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not local: Green writer doesn't have time

(post, Sarah Gilbert)

primary-image, l

It was her column on canning that had me spluttering for the first time. Carrie Sturrock, "PDX Green" columnist for the local paper, had gone out and had a little canning class with our own [fasenfest "Harriet"]. She decides that canning isn't very energy-efficient. Just what is the carbon footprint of that batch of strawberry jam, pray tell? She quotes a professor of agriculture. "It's better to have big containers when you're heating things up... I would imagine it's not more environmentally friendly to do it yourself." Then she thinks, oh, what about the food? "But what if you take into account where the food is grown and its transit? That matters. If you grow the food yourself in an organic backyard garden using your own homemade compost and then reuse the canning jars each year, you probably have a smaller carbon footprint than if you buy mass-produced canned food at the grocery store... But the equation changes yet again if you drive to a farmers market and buy the food for canning from a farmer who may have trucked in a small batch from a farm 200 miles away. Looking at the carbon footprint alone, that's likely worse than buying canned food at the grocery store."

In the end, she decides, she'll just can a few of her garden tomatoes. The rest is subject to driving.

This infuriated me, because not only did it present the question of canning as purely a comparison of two carbon footprints; the one in the actual canning process, the second in the transport of food to the canner (did she forget about the many different parts of the food that must be separately trucked to the factory? And what about the can itself? It probably won't be used again. And the pollution to make the can? Or, even if it's recycled, it will cause plenty of mess when it's melted down and re-purposed. And hello!!! BPAs!!!), but she ignores the concept of preserving the bounty of garden, tree, polyculture farm; she forgets to mention the very real concern of nutrition and chemical content of our food. 

I preserve my own jams, pickles, conserves, relishes, and ketchups because I know every bit of that food, from stem to stern, I have avoided extra high heat and chemicals and sugars, I have mixed and matched and used up every plum I could find. I have washed my hands. I am confident that chemical pesticides never sullied these pears, these peaches; I have faith that the farms on which they were grown are conserving the soil for future generations. These foods are vastly superior to their supermarket counterparts, even if I used twice the energy to put them in their jars.

And, having missed this part of the conversation, she wraps it up so neatly. "Not everyone has the time to can. I don't have much. But I love to cook and I love the idea of better understanding how food is made and preserved. I plan to can only some backyard tomatoes this year."

You don't have time for much sustainability even though it's your job to write about it.

I was pre-disposed to find her local eating column problematic. Again, she develops eating local into black-and-white problem that obscures the actual issues. "When the Northwest Earth Institute in Portland asked if I wanted to take part in their two-week eco-challenge, I chose to eat only foods grown with in 100 miles of my home... Never have I eaten more healthfully. Never have I craved white flour and sugar more. Never have I spent so much on groceries. Never will I do it again."

She took the challenge with a wave of the hand, "how hard could that be?" and then proceeded to jump in dizzily, driving all over several counties for her ingredients, not doing any homework beforehand. She had a "vague quixotic feeling" (that describes my reaction perfectly!) "As a busy mom, I didn't have time to meticulously find every ingredient I wanted ahead of time."

Again, isn't this her job? She already uses a CSA (bonus points for that: it's both local and a smart bargain), and one would have imagined she could have come across a few local producers of grains and other carbohydrates, the things she longs for, in her writing.

Her problem comes down to this: she hasn't planned ahead, she can't make time to can so she certainly can't make time to make bread (let alone the problem of not having flour within 100 miles). And she hasn't involved her family in the challenge.

Of course you will overspend and overdrive if you've decided to cook parallel meals alongside your husband and children, looking at their organic Annie's mac and cheese and avocado slices with longing (I'm just guessing here). Of course it's going to be miserable if you set a 100% rule that's quite restrictive without much advance planning. Of course you're going to crave sweets and white flour if you've suddenly gone teetotal and it's just for two weeks; not long enough to kick the habit, but just long enough to make you froth at the mouth.

Local eating needs to be approached far more thoughtfully than this. Yes, please do make restrictions on your diet that seem quite challenging; no, don't decide you must have chicken! and beef! when your local market only has milk, butter, cheese, and pork (really, you can't live for two weeks without chicken?) and then drive 100 miles to satisfy this "need." (Much though I love Kookoolan Farms, I just can't manage to buy their milk as I don't drive -- instead I get the rare treat of one of their chickens when I go to the Hillsdale Farmer's Market, a few times a year.)

Local eating needs to be considered over a long time, so you can begin to see the real problems with that white flour/sugar craving. It's a habit that's not just addictive, but also destructive; you crave it, it messes with your body's natural balance of metabolism and hunger, you crave more. Tests with little kids discovered that they overate things sweetened with sugar. And can you say "a third of the population will have diabetes in a few dozen years?" That's sugar (not helped at all by feedlot beef and chicken and pork, but that's another topic, all of which, incidentally, eating local will help address). You're going to have to kick that habit. No, it's not going to be easy.

Local eating needs to be approached with eyes wide open for the trade-offs. Yes, I eat flour and oats grown outside a 100-mile radius. But the stuff I do get is grown within 300 miles, or so, and I know the farmers care for their land. I've endlessly read up on bread and flour so I've determined that whole grain sourdough is the best thing for us; and I use a little white flour to make it palatable for my kids and husband. Yes, it's hard to find local olive oil, because our climate really doesn't work for it; I buy Californian olive oil from a lovely local man who sells it out of a garage-style warehouse where I pull up on my bike, right in front of the door.

I don't even need to lock it. 

There is local vinegar, or you can make your own. I buy my apple cider vinegar in a gallon size. It's $17 and lasts me half a year, with pickling. Because I've been canning and freezing and drying and fermenting, I have enough tomatoes and pizza sauce and jam to last the winter. It's all local, and much of it I picked myself.

Please, green writer: don't jump into something blindly and then tell us all you don't like to swim. It's more damaging than you know. 

Eating locally takes a deep and thoughtful recast of the way you look at food. It takes time. It takes care, and love, and involving your family and friends. It takes a very grey-toned consideration, balance of the trade-offs (I eat pepper that's "beautifully grown," organic nutmeg and cinnamon, but I harvest my own onion and dill seeds, for instance), a verdict that's made after a long trial and then continuously appealed (should I really drink coffee? How about now?).

Eating locally is more than just discovering that walnuts and hazelnuts taste good fresh from the shell. (My walnuts, you'll see, are from the ground outside my back door: I agree.) Eating locally is changing your life.

And, though it's difficult, you can do it without driving... at all.

note: I reflected on this after publishing, and think it's possible that much of my struggle with Carrie's tone could be a result of heavy editing. It's happened to me more than once. Perhaps Carrie and I could be best of friends, if only she'd come over and bake bread with me. But it's hard to dismiss the dismissal... her editor didn't write that.