Consumer culture is artificially created by corporate propaganda. What reinforces this artifice (besides the systematic use of the Federal Reserve Notes themselves) are the vast supply chains crisscrossing entire continents. The result of this unfortunate situation is that individuals and their families become emotionally disconnected from their communities simply because their very survival is not reliant upon them, but instead rests with a bunch of faceless empty suits whom they will never even meet in person during their lifetimes; in other words, central planning has replaced spontaneous order.
During Bush, Jr.’s reign of terror, a Canadian couple tried out the seemingly wacky idea to only eat foods that grew within 100 miles of their Vancouver apartment for a whole year. As they mentioned:
“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 percent between 1980 and 2001, when the study was published. It was likely continuing to climb.”
This served as the basis for their desire to reduce the so-called “food miles” their groceries had to travel, with their intention being to reduce the consumption of petroleum needed to physically move the food from farm to market. While certainly a laudable goal, what I noticed throughout this tale of theirs is that they themselves had to increase their own personal consumption of fossil fuels in order to just arrive at the local “pick-your-own” farms. Although I too am concerned about the reckless over extraction of natural resources committed primarily by 14th Amendment corporations, I fail to see how increasing your own personal expenses would simultaneously minimize your “ecological footprint” (unless I am missing something here).
The early phase of this 100 mile diet showed some startling revelations (at least for me). MacKinnon describes cooking the official first meal thusly:
“I fried the fish in unsalted organic butter from a dairy whose cows we’d see placidly free-ranging while we were cycling on a Fraser River island (21 miles away), infusing it with sage leaves from a plant on our balcony (zero miles). On the side, fritters of organic, free-range eggs (57 miles) and grated potato (99 miles) and turnip (30 miles), each one slathered in organic yogurt (15 miles) and sprigs of anise, which grows around the neighborhood like a weed. The only nonlocal product on the table was the salt in the shaker, from a bagful we had brought weeks earlier that came from Oregon, a few hundred miles away…[a]nd we allowed ourselves this moment of happiness. Because the grocery bill for that single meal had come to $128.87.”
Yikes! Almost $130 on a single meal? Obviously, they’d need to change something, or they’re not going to survive the week; thankfully, they quickly switched primarily to root vegetables. One concession that was made not too long after this event was:
“We were two months into the 100-mile diet, but to be honest, our food was still a mystery. None of it had traveled far – potatoes from the Fraser Valley, apple cider from Vancouver Island – but neither had we come much closer to it. We were stilly relying on food from the grocery shelves, where every product’s history is erased.”
You must keep in mind that they had allowed themselves the “luxury” of using up whatever they had already bought before they started this diet. Smith herself admitted that:
“Since beginning our 100-mile diet, my main snacks had been reduced to, say, berries and yogurt, or celery sticks. Or nothing at all. No more gorging on half a bag of Chunks Ahoy! Cookies at one sitting, which I had done in the past from time to time. As the Harvard research shows, I’m not the only one driven by such uncontrollable sugar compulsions.”
Here she was alluding to a study which suggested that junk food is designed by Big Food to physiologically increase the desire for sweets of all kinds. Needless to say, if you require a university study to tell you not to eat junk food, then maybe you’re just not all there.
Throughout their book, the authors seem to wax nostalgic about what they think the past was. For instance, they will accurately mention the current situation by saying:
“More and more, North American consumers will eat produce from distant places they will never visit, though they might easily have grown vegetables in their own backyards. In fact, they might be eating that imported produce at exactly the same time that it’s growing just a few miles away. This is called “redundant trade” ; consider, for example, the fact that international imports to California peak during that state’s strawberry season.”
But then, they will extrapolate and interpret what that means with their conclusion that:
“It’s no secret that we, as a society, have been losing the traceability of our food, but of every aspect of our lives. On any given day, chances are high I will have no idea what phase the moon is in. I cannot reliably list my brother’s birthdates, and I regularly use products that work according to principles that I cannot explain. I suspect I will go through life without meeting any of the people who make my shoes, or even seeing the factories where those shoemakers work. Like many people, Alisa and I have lost all trace of our traceability to community. We’ve lived five years in the same crappy apartment block, where the rent rises yearly while wages continue to flatline. We’ve never met the owner of the building, and we know none of our neighbors by name. If we had children, we’d be too busy to get to know their teachers.”
Playing the devil’s advocate here, I have to ask what MacKinnon’s bad memory have anything to do with the emergence of Big Food? Sure, he has a valid argument here regarding the loss of community, but the problem here is that he’s conflating the machinations of agribusiness with his own personal forgetfulness. He just seems to dilute the importance of his otherwise legitimate critiques against Big Food, which is what I think he fumbled the ball on here. Most pointedly, it’s mentioned that:
“What made us drift away? In 1920 the rural and urban populations of both the United States and Canada were evenly split. Movement toward the cities stalled with the Depression, but rapidly accelerated with the boom after World War II. The rural customs – self-sufficiency, buying from people you know, shopping catalogs for a few trusted products – could not hold. In the cities, hundreds of brands competed with powerful advertising, while emerging chain stores deployed tactics like selling at a loss to break shoppers’ old loyalties. There was no going back to the farm.”
