How could it possibly be that hard? That was my first thought when I set out to eat only local food for two weeks in late April. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I regularly shop at farmers markets or my local co-op, I wouldn’t dare touch a tomato in December (the horror!), and I don’t eat meat. I thought I had this in the bag.
One of the first things I learned during this experiment was that while “local” is a ubiquitous marketing term, like “organic” and “natural,” it has no regulated meaning. When your corn is deemed local in the grocery store in New York, it might just mean it’s from Florida rather than California. But while the United States Department of Agriculture has not established a distance that constitutes local, a report to Congress on food-systems trends defines the designation as anything within a 400-mile radius or within the home state. Feeling optimistic, I decided on a 300-mile radius for my two-week test. It seemed boundless, including nearly all of New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and northern Virginia. I’d be able to get everything I could need! I was destined to succeed.
Oh, naivite. Needless to say, it did not go as planned. Still, I became wiser and more prepared to eat more regional foods in the future. Here’s what I learned.
The Only Way to Succeed? Make Exceptions.
On the first morning of my assignment, I stumbled around my apartment in my usual state—zombie-like, in desperate need of coffee. But even though there are coffee beans roasted in New York, my Stumptown Colombian blend certainly wasn’t grown near here. After I succumbed to a throbbing headache at 2 P.M., I decided I had to have it: there was no way I could write this story uncaffeinated.
After that, the more I began to think about the experiment, the more I realized how close to impossible it was going to be to maintain any semblance of regular life. If I wanted everything I was eating to be made from local ingredients, it probably meant a diet of vegetables, eggs, and the occasional local grain for two weeks straight. Without oil, lemons, spices, and sugar, how would I cook anything with flavor? How would I bake that dessert I promised to bring to my friend’s birthday party? How would I fry an egg? I would have to break the rules a little. I didn’t feel too bad—even Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, the authors of The 100-Mile Diet, a book that both fomented and piggybacked on the locavore zeitgeist of the early 2000s, sometimes allowed themselves exceptions like beer, chocolate, lentils, rice, and dried pasta.
So I laid down some ground rules: if the food was already languishing in my fridge, like the Mexico-imported mini peppers I bought the week before, I was allowed to have it. Considering the nation’s staggering food-waste stats—the USDA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is wasted, which in 2010 translated to 133 billion pounds of food—it seemed more important to eat what I had rather than filling my kitchen with new materials. What would be the point of eating local if I was damning other food to the garbage? That meant coffee from beans I already had. I would look for viable local substitutes for staples—honey from the Fingerlakes instead of granulated sugar, butter from the Hudson Valley instead of olive oil—although I could use what was in my pantry if there was no good swap. (Think: soy sauce and mustard.)
It’s Not Only More Expensive, It’s Also More Time-Consuming
After establishing the rules of the game, I took the subway 40 minutes to the Union Square Greenmarket, the biggest farmers market in the city. The goal: buy as much local produce as possible, plus any other essentials I could find. This included broccoli rabe, spinach, apples, cilantro, and sweet potatoes from farms in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, plus essentials for adding non-vegetal bulk: dried beans from Bordentown, New Jersey (70 miles away), white flour from Willsboro, New York (292 miles), eggs from upstate (240 miles), Ronnybrook Farm butter and yogurt (100 miles), crushed tomatoes (from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey farms), and mozzarella from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, (160 miles). I had beans for protein, vegetables to sauté, flour to turn into bread and pizza dough, and eggs and dairy for breakfast.
My husband and I spent close to $200 at the market—about $100 more than our usual weekly grocery bill—which was not surprising. Food that’s grown and processed on small farms with higher operating costs is bound to be more expensive: a March 2018 study found that a typical “basket of produce” from a farmers market was 17 percent more expensive than the same basket from a grocery store. Consequently, this disparity will likely price out anyone looking to maximize the amount of food they get for every dollar spent.
What I didn’t realize was how much more time it would take to plan and research local meals. I couldn’t just stop by the grocery store on the way home—I’d have to go to the farmers market or the closest co-op, which sources nearby produce. I went miles out of my way to purchase bread from one of the few bakeries using local heirloom flours. Procuring “special” food, which was once an activity reserved for weekends, became a focus of my day-to-day life. Still, there was even more I could do. I drew the line at trying to source local ingredients that weren’t available at the farmers market or grocery stores. A day trip to upstate New York or Vermont for sunflower seed oil or maple sugar would have been nice, but it would also require me to put the rest of my life, including my full-time job as an editor, on hold.
Cooking Is Basically the Only Option
Even though I usually cook most nights of the week, I do rely on faster options from restaurants—sandwiches, salads, pizza—when I’m busy or traveling. This wasn’t an option during my test. Even restaurants that market themselves as local aren’t realistically buying all their ingredients locally, like potatoes, oil, and flour. If I wanted to make sure everything I was consuming was from within 300 miles of my house, I’d have to cook it myself, making sure I had leftovers to take for lunch the next day. And although I got excited about desserts and pastries at the market, I soon realized that they couldn’t be using local sugar: in 2016, 41 percent of the world’s sugarcane supply was grown in Brazil, and domestic sugarcane comes from Florida, Louisiana, or South Texas. So no cookies for me.
