100 Miles to Nowhere

If you follow food politics at all, you’re probably aware of the theory that “local is the new organic”. Where we once fought to have food that was pesticide-free, over the past couple of years, what with the attention towards global warming, people have clued in that maybe cutting down on the distance their food travels would be a good thing, too.

The pinnacle of this philosophy would have to be the 100-mile diet in which people make every effort to source all of their food from within a one hundred mile radius. This is easier said than done, particularly when you live somewhere like Toronto. Even if we assume people are willing to give up all coffee, tea, chocolate and citrus, there’s also things like spices to be considered. Imagine living life with absolutely no salt and pepper. Or flour.

Despite the inconvenience and overall lack of logic, the 100-mile diet seems to have its proponents and the San Francisco Gate recently gave coverage to three families trying to stick to the diet. However, the food writer for the East Bay Express made his opinion resoundingly clear…

Unless you make decisions for an entity like Chez Panisse, whose mission involves influencing fellow businesses to reduce impacts, isn’t a complex scheme of artificial limitations on your daily life the kind of self-indulgent game that elites love to play? Isn’t it a bit like masturbation? As the father of the Chron staffer is quoted as saying: “This challenge sounds like something for people with too much spare time.”

I want to focus on the comment about elites within this quote. I attend a variety of conferences, symposia and gathering for the food industry and the elite issue comes up again and again. So much so that it’s embarrassing.

Why is it embarrassing? Because it’s true.

Canadians spend an average of 9% of their income on food. That rate is about 11% in the US and 18% in the UK. We have access to cheap food because of the systems of import that are set up. We get asparagus from Peru because even though it’s thousands of miles away, it’s still cheaper to grow that asparagus in South America and ship it to Toronto than it is to grow it here – even when it is in season.

Those of us who can afford it are happy to eschew the well-travelled supermarket produce and wait for local stuff, when it’s at its peak. In fact, it can even be a sensual delight. But many many more people don’t have the time to run around town to all the farmers markets to find asparagus at twice the price of the supermarket version.

When I look around at these events, after listening to some food expert insist that our food costs are too low and we all need to be supporting local farmers, I see mostly middle-class white people. Educated people who have knowledge about our food systems, but also people who have the leisure to visit the farmer’s market on a weekday morning, or drive to Niagara for wine. I doubt very much that any of us has lately had to compare prices on discount boxes of mac and cheese, or worse, stand in line at a food bank.

This, of course, takes us into a whole range of other issues like minimum wage and support systems for the underprivileged, but it’s something that is always at the forefront of my mind on those occasions. Because trying to follow the 100-mile diet, regardless of where you live, is definitely an activity that only the elite can partake in. That single mom working two jobs who still finds herself having to choose between groceries and new boots for her kids has better things to do than to worry about if the wheat used to make her Wonderbread was grown within a 100-mile radius.

I am absolutely about supporting local farmers, and I am even more in favour of eating seasonally (you really shouldn’t be able to buy strawberries in January), but I’m also practical enough to realize that most people can’t and won’t give up the basic necessities. It shouldn’t be about individuals limiting themselves for a philosophical way of eating, but about changing the system as a whole so local produce is more easily accessible (and affordable) within the supermarket system. Until that happens it will be only the elite who can afford to partake.