This is so critically important to understand, for it explains why urbanization in these United States is hovering at ~ 82% of the total domestic population. If you were a clever tyrant, wouldn’t you want to move the agrarians off their farms and herd them into the cities where they would have to humiliatingly submit themselves to wage slavery in order to pay their bills? Assuming this was true, wouldn’t such a despotic batch of tyrants eventually want to further consolidate their power by implementing schemes like the United Nations’ Agenda 21 bullcrap so as to effectively turn whole metropolitan areas into what would essentially become prison cities?
So, what were the results of this couple’s experiment with eating locally? On one occasion, MacKinnon abruptly stopped the car and performed a U-turn when he saw a sign for organic blueberries being sold for $2 a pound. While driving outside Victoria, MacKinnon hopped out of his car and uprooted two wild growing camas out of a forest meadow. During a visit to the West Coast Seeds‘ organic demonstration garden, Smith describes their haul of food:
“We lugged our heaping boxes back to the barn, where the woman eyeballed the produce and then charged us the rock-bottom price of one dollar per pound. This, too, was a lesson. Our farmlands are not only our security against hunger, they are also the last redoubt of a gentler capitalism. A dozen is inevitably a baker’s dozen, and the numbers on the scale always seem to be rounded down. We’ve bought fish on the promise to pay later; flowers by karmic donation; honey from an unattended stall. After weighing our tomatoes, the lady minding the store insisted that we throw in a cantaloupe and a few onions for free.” [emphasis added]
These three separate events show a range of food being sold ranging from $2/lb. to being completely free, with the best variety at $1 per pound. Smith contrasts this affordability with the sheer reckless waste of perfectly edible food:
“Across the border on days like this, the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project in Whatcom County sent teams of volunteers into the fields to gather food for the hungry – over 40 percent of America’s crops, they said, were lost or thrown away. It was another of the lessons of the 100-mile diet: There is just so much food. All the unpicked berries and potatoes left in the dirt, the ‘ugly fruit’ that is deemed unworthy of the grocery shelves, the fishheads that never make it into a stockpot. Since spring we had learned about all the good eating we had been throwing in the trash, or at best the compost – carrot tops, squash blossoms, every inch of the cauliflower plant.”
Other than assuming that the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project got that 40% total food wastage percentage from that one Food Not Bombs flyer (which Warren Oakes referred to in his manifesto) regarding an alleged USDA food wastage study published in the ERS’s Food Review January 1997 issue, I honestly don’t know where they got that number from; Smith apparently didn’t follow up on that claim of theirs in order to determine who the primary source was (despite the fact that she appears to be the quaternary source for this food waste percentage claim, but hey, that’s mainstream journalism for you). The couple concludes that:
“We have attempted to reinvent our way of eating. Is it still possible, in a global age, in an age of fast food, to live off the land that surrounds us? It is. In the end there was only a single, nagging foodstuff in the cupboards that was not a part of the place we call home. Salt.”
Of course, they then go on to describe how they attempted to boil seawater to get at the salt six months after they had concluded their yearlong experiment, but what were their specific findings that lead them to this conclusion? Unfortunately, what I have briefly described already is about as precise as they were willing be regarding the costs of their geographically localized diet.
This brings me now to my critique of their methodology. First, they sounded way too much like Douglas Rushkoff, with page after page of whining about imagined hurts and missed opportunities as if the victim mentality were going out of style. Secondly, there was too much history given; while potentially intriguing for some history buffs, I fail to see how the trials and tribulations of the “native indigenous people of wherever” has anything at all to do with my attempt at conducting my own individual boycott of corporate agribusiness by buying only locally grown food. Thirdly, there was no index, and (more importantly) no bibliographical source citations were ever given (if it wasn’t in the text itself, then no secondary or primary source were given); whatever anecdotal evidence that was offered was completely unhelpful. Fourth, there was an egregious lack of accounting regarding the prices of the local foods they bought, even in terms of estimates; while they would habitually describe the foods they ate, they routinely neglected to mention what it all cost, the exceptions to this rule of theirs being those three incidents I’ve described already. Finally, and most tiring of all, was how painful it was for me to slog through their muddled psyches, which ranged from Smith’s fascination with real estate and nostalgia about her childhood to MacKinnon’s climate change fear-mongering run amuck; the very worst of this was expressed in Smith’s ambiguity regarding her long-term romance with MacKinnon:
“Did he really want to know? That at any given moment I see everyday life as only this big, the space between my finger and thumb. The rest of my mind is occupied with five, a dozen, three dozen other potential lives, each representing some opportunity never taken or currently within reach. Without those worlds of possibility, my life immediately begins to seem boring and drab. I’m thirty-three years old, always broke, and merely existing in what, without having been sealed by formal wedding vows, had become a traditional marriage. I had no blues to lament, not really. My only drama was in my daydreams. They reminded me that any day, at any moment, I could change everything, and while many of those alternate lives featured James at my side – the truth was that some of them did not.”
