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All aboard the 100-mile diet

By Leslie Bilderback 08/01/2011

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Yet another friend has announced the addition of chickens to her family, and I admit I am starting to feel a little out of the coop loop. The growing sense of inferiority, as I whip up a batch of Floating Islands from store-bought eggs, is akin to my feelings during junior high dances, when everyone was making out except me.

This is the latest incarnation of the ever-growing locavore movement, sometimes referred to as “the 100-mile diet.” Those who take the term "from scratch" to heart have added the joy of chicken husbandry to this ethos. If you’ve been living under a rock, the locavore movement is the super-chic trend of consuming food that is produced locally, ideally within 100 miles of where you live. The idea is to support local growers and minimize the carbon footprint created by transporting foods from afar.  

Seventy-five years ago the movement was known by another name --- "existing." Yes, kids, back in the olden days, before industrialized meat and trans-Atlantic fruit flights, Americans ate what was grown and raised where they lived. If you didn’t grow it or raise it, chances are someone down the street did.  And when the season was over, you ate the next crop. If you wanted strawberries in the dead of winter, you could open a jar of preserves, or come to terms with disappointment (a skill that has gone the way of the dodo).

But somewhere along the way we decided that we must have whatever we want whenever we want it (a self-indulgent attitude of entitlement that is, in my opinion, the root of all evil). Today we think nothing of strolling down to the local mega-mart to pick up pineapples from Costa Rica, Chilean raspberries and meat "products" created from mysterious parts in mysterious places. Deep down we know that the animals we consume are not raised by loving parents, and the produce we buy is picked green (before full nutrients and flavor can develop) and transported in trucks filled with ethylene gas to ripen it artificially. But we pretend it doesn't matter. (Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.)

Sure, the idea of a global food market is inherently appealing (French cheese, Italian salami, New Zealand lamb). But its realities are proving problematic. It’s not just white truffles we are transporting to our dinner parties while consuming precious fossil fuels. We’re also getting E. coli--laced bean sprouts, radioactive spinach, melamine-enriched flour and plasticized punch from countries that treat safety standards like Californians treat stop signs.

How did this happen? Until the late 1800s fresh food was transported no more than a few miles. But along came Chicago meat packer Gustavus Franklin Swift. Thinking out-of-the-boxcar, Swift experimented with refrigerated trains. Designs were sketchy at first and included meat hung above ice on metal tracks which, when the train entered a curve at high speeds, shifted the weight and caused derailment. After several derailments the idea was nixed. (It took a special arrogance to assume the first derailment was a fluke.) Swift’s winning design called for meat packed tightly at the bottom of well-insulated cars with ice at the top, so cool air could flow downward. The design was picked up by other meat processors, and it didn't take long for consumer and consumed to become completely detached. Soon people didn't care what or where their food came from.

 But now we seem to have come full circle, and I am happy to see the sudden interest in local foods. Although in reality, it is hardly sudden. The Slow Food movement began formally advocating the preservation of local food traditions in the mid-1980s, and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse has been touting the local ethic to the fine food world since 1971. But while both groups have succeeded in bringing local and organic foods to the forefront of fine dining, they have thus far failed to attract the masses and seem to have ignored the stunning lack of wholesome, let alone local, food choices to the inner city.

So, how can we spread the word? Making local, wholesome food retro-cool is a good start. As any teenager can tell you, once the cool kids are doing it, everyone else follows. And isn’t trend-setting what SoCal life is all about? We could conceivably make local food the bedazzled chihuahua of 2012.  
Here’s how:
•    Find out where your food comes from.  
•    Pick five foods you always eat and commit to finding them locally.
•    Search out local producers and lobby local markets to feature them.

Then if this makes you feel warm and fuzzy, move on to the next steps:
•    Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) --- a system for bringing crops directly to consumers --- and get a box of local seasonal produce once a week.
•    Learn how to preserve foods.
•    Plant a garden.

And when you are fully committed and have traded in your Dolce and Gabbana for Birkenstocks and hemp, you can start raising chickens, bees and goats.

Of course, there is another side to the coin. Just because it’s local doesn't necessarily make it better (as this season’s Dodger fans can attest). Factory farming, genetic modification and chemically treated foods grow here too. And how much are we really saving the planet when we have to drive to eight stores to complete our weekly shopping? So weigh your options, people.

In the end, when your food doesn’t have to travel far, it’s healthier and tastier and you’re keeping money in the community rather than sending it to big conglomerates. Just think! You’ll not only be a healthy hipster, but you can also stick it to The Man.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at


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