personal choice and the ethics behind that decision. Food is not just something you eat; behind that potato, celery root and pepper jelly are the people, land and animals that provided that subsistence for you. More than that, food has the power to unite people and establish meaningful, long-lasting relations.

If you are interested in "going local," check out the following links to see where you can get local food in your area:

CONTACT: Food Routes; Local Harvest; Sustainable Table; U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service

ALEXANDRA GROSS is an editorial intern at E.