Miles to Go Before He Eats

As you've probably read, Joel Stein has recently written an article in Time questioning the logic of the local food movement. He has added a fourth meal to the industrial, organic and hunted/gathered meals that Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore's Dilemma. The meal is prepared from ingredients that were shipped from more that 3,000 miles from his home in Los Angeles.

Those of you who have read this blog for a while, will know that I'm a fan of Pollan's book. Those of you who follow what I've been reading on goodreads know that I've been reading way too much about this stuff lately.

The article is amusing -- not least because he buys his meal at Whole Foods -- which seems to be Stein's primary intent. But he is also calling into question the notion that reducing food miles can have a positive impact. Stein claims that "shipping food in containers is often more energy-efficient than a local farmer trucking small amounts that are then purchased on a separate weekend farmers'-market trip you take in your SUV." I wish that Stein had spent more time on facts and less on trying to be provocative. I've heard the claim a few times recently. Apparently, this topic will also be covered in David King's new book, The Hot Topic. I'm hoping that King goes into more detail on the subject, because I'd love to read any studies that have been done on the topic. I don't doubt that it's true. In terms of pure fuel efficiency, shipping food halfway across the globe might take less energy than getting food from a small farm to my table.

For the last year, we've gotten much of our produce from Riverford, a farm in Devon. We love it. We don't have full blown garden, so we can't go on about carrots, as some of Stein's friends apparently do. Instead, we tell everyone how much we love Riverford. But the thing is, it's not just about food miles. Since we've been using Riverford's veggie box scheme, we've noticed a number of benefits other than reducing food miles.

The first is taste. Most of the food tastes better. The milk is fantastic. The cucumbers are the best cucumbers I've ever had outside of France. The apples are great. Most of the time. Sometimes they are disappointing, or at least I thought so. Until I picked up an apple at the supermarket yesterday. It tasted of almost nothing. This could all be in my head, but reading Graham Harvey's We Want Real Food has convinced me that it probably isn't.

We get to try new things. We've discovered jerusalem artichoke, kohlrabi and endless varieties of squash. OK, the squash does get a bit tiring in the winter. It makes good soup, though. Even so, each time a new vegetable shows up, we're off to the cookbooks and the Internet trying to find out what we can do with it. It's an adventure.

It's incredibly convenient. Each week, Joanne orders the box on the website and it shows up at our door. Of course, we need to supplement it, but it's a large part of our shopping done for us every week.

It's cheaper than the supermarket. If we bought what came in the box at the supermarket, it would cost twice what we pay for the box, especially if we bought organic. This was probably the most surprising thing about the veggie box scheme.

By and large, I don't really consider myself a "locavore". Our cupboards are filled with foods that came from more than 100 miles from our house. We regularly go to The Taqueria for the best damn tacos in the UK and to pick up black beans and masa harina for our own little fiestas. We go to China Town in Soho for all of our favourite Japanese ingredients (and the occasional Chinese item).

The point, though, is that much of our day to day food is coming from a nearby farm. We're not doing it because we're Luddite hippies. We're doing it because it means we get high quality, affordable, and interesting food on a regular basis.