Today is “Meatless Monday“, a campaign that encourages us all to reduce our carbon footprint and improve our health by eating less meat. Today’s posting is a discussion about the “Eating Local” movement by my good friend, Vi Stoesz. She and her husband Barry participated in a “100 Mile Diet for 100 days” experiment several years ago, and Vi was recently invited to share their experience with an interested group of women in Altona, Manitoba. Vi was gracious enough to agree to my request to share her talk on this blog:
Thanks for inviting me to talk about my experience with the 100 Mile Diet.
In the spring of 2007, we had heard about the 100 Mile Diet and were inspired by the Vancouver couple who went on a local diet for one year, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. A couple from our church, Jennifer deGroot and Will Braun, had also been gardening in the city and been very committed to putting food up for the winter. Jennifer shared extensively about eating local with members of our church, Hope Mennonite. She and Will also worked on a farm as part of their journey towards eating locally.
Via the grapevine, we heard of the 100 Mile Diet challenge for interested people in Winnipeg. The challenge was to eat food grown in a 100 mile radius for 100 days and they were hoping that 100 people would sign up to participate. A website was formed, where people could register to be official participants. The challenge lasted from September 1 –December 9, 2007. The group that created the idea wanted the experience to be somewhat of a challenge so they started it in September rather than over the summer. This gave us time to prepare, learn to put food up if we needed to, research local sources of food, and network with others.
In the early spring of 2007, I really thought about it and wondered if we could do it. I love contests that have a competitive edge – especially if they include my husband. My children were 18, 22, and 24 at the time so I didn’t really have anything more to say to them in terms of advice – they knew all the answers! However, I still wanted to be an inspiration to them just as my parents have been to me in terms of service and life challenges. I also came to believe this experiment would be a direct act of faith, in keeping with God’s call to care for the environment. By eating locally, our food travels less which reduces green house gas emissions, it tastes better, and – most of the time -there is less packaging. The foods eaten are whole foods, with less processing. I would have to do the processing. My connection with the land that grows my food would be strengthened. I liked that. My demand for cheap exotic fruits like oranges, pineapple and bananas is also directly linked with the oppression of poor farmers who have to use their land to grow food for me instead of their families. Were my choices in food affecting someone else’s livelihood and contributing to their poverty? I needed to think about those connections, and I wanted to connect my actions with my beliefs. This would be a good opportunity to directly live out my faith and learn lots in the process.
I ran the idea past my husband Barry and he agreed to join me if he could still drink coffee and eat chocolate. We had been drinking fair trade coffee for about a year – would we have to give that up too? Would we really try to give up chocolate? We talked to others who were joining about their thoughts on coffee, chocolate and salt. Where would we get salt? It turns out the only source of salt we could find that was somewhat close was in Saskatchewan. Was this too far? It wasn’t 100 miles. If we couldn’t get it locally, what will our food taste like without salt? What about spices? Isn’t this something that the First Nations traded for furs? We were getting scared and very hesitant about this whole thing. We thought it was a bit crazy. Why put ourselves through this? Weren’t we already eating local chicken and going to farmer’s markets? We were concerned and spoke with others. They reassured us that if we joined, there would not be daily visits from “100 Mile” police to check up on us, or dire consequences for diving into a chocolate bar in the middle of the night. If some people wanted to join with a few exceptions, that would be acceptable, and they could still sign up. The point of the experiment was to be as open and transparent as possible. We were still scared but excited at the same time when we took the plunge and signed up.
I was working full time at a hospital as a Recreation Coordinator but I wanted to see if I could “flex” my hours, and work four days a week so I could also work on a farm during the summer. I approached my supervisor and she agreed that I could work overtime at work and free up 10 Fridays during the summer to work on Dan and Wilma Wiens’ farm. They are involved in a market gardening exchange where urban dwellers like me can receive a 20 week delivery of fresh vegetables in exchange for working on the farm. It’s called “Community Shared Agriculture” (CSA), and Dan and Wilma started the CSA movement in Canada. According to the website Ignatius Farm CSA, Canadian CSAs began in Manitoba when some farmers gathered together to address shared questions about agriculture and discuss their desire for “culture” to become an integral part of agriculture. The idea of shared farming was developed to connect the larger community with the farms providing their food and to share in the risks together. Canadians CSAs began in 1992 when the Wiens Shared Farm began serving Winnipeg, Manitoba. CSA farms are now found throughout Canada and the United States.
In retrospect, I think I was a bit crazy to take on working on a farm and committing Barry and myself to the 100 Mile Diet. I was not prepared for the amount of effort this entailed – not to mention the preparations involved. But so it is for me when I commit to an action. If it were not for friends and family who helped me fulfill my obligations on the farm, I don’t think I would have survived! Now I pay for the weekly delivery of produce and I don’t complain about the price because I know the amount of work the farmers have put into getting it to me.
