Vermonters rise to the challenge of total local consumption
Every parent has employed the old trick of feeding a child with an imaginary incoming airplane. "Open wide, here it comes!" they'll say, as the spoon heads toward the mouth. For troublesome toddlers, it can take a whole morning of "arrivals" just to get through a serving of applesauce.
This is a fitting metaphor for the age of global food consumption, in which multiple flights -- burning thousands of gallons of petroleum products -- might be involved in any one of our meals. By one estimate, the average American meal now travels 1500 miles, for seven to 14 days, to get from the farm to the plate; 2800 calories of fossil fuel are consumed to produce a typical 400-calorie breakfast. When you factor in growing public concerns about food security, bioterrorism, GMOs, factory farming, chemical pesticide residues, obesity and the disappearance of the family farm, it's easy to see why the typical American diet is no longer considered sustainable.
Enter the Vermont "localvore" movement. Just as carnivores eat meat and herbivores eat fruits and vegetables, localvores eat local. This summer hundreds of Vermonters will pledge to only eat foods that were grown or raised in Vermont, or within a 100-mile radius of their homes.
At least five localvore groups in Vermont -- in the Champlain Valley, central Vermont, Middlebury, Brattleboro and the Upper Valley -- have sprung up and are sponsoring "localvore challenges" during the months of August and September. The eating endeavors range in commitment from a single Vermont-raised meal to a full month of local-only chow.
The idea isn't to be the "food police," but to challenge you to eat as many locally grown foods as possible," says Nicole Carpenter of the Champlain Valley Localvores -- "to get Vermonters thinking about where their food comes from and who grows it."
The definition of "local" varies slightly from group to group. Some localvore challenges allow participants to consume locally produced foods even if they don't contain 100 percent indigenous ingredients, such as Vermont-brewed beers and Vermont-roasted coffees. Others allow "wild card" exemptions for harder-to-find items, such as cooking oils and certain grains.
The Champlain Valley Localvores, whose challenge runs throughout the month of August, are taking a more hard-core approach. They've agreed only to a "modern Marco Polo" exception, which permits any spices the 13th-century explorer would have had on hand, such as salt and pepper, as well as modern leavening agents, such as baking powder, baking soda and yeast.
They borrowed the idea for the Marco Polo exemption -- and its name -- from Ripton-based author and scholar Bill McKibben, who went for seven months eating all-Vermont fare, then wrote about the experience for Gourmet magazine. His month-to-month account not only details his diet -- of meat, cheese, cider, syrup, and, after some serious searching, Québec oats -- but introduces a variety of interesting home-grown ag endeavors. Ben Gleason's grain farm in Bridport, for example, appears to be the only wheat source in Vermont. From Gleason's organic hard red winter wheat came McKibben's crucial carbs: bread, pancakes -- and beer.
"We were driving to Thanksgiving and chatting and said, 'We could do that!'" Carpenter recalls her reaction to a story about McKibben's local-eating adventure that appeared last fall in Seven Days. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be more fun if we got more people to do it with us?'" Carpenter adds. As of last week, 72 people had pledged to participate in the Champlain Valley Localvore challenge.
One hundred people showed up for the April 29 inaugural meeting of the Mad River Valley Localvores, which are sponsoring a weeklong challenge from September 11 to 17. Founding member Robin McDermott of Waitsfield says the group is inviting local restaurants, inns and bed-and-breakfasts to offer at least one localvore meal or menu item during the challenge week. They're also asking grocery stores in the valley to stock and label their shelves with Vermont-grown products, just as City Market in Burlington and the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier now do. Kids, too, will get a taste of it. The Mad River Localvores are working with local elementary schools in the valley to serve one localvore meal that week.
The Upper Valley Localvores are offering five different challenge options, from eating local-only for the entire month of August, to a single potluck dinner. There's also a "create-your-own" challenge, in which people pledge whatever they can stomach to boost their personal consumption of regional victuals. As of press time, the group had 70 people signed up.
One question inevitably arises: Does eating locally cost more? McGovern turns the question on its head by pointing out the various costs of not eating locally -- such as the billions in tax dollars spent subsidizing multinational agribusinesses; the expense of excess packaging that occupies dwindling landfill space; the environmental toll that industrial agriculture takes on water, air and soil quality; and the myriad costs associated with factory farming and the inhumane treatment of animals.
"If we don't eat local foods, we lose the farms that add so much to our landscape," McGovern adds. "We will have to settle for produce that has been selected for its ability to be picked before it's ripe and shipped long distances . . . And, we'll be totally dependent on and at the mercy of large corporations that value profits over the health of consumers and the planet."
It's worth quantifying the economic benefits of eating local, as Burlington economist Doug Hoffer did in a July 2000 report on the Vermont economy. "If Vermont substituted local products for only 10 percent of the food we import," he wrote, "it would result in $376 million in new economic output, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3616 jobs."
Initially, some Vermonters may find it difficult to forego such delectable edibles as avocados, chocolate, olives, mangoes, bananas, rice and other imported provisions. However, Vermont's various localvore websites offer a wealth of information on how to not only survive but thrive on local fare -- from Québec rolled oats to apple cider vinegar, soybean cooking oils to locally produced beers, wines and mushrooms. Additionally, both City Market and the Hunger Mountain Co-op report that they will offer plenty of local food options and advice, especially for hard-to-find provisions. As Jodi Harrington at City Market puts it, "This is what we do."
Several localvore groups will also hold "practice potlucks" to help eat-local wannabes get up to speed and swap recipes and ideas. A huge potluck event at Burlington's Intervale barn on Sunday, July 30, will kick off the monthlong event. And, for folks too timid or caffeine-crazy to swear off all foreign fare, Carpenter says people can pledge to be "food fairies" and deliver one locally grown meal to another person or household.
Vermont's localvore movement appears to be growing -- like much of the food itself -- organically. With several localvore and co-op websites compiling databases of Vermont-based recipes, hard-to-find ingredients and maps to local farms and food producers, a "Vermont Localvore Cookbook" is inevitable. And since August is such a great month for both food and travel in Vermont, some entrepreneur could easily turn it into an ecotourist opportunity: localvore travel tours? In the not-too-distant future, a "Green Mountain Localvore Challenge" could become an annual Vermont tradition along the lines of Town Meeting and Green Up Day. Move over, zucchini fest.
For more info on localvore challenges:
Champlain Valley Localvores: http://www.eatlocalvt.org 
Mad River Valley Localvores: http://www.vermontlocalvore.org 
Upper Valley Localvores: http://www.vitalcommunities.org/agriculture/localvore/localvorehome.htm 
Brattleboro Localvores: http://www.postoilsolutions.org/localvore 
Middlebury Localvores: Ginger Nickerson, 897-5448