Nobody paid eight bucks to hear you complain about your poor career choices, sweetheart. Maybe you should quit pontificating about how awful and horrendous your life is and actually start taking concrete steps to improve it, unless you just enjoy masochistically ruminating over “what could have been.” Or maybe you should actually appreciate MacKinnon for the man he is, idiosyncrasies and all. I shouldn’t have to offer basic dating advice in a book review about grassroots agriculture because the authors were too inept or lazy to fill up 262 pages of this book with relevant material about the subject matter at hand.
Despite the grievous systemic faults throughout this book, I would like to propose a different perspective on this issue that I think the authors were trying to communicate. If you synthesize the issue of eating locally with that of eating organic, a third variable emerges regarding the affordability of local and/or organic foods (that is, retail versus wholesale). What this would mean then is that the contrasting variables would be listed as:
- local v. chains
- organic v. genetically modified organisms
- wholesale v. retail
Assuming that this accurate, then there would theoretically be nine different combinations, to wit:
- organic, local, & wholesale
- organic, local, & retail
- organic, chain, & wholesale
- organic, chain, & retail
- GMOs, local, & wholesale
- GMOs, local, & retail
- GMOs, chain, & wholesale
- GMOs, chain, & retail
Obviously, I don’t think GMOs would be sold locally at all, since GMOs are mainly supplied by chain stores anyway. The worst case scenario would be GMOs sold by a chain at retail price, which I am going to assume here is the norm for grocery stores. Warehouse club stores, such as Costco and Sam’s Club, sell GMOs at wholesale prices, but they also sell certified organic foods at wholesale as well. Organic foods could also be sold at retail, which was ostensibly Whole Foods’ position, at least until they admitted they sold GMOs as well, according to this September 2012 press release (and in the attempt to repair their reputation, Whole Foods managed to get Megan Westgate, the Executive Director for The Non-GMO Project, to write this April 2013 promotional piece). Farmer’s markets operating within city limits are notorious for selling their locally grown organic produce at higher than retail prices. Ideally, the best case scenario would be locally grown organic food sold wholesale, yet this seems to require actually traveling to the farm itself, so an individual is going to have to perform a marginal analysis in order to gauge whether his decision to spend FRNs on gasoline to travel to the farm in question would offset the costs of him paying retail at the grocery store closer to his home (Smith was all too happy to mention about the horrors of negative externalities, but she then neglected how to remedy that nasty problem by thinking along the margins).
In that case, what are the options realistically available if you want to eat locally and/or organically without breaking your budget? Well, I don’t think going broke over eating at specialty restaurants serving locally grown organic dishes like the Chez Panisse with its $80 meals is a recipe for success (pardon the pun), and neither is bothering with the fad-ridden urbanite “farmer’s” markets. You’d be better off grazing at the nearest grocery store chain or even the odd family diner (and yes, you’d still be paying retail, and the food is going to be laced with GMOs, but at least it’d be noticeably more affordable). Besides Costco and Sam’s Club, Amazon Prime offers free shipping (depending on the eligibility of the items themselves) for an annual $79 fee, and Wal-Mart offers free shipping on orders of greater than $30 (providing that the delivery time is at least 6 days). Other than these options for cost-cutting from the chains, the only real options I can see for locally grown food sold at wholesale prices would be at a well-managed local food co-op, or actually traveling to the farms yourselves and buying the food on location (which is what Smith & MacKinnon eventually did). My parting recommendation on this topic (for now) would be that if you approached eating locally as if it were a hobby, and not as a Reactive Ralphie, then I think you can get the best possible value wherever you happen to live (and maybe, just maybe, enjoying yourself a bit while doing it!).
Smith & MacKinnon’s Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Robust Year of Eating Locally (also known as The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating) is a loose experiment in genuine sustainability written as if it were a memoir. Although the kernel of their idea was good, their execution and description of it was just plain lousy. I think the principle of libertarian municipalism was the vague intention of the authors here, but guiding ideas such as that are already being expressed by such efforts as the Keep Austin Weird campaign and Local Harvest searchable database. Unfortunately, I’m left to partially agree with the always humorous Anthony Bourdain, who reportedly “dissed” Smith & MacKinnon when he said in a June 2006 interview:
“I’m always interested in the best food, wherever it comes from. But I don’t think I could ever see myself, no matter where I was, even somewhere like Vancouver, with all of its abundant produce and ingredients, getting all Alice Waters. I’m just not a hippie. I don’t care. I always enjoy food a bit too much to really have that kind of an agenda. Something like the 100-mile Diet? Well great. But that’s sort of like building a ship in a bottle for me. It’s beautiful, but why? It’s not something I’d do. I think they’re nuts.”
While this may sound “intolerant” of me to say, I must admit that every politically themed book I’ve read by Canadian authors thus far seem to be little else than incessantly whining diatribes, whether they be about the law courts or Big Food. Add to this that they are totally unhelpful, either because they neglect to suggest anything that might work or they insist their readers to act on misinformation, and it begins to sour whatever potential future solidarity could ever exist between Canadian and American political dissidents.