The notion of eating only local food took off in 2007 with the publication of The Hundred Mile Diet, which followed an urban Canadian couple’s decision to source all their food within 100 miles of their front door. This was six months on from the alarming Stern Review and Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and people were looking for ways to make their own contribution towards slowing down climate change.
Reducing the miles the food on their dinner plate travelled seemed a good place to start. Overnight, eating oranges from California or apples from New Zealand went from being exotic to irresponsible and selfish. Local food – previously dismissed as boring – was back in fashion. Today, it is such a successful marketing tool that even British Rail advertises their over-priced, soggy sandwiches as containing Devon Ham and Somerset Cheese.
In Fife, Mike Small and his family were also looking for a way to make a difference having just moved from Glasgow to embrace a more rural life. Mike was fed up with the lack of any government action on climate change, and with a new baby on the way, he felt motivated to do something. He and his family embarked on a plan to eat 100 percent of their food from the Fife area – about a thirty-mile radius.
“We sort of blundered into it and started our diet in October which meant we hadn’t done any bottling or pickling during the summer. We also weren’t very good gardeners at first so we had a few lean months during the hungry gap in April to May.”
The family experiment soon expanded, as Mike and a band of volunteers set up community lunches in small, abandoned mining villages around the region. Working with a producer, they invited along village residents who were delighted to not only receive a free meal but see a little of the old community spirit revived.
Mike says they learned as they went along. “At the first meetings, we noticed that the men would stand around and stroke their chins and talk about climate change while the women would run around after the toddlers. So we employed childcare at all our events from thereon in which was the real key to building the numbers.”
A year and half in, the project received funding from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, “which completely transformed it for us,” says Mike. Soon they were holding reskilling workshops and starting communal growing projects. The diet also changed to allow 20 percent of produce to come from outside the Fife area, which opened the way for treats like olive oil and chocolate.
Mike talks about the virtuous circle of following a local diet. “The more people get involved, the more the demand for local food goes up and the more new businesses open their doors. Also, the dairy farmers – who are being done down by the big supermarkets – diversify into making artisan products like ice cream. People start to take a real interest in climate change and what they can do. We now feel like a movement rather than a project.”
Less politically motivated but no less effective is the Norfolk Diet, which was started by award winning Pork Pie producer, Sarah Pettegree, four years ago. Sarah had read about the Fife Diet and wanted to do something similar in her region.
“I was interested in how small food businesses reflect the landscape here – the sea, the marshes, the farmland and the small villages with their kitchen gardens – and I wanted to show people inside and outside Norfolk how fabulous the food was.”
Sarah started by deciding to only eat locally produced food for the month of February but allowed herself three opt out clauses – herbs and spices, garlic and tinned tomatoes. “I didn’t want it to be a hair-shirt experiment and I couldn’t see how I could survive without tinned tomatoes in winter.” As it turned out, she only used one tin.
“I ate seasonally which meant a lot of pheasant, pigeon and game and foraging for nettles. Also, everything was cooked in butter, as there were no oils produced in Norfolk at the time. I got the tail end of the apples and was never at a loss for apple juice and beer but by the end of month, I did feel like a medieval peasant! When the first salad leaves arrived, I fell on them, so delighted to be eating something green”.
Following her month-long experiment, Sarah has stuck to a 60-70% local diet since and says she now only visits the supermarket for cat food and dishwasher tablets. She, like many of the others who have followed her lead, buy the bulk of their food from the weekly farmers market which Sarah helped set up in the centre of Norwich.
“I eat local food because it really tastes better than food that has travelled across the country. It’s fresher, better quality and makes good economic sense. People are beginning to realise that a pound spent on produce at the farmers market has a high likelihood of staying in the local economy whereas a pound spent at Tesco’s is gone.”
The economics of eating local food and the need to establish a secure food supply during these uncertain times, are as big a draw card for many as the environmental aspects of the diet. Increasingly, people want more control over where their food comes from. Local diets not only give people the opportunity to know where their food was produced but to meet the people who grew, reared or made it.
It creates a food system where everyone takes responsibility – including the consumers. All credit should go to those who are making it happen.
Featured image by Leslie Main Johnson
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