While readying for the 3 months of eating locally, we had to prepare ourselves during the summer, working on the farm, researching local sources of food, checking the website every day for any new information, and hoarding any local food we could get my hands on! As well, I started contacting local farmers. Beverley Stow in Carmen area and I had a great conversation about beans, and land, and gas, and environment. I think we even talked politics and President Bush, too. Anyway, we finally got down to discussing the details of beans and it turned out the smallest bags of beans she had available was 100 pounds of kidneys, 100 pounds of great white northerns and 100 pounds of brown lentils. So, this conversation resulted in many other phone conversations from me to my circle of friends that began with: “Hi – do you have any kidney beans yet? Well look no further, because I would like it if you please take some off my hands!” One 100 Miler took to having a lentil party in her front yard and selling them in 5 lb. Packages. I think she charged $4.00 for an ice cream pail of lentils. Some of my beans even made it to the annual Harvest Moon Festival in Clearwater, Manitoba. I felt quite honoured to know that beans from my 100 pound bag would end up feeding many hundreds of people. Talk about getting excited about beans!
There were some fun times gathering and gleaning over the summer. I made many trips to the market, because my weekly box of produce only lasted for one week. I remember carrying a 50 lb. sack of potatoes on my shoulders during one market visit. Sacks of corn, yes, I carried them too! I scooped up many bags of beans, spinach, cucumbers and beets. I wasn’t too worried about vegetables – they were plentiful and the processing of them took time but I was confident I could handle this. (I’m sure many of you are more familiar and experienced with putting food up than I am). There are lots of recipes to make from spinach, onions, tomatoes, and of course potatoes. Eating enough FRUIT was going to be a challenge that made me nervous. NO more bananas for this girl. We had to keep track of the strawberry season, the raspberry season, and wait patiently for the blueberries. I think Neechi Foods in the North end of our city has never had so many people on their waiting list for local blueberries! The day of our son’s wedding, I sent my brother in law to pick up a box of blueberries because they were waiting at Neechi Foods. We ended up preparing platters of food for the wedding and freezing blueberries at the same time! I felt like a crazy woman sometimes. My parents got in the action by offering to cut, peel, and core bags and bags of apples for freezing or drying. I think they gave me 20 bags of apples – all prepared. That was a precious gift. I used those apples from the freezer and dried them when local apples were not available in November anymore. At the market during the summer, I discovered a farmer with ice cream pails of Manitoba plums. They were quite sour but I didn’t care – they were LOCAL. I ended up drying them and patiently cutting, pitting, and turning every half inside out to dry them. They were so sour that I had to hide them in homemade granola so they would get used. I think I still have some in my cupboard. Making jam was a challenge without the gelatin – we ate the runny stuff for a while.
So the day finally came – September 1st. I remember feeling quite anxious and scared. There were still lots of questions and doubts. I really doubted that we could go through with it. Would we stick to it? Well, we dove in because we were already signed up and committed. The first week was nerve wracking. We questioned everything that went into our mouths – hesitating – making sure it was something that was local. All candy, chocolate, all processed snacks, white or brown rice, soy sauce, in fact all sauces, dressings, oranges, bananas, shrimp, etc, etc, etc, were OUT. One morning I walked into Safeway to check out what I could buy, and there were only one or two things I could buy in that huge store. I walked out with a jug of milk with a certain number on it and a chunk of local New Bothwell cheese.
During the first week, we found we had to change our way of thinking and our attitude. Instead of thinking about all the foods we had to give up, we had to think of what we COULD eat and enjoy and cherish. I hid all the rice, couscous, and lots of other food from my cupboard; the food that we had worked so hard to dig out, blanch, cut up, dry, and freeze became our life blood for the next hundred days. We thought about all the farmers who do this every day, all over the world. We developed a new appreciation for them and for their hard work that keep us fed. We re-introduced wild rice into our diet, which was really quite good. We ate local pickerel, too. as some people locally were ordering it in bulk from a northerner so we were fortunate to link up with them. We discovered local pasta made in Steinbach, although they use wheat from the next province, Saskatchewan. We drank wine from Leobarde Winery. In fact, they invited all the 100 Milers to a potluck of local food and local wine and gave us a tour of their small brewery. We ate our locally produced recipes and drank local raspberry, blueberry, and chokecherry wine. That was one of the highlights of the three month challenge. If you like a nice sweeter fruitier wine, I would recommend these Manitoba wines.
All these great foods kept us going and we realized that we were going to survive. A huge help for me was meeting all the other 100 Milers. I remember shopping in our local store when I met another woman in one of those stores who was also wandering around checking labels, asking the same, slightly anxious, question: “Is this local?” I had never met this woman before but we hugged right there in the aisle when we discovered we had the same mission, to find local ingredients so we could make some supper.
