My Canada, 71/150: The 100-mile food challenge

Whether you consider it groundbreaking or granola flaky, you can praise/blame a couple Canadians for the “100 Mile Diet” phenomenon.

In 2005, Canadian journalists Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon were sharing life in  Vancouver, B.C. and were well on their way to their tree-hugger merit badges: they cycled for local transportation and had a remote cabin in the woods as a getaway where they sometimes made meals with what they could forage. But in the city, they became dissatisfied with how they ate. As James MacKinnon writes, “According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, the food we eat now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate. The distance had increased by up to 25 per cent between 1980 and 2001, when the study was published. It was likely continuing to climb.”

His solution? A stab at trying to eat local — and only locally produced — food. For a year. They drew a circle out from Vancouver to mark what seemed like “local” to them without leaping the Rocky Mountains and it worked out to a 100-mile radius.

71 Vancouver 100 mile radius

A year after their experiment was over, they published a book, The 100-Mile Diet, chronicling their adventure and struggles. They alternate narrative voices in the book. Alisa was not quite as enthusiastic about the project, as she writes in Chapter 2:

“James always carries things one step further than your typical person. if he commits to riding a bicycle, he rides even in the North Pacific monsoon of December that obscure vision, that freeze your bones. If, as he did when he was a 21-year-od rock climber, he decides to impress his new love interest with his strength and bravery, he hangs off the outside edge of a 17-storey balcony … So when James said, as we sat eating breakfast in our dining nook ‘Let’s eat only local food for a year,’ my arm froze … Is this going to be one of those hanging-off balconies … kind of projects?

The project gained fame long before the book got published. The two had been writing regular reports for The Tyee, an independent news and culture website in Vancouver.  Their experiment began in March 2005 and, by October, their stories had spread around the world via the internet. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said The Tyee’s editor. “You’re blog celebrities.” People from across North America and Europe wanted Alisa and James to speak at conferences, do interviews, answer recipe questions.

Living in Vancouver, they had some things in abundance: seafood, for one. The book chronicles their quest to find wheat or any wheat products made in southern B.C. (Spoiler alert: months in, they do eventually find wheat.) They ate an abundance of potatoes and eggs, learned how to preserve summer vegetables to last into the winter, were thankful for local wineries, and had to cook almost everything from scratch, given manufactured foods had ingredients from out of range, or unidentifiable.

71 100 mile radius Stratford
This is the 100-mile radius for Stratford, ON, which covers quite a variety of food sources, including salt from Goderich. Want to check out your own 100-mile radius? Go to this website and enter your location:

In Canada, no-one thinking of hewing to a “100-mile diet” is going to have coffee, black tea, pepper, olive oil, or citrus fruit (unless, in my case, I got thieve-y with the lemon tree growing happily and fruitfully in Toronto’s Allan Gardens Conservatory, a 10-minute walk from where I live).

Southern Ontario actually does pretty well within a 100-mile radius. It encompasses the salt mines of Goderich, ON (the Vancouver originators used kelp flakes to add salty flavour); meats, poultry, and eggs from local farms; dairy and cheese-makers; all manner of vegetables grown in fields in summer and greenhouses in winter; lake fish and farm-raised trout; the abundance of fruits from the Niagara Region; Niagara-produced wine; beer produced from local hops and barley;  and an assortment of surprises from ginger (first planted in areas formerly used for tobacco) to peanuts (a tiny portion of peanuts sold in the Canadian market but, if you hunt hard enough, you can find them.) To “eat local” through the winter does require planning ahead and investment in canning equipment and a freezer; otherwise it’s kale, rutabaga, potatoes, carrots, squash and, while they last, apples.

Within their book, our food explorers ask the question, “Why bother”? They talk about a New Zealand study — prompted by concern that “buy local” campaigns would decimate their food exports — that tracked energy used to move food from point to point within Britain versus getting it to the U.K. from New Zealand. It was actually more energy efficient to ship all those thousands of miles “owing to the heavy energy consumption of industrial farming in the U.K.” James MacKinnon counter-argues that the problem is how much energy industrial farms use in the U.K., and he continues to advocate strongly for, as much as possible, getting your food near where you live.

The book spawned a fad, a TV show, fame, and now is a background hum as people, by various roads, move toward the destination of committing to support local farmers and eating locally grown or raised foods. There still are naysayers, including University of Toronto geography professor Pierre Desrochers and his wife, Hiroko Shimizu, whose 2012 book, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet says it shows “how eliminating agriculture subsidies and opening up international trade, not reducing food miles, is the real route to sustainability; and why eating globally, not only locally, is the way to save the planet.”

I’ve never attempted a strict 100-mile diet but do try to buy locally and seasonally as much as possible. In my mind, it truly is a matter of taste: as in, the difference between a tomato, a strawberry, or an asparagus harvested that day from nearby fields, compared with their available-year-round cardboard-esque counterparts that arrive exhausted after their journeys half-way around the world.

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