Eating locally also stifled my social life, or at least made for some awkward interactions. I went out to brunch with my husband’s aunt and uncle—and ordered nothing. I went to bars and ordered water. I went to parties and ate beforehand. And I didn’t make dinner plans with friends because there were no abiding restaurants and I couldn’t subject them to my weird and boring dinners at home.
When You Do Cook, Prepare to Eat a Way Smaller Variety of Food
Even with access to a big, bountiful farmers market, the local produce choices in New York City in late April were limited. There were leafy greens and herbs aplenty, but I couldn’t live on greens alone. (Nor could I afford to.) That meant what I ate was dictated less by what I wanted to eat and more by what I could cobble together. As a decades-long vegetarian, I usually lean on tofu, tempeh, eggs, cheese, and canned beans to fill me up. Local eggs were abundant, but I couldn’t find tofu or tempeh made with local soybeans. (Though, yes, soybeans are grown in New York.) Cheese was available but expensive, and canned beans were out of the question. I spent $25 on one and a half pounds of dried beans, which I cooked on the second day of the experiment. They became lunch and dinner for nine days straight, accompanied by a simple green vegetable (spinach, asparagus, broccoli rabe), a starchy vegetable, or if I had made or bought local bread, toast with local butter. Breakfast, which used to be cereal and milk, was now boiled eggs, oatmeal (from 400 miles away but the closest I could find), or a baked sweet potato. Apples were the only fruit around, which meant I ate two or three a day.
Looking around the farmers market, I realized it’d be easier—though probably even more expensive—if I could build a meal around local chicken, pork, beef, or goat. And considering the number of eggs I was averaging a day (three? four?), I shuddered to think about what I’d eat as a vegan. When your food choices are already limited, dietary restrictions only compound the difficulty.
I have a high tolerance for repetition, but when my friends were eating strawberries and I was slicing yet another apple, I felt a tinge of pain. When I brought half a steamed sweet potato in a jar on a long bus ride, the smell of the other passengers’ burritos, fries, and pizza nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Still, I Had It Way Easier than Most
East Coast produce might pale in comparison to the riches of California or the Pacific Northwest, but compared with many other parts of the country, it’s relatively easy to eat local food in New York City. There are farmers markets nearly every day of the week and plenty of small grocery stores that source locally made dry goods. (But whether they’re made with only local ingredients is another question.) My local co-op even has an app where you can see where each piece of produce comes from. On a random Thursday halfway through the experiment, I got a push alert on my phone that rhubarb from Lancaster was in stock. I rushed to the store after work to buy stalks for compote, perfect for dolloping on yogurt and bread.
Toward the end of my two weeks, I went to my parents’ house in the Baltimore suburbs—where, honestly, we’d never really thought much about eating locally—and the experiment quickly devolved. The farmers market was open only one day a week, the nearby farm stand hadn’t opened for the season, and the fridge was already stocked with all sorts of produce from California and Mexico. When given the choice between driving around the city looking for local greens and eggs for breakfast or eating the cereal in the pantry, I could no longer resist.
It’s clear that the feasibility of eating locally largely depends on the food network in your neighborhood. In many parts of the country, where a year-round or even seasonal farmers market doesn’t exist, sourcing local food requires extreme dedication and additional resources that most people just don’t have.
Local Alternatives Can Be Unexpected (But Really Tasty)
Trying to eat local opened my eyes to the number of food items I take for granted. Every time I zest a lemon, eat a dried date, break off a piece of chocolate bar, or grate Parmesan on pasta, I am calling on food from outside my local domain. So many of my favorite foods and flavors come from far away—but I’m not ready to give them entirely up to eat locally. And I’m not beating myself up too much about it.
“In our collective minds, ‘ethical’ has become synonymous with ‘local,’ and the sustainability of our global food supply chain is often cast in terms of distance,” writes food historian and scholar Robyn Metcalfe in her 2019 book Food Routes. But, Metcalfe explains, there’s more to the story than that. Things get complicated when you look at shipping costs, as well as questions like whether farmers have to divert resources to go to market and if they’re growing crops in unfavorable regions.
There are so many other factors to take into account when buying food—the effect of the crop on the environment, whether the growing practices are sustainable, the labor conditions of the workers—that it’s wiser to source from a holistic perspective. It’s not as simple as local versus global, good versus bad. Going forward, my goal is to keep geography in mind without using it as a be-all-end-all litmus test.
I’ll also continue to purchase local alternatives to foods that I’ve normally been buying willy-nilly. The dried beans I got at the market, though expensive, were some of the creamiest and most flavorful I’d ever tasted. The yogurt was rich and tangy. The flour was soft, fluffy, and—here’s a word I’ve never used to describe white flour—fragrant. The crushed tomatoes were so sweet and thick that they hardly needed any help to turn into sauce.
Sure, I’ve already gone back to using sugar instead of honey and eating tofu with abandon, but now that I know what local options are out there, I’ll plan my farmers-market trips carefully and I’ll think twice before making a run to the supermarket.