We learned to make spinach crepes without baking powder –that was one of Will Braun’s staples. They were delicious and I still love them. We enjoyed foods that we normally wouldn’t eat, like those sour Manitoba plums of which I still have a huge jar. We developed a new love for lentils – even Barry liked my lentil burgers! People from rural areas would bring me bags of their own variety of beans from their gardens and of course I would give them a bag of my never-ending supply of kidneys and white northerns. I started telling people about the benefits of honey and how it can replace sugar. I bought very large amounts of red peppers from the market and roasted and froze them to use for pizza and dips. I started making my own mayonnaise and continue to do so. I pulled out a refrigerator pickle recipe from Ella Sawatsky (via her daughter Kathy) so I could eat cucumbers well into October. I discovered a squash soup recipe to die for and have continued to make it.
During the 100 days, we didn’t worry too much about the coffee, an occasional chocolate, or the salt from Saskatchewan we were consuming. Also our neighbourhood Tall Grass Prairie Bakery offered a sour dough bread so we were able to eat local bread, which was great because I didn’t quite have enough time or energy to bake my own bread. After a month, we relaxed a bit about our experiment and stuck to the diet but our list of exceptions did grow a bit. We included baking powder, baking soda, some curry powder and other spices and of course coffee. We stopped feeling guilty about these things and appreciated our greater awareness, our new friends, and our efforts to cook things from scratch from raw ingredients. We survived the 100 Mile Diet. In fact we thrived! If you look on the 100 Mile Manitoba website it has the word SURVIVED stroked out and THRIVED written underneath it. We were quite proud of ourselves for embarking on the challenge and continue to be inspired by others who store and prepare local food every summer. In fact, many of you I’m sure have done this all your life, like our grandparents before us – they would get a chuckle of our experience. It was simply how they lived. They had to, to survive.
Sustainable farming is something I would like to continue to learn about and support as I can. Right now I am a city dweller who is trying to become more aware of who grows my food, and appreciate them for it. I’m also slowly introducing more canning/freezing practices in my lifestyle. We continue to shop at stores that carry local, organic food, with the first priority being local. We pay a higher price for these items but we think it’s worth it if it means supporting our local economy, creating relationships with our farm families, and being creative about our cooking. It keeps us on our toes, searching for ways to contribute to the big picture of justice and food security for all.
After completing the 100 mile Diet on December 9th, 2007, our diet has never really been the same. Barry and I occasionally eat brown rice, pineapple, and yes we have organic bananas and Japanese oranges at Christmas and in the winter. We sometimes fall back into old habits of eating food that is processed and not very healthy. We need to keep reminding ourselves of the commitment we have made not only to ourselves and to Manitoba farmers but also to the environment and others in the world that we affect. Manitoba Food Charter which is now called: Food Matters Manitoba, 100 Mile Manitoba, and Fair Trade Manitoba. These and other food security groups continue to carry the torch for us with educational workshops, canning and food storing events, awareness campaigns and many other exciting ventures. Community Shared Agriculture continues to grow in Manitoba and has created opportunities for the family farm to connect with urban dwellers and strengthen a farmer’s livelihood. For the past two years, we have been members of CSA farm called Boundary Creek Farm, situated close to Winnipeg Beach. Geoff and Theresa Dyck and their four children have provided us with 20 weeks delivery of a box of fresh veggies in 2008 and this past summer. By committing to buy a share in their garden harvest, we all shared in the effects of the bad weather we had this summer. They had 75 shares last year and hope to increase that number this year. I enjoy knowing that I directly helped to feed that farming family.
Another initiative by Food Matters Manitoba along with Art from the Heart is the “Buy Local Grow Local” 2010 Calendar that I purchased from a store in Winnipeg called Eat It. Another of the happy results of our participation in the 100 Mile Diet is that we were introduced to Eat It, which is close to our house. We are now proud to call it our local grocery store. Quoting from EatIt.ca: Shopping at Eat It helps support local economy, when possible we buy from local producers. We source many of our products from Canadian Organic Producers, Suppliers, Wholesalers and Farmers.
Simply In Season, a cook book put out by Mennonite Central Committee, makes it easy to eat in season since all the recipes are organized around them. This cookbook is a reminder to use food we have on hand.
So to conclude, I’d like to say that I don’t have all the answers. Barry and I are constantly learning new ways of getting involved in our local community, as well as revisiting past traditions of preserving food. These practices are becoming more important to me as I learn about food security issues. I’m really excited about the conference in February since I was disappointed to miss last year’s. I have so much more to learn.
Thank you again for inviting me. I have enjoyed revisiting this journey and am grateful that groups like this one are open to hearing from us city folks. If you any questions, feel free to ask me. I have been re-inspired by sharing this experience with you.
Some further links:
Want to ask a farmer a question? Go to “Ask Farmer Dan” on Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s website. Dan Wiens is now MCC”s water and food security coordinator.
Vi and Barry’s daughter Kalynn is currently in India as the practical part of her studies in International Development, and she has an entertaining and insightful blog about her experience at KinIndia.blogspot.com.