The 100-Mile Diet The Struggles and Successes of Eating Local Foods

I’ll use any excuse to go to the farmers’ market, so when I heard about the 100-mile diet —eating food produced within 100 miles of my home—I had to try it. I wondered if it would be possible to subsist on food grown and raised in and around New York City. So on a warm, autumn day last September, I got my canvas bags out of the closet and headed to the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Manhattan. I felt like I was wandering through a gigantic garden. Folding tables under tents along the walkway were heaped with bushy lettuce heads, lavender eggplant and gnarled sweet potatoes. Bunches of radishes, beets and carrots showed off their spindly roots. Tomatoes of all different colors were spread out in squares like a quilt. With just a few exceptions, all of it came from within 200 miles of New York City—close enough to count.

Before that day, I hadn’t been much of a local food connoisseur. What intrigued me were the diet’s environmental benefits: buying locally means less fossil fuel burned to transport food, which means less pollution and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. But buying exclusively local takes a lot of effort, and it can be hard to determine the origins of many foods. Plus, the diet can be expensive and choices are limited to seasonal offerings.

The Origins

The concept of the 100-mile diet started to spread in 2005 when pioneers James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith decided to eat foods produced within 100 miles of their Vancouver home, which is surrounded by mountains, a valley and water. “That was big enough to have the potential to feed us, but small enough to feel genuinely local,” says MacKinnon. They lived to tell about their experience in the book Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, which hit shelves last May. Fiction writer Barbara Kingsolver’s testament to eating mostly homegrown food with her family, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, came out the same month.

Confining “local” to a certain radius is not a new idea. Gary Nabhan, author and founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit organization that preserves heirloom seeds that connect Native Americans with the land, ate foods produced within 250 miles of his Arizona home for a year in 2000.

Although I was inspired by these conscientious consumers, just deciding what I would eat for breakfast made me nervous. I planned to make few exceptions—no coffee, tea or orange juice. I prepared menus and talked to people who had tried the diet themselves, but since my success depended on my locale, out-of-towners’ advice wasn’t very helpful. Still, I became more encouraged as I watched shoppers test for ripeness in the over-stocked stands.

Shopping Around

Leaving Union Square, lugging two bulging bags of produce, I mentally reviewed my purchases: five ears of corn and a cucumber from Migliorelli Farm, $2.50; a half pound of flounder from Long Island Sound, $2.25; and tomatoes, a chili pepper and an eggplant from Oak Grove Plantation, $8.80. Unfortunately, I still needed items like butter and milk—which would have melted or curdled, respectively, if I lugged them home from the market.

At the Union Square market, produce prices ran high, but a new study conducted at the University of Seattle shows that the prices at most farmers”‘ markets might actually be lower than at traditional grocery stores. Normally, I spend about $125 on food every week. When I totaled all my farmers” market purchases and added the items I had left to buy, I saw that for me, the 100-mile diet cost about $160 a week—almost 30 percent more than usual.

For milk and butter, I walked to my neighborhood organic market. The cashier explained that they used to carry local dairy, but there was always at least one broken package in the delivery, so they stopped ordering it altogether. Finding local staples was proving more frustrating than I imagined. I tried my luck at Whole Foods. The store’s greeter told me that 80 percent of the food sold there is local and signs above the produce state the food’s price and origin. I even found dairy items that had eluded me at my neighborhood organic grocery, including butter from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, almost exactly 100 miles away.

But few grocery stores make it easy to learn where their products come from. Raoul, the assistant manager at Steve’s C-Town, a grocery chain near my apartment, said the store buys its produce from many of the 50 merchants that distribute out of Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, the most profitable distribution site in the world.

Pineapples from the Philippines, bananas from Costa Rica and avocados from California travel to Hunt’s Point via truck, train, boat or plane, and then to supermarkets like C-Town. Mean-while, many foods grown nearby are not sold locally. “Most Americans would be surprised to hear that most of the garlic found in most of the supermarkets is from China,” says Brian Halweil, author of the book Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket.

Dining In

My kitchen table was barely visible beneath all the fruits and vegetables. My dinner plan included acorn squash with a pat of butter, brown sugar and cooking sherry. I debated using the brown sugar and sherry—neither are produced locally—and decided to use them anyway. After all, what good is any diet without a little wiggle room?

I”m a terrible cook, but when I smelled the baking acorn squash, I almost called the Food Network. When I tasted my masterpiece, I was in heaven. It was flavorful, filling, and especially comforting, knowing my community and the larger world all benefited from my food choices.

In the weeks that followed, I dined on red onion, cucumber and dill salad; red potatoes with sautéed eggplant, zucchini and rosemary; and tomato and basil with goat cheese, delighting in each fresh dish. Although I no longer eat 100-mile (or 200-mile) foods exclusively, I still incorporate them into my diet—and I always visit the Union Square or Prospect Park Green Markets. A community of epicureans, traditionalists and environmentalists is growing around the appreciation of local fare. As Cheryl Nechamen, an activist who organizes her community to try the 100-mile diet, says, “It touches a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons.”