Occasionally in life, you read a book that changes the way you think and gives you a new direction. For me, the book Plenty did just that. I found Plenty at a local thrift shop and was immediately intrigued by the premise: a couple in Vancouver, Canada decides to eat only from a 100 mile radius for an entire year. No coffee, no California wine, no avocados — pretty much my nightmare. But my hope was that Plenty would get me back in the habit of eating a more local diet. When I first started my zero waste journey, I primarily purchased food grown in Washington or Oregon, but eventually I stopped paying as much attention to where my food comes from.
One of the main reasons Plenty resonated with me was that the authors, Alisa Smith and J.B Mackinnon, live in a one-bedroom apartment in the Pacific Northwest. They didn’t have a yard during their “raucous year of eating locally” but they did have access to a local garden plot and the abundance of crops that we are fortunate enough to have access to in the Pacific Northwest. The primary thesis of the book is that our relationship with food has changed. While we once knew where our food came from (even knowing who grew our food if we didn’t grow it ourselves) and only occasionally eating luxuries that don’t grow locally (like chocolate and coffee), now, most of our food travels across the world to get on our plate. A study from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that the average distance traveled from farm to market was 1,518 miles (though I couldn’t find a study from later then 2015 so that number could have changed by now). Beyond just food miles, our food system also has weird inefficiencies like redundant trade, exemplified by the fact that imports of strawberries to California increase during their peak growing season. Our diet is no longer limited by what grows in our backyard. And while that is great for our pallets, it is not so great for the planet.
I think the biggest takeaway from the book is that we have lost diversity in food despite living in a global food system. There are over 20,000 species of edible plants, and yet fewer than 20 species provide 90% of our food. On top of that, 50% of vegetables consumed by Americans are potatoes or tomatoes. We don’t need to eat a 100 mile diet to limit our diet, we are doing it to ourselves without a second thought. And while I have adopted a more plant-based diet because it is generally more environmentally friendly, eating produce that has been flown in from overseas can produce more greenhouse gas emissions than pork, veal, milk or eggs.
Of course not all aspects of our new agricultural system are bad, the daily U.S. food supply contains enough calories for nearly double the current population (without reducing exports) and we spend 7% of our income on food, down from 22% in 1950. But with that has come loss. I am familiar with exactly one variety of radish, in fact I thought there was only one variety. But we have actually lost 436 of 463 known radish varietals known in the U.S. We don’t have to limit the variety of our diet when eating locally, we just need to rediscover the foods that generations before us knew and loved.
Reading Plenty has gotten me excited about growing my own food and eating more locally. I don’t want to completely give up the convenience of eating out or have to pull up a map every time I’m at the store to ensure my food comes from an appropriate mile radius, but I do want to know more about my food. I want to know what it takes to grow the meal in front of me. I want food that is picked at peak freshness because it is traveling from my yard, or a nearby farm, to be eaten that night or that week, not picked green so that it will be ripe by the time it travels over oceans to make it to the supermarket. I want to explore the foods that are native to my home, not just eat the same 20 vegetables that we have deemed acceptable for the modern pallet.
I highly reccommend reading Plenty. You may not walk away with dreams of urban homesteading, but I’m sure you will learn something about food and the way we eat. Smith and Mackinnon are also beautifully honest in the book. While at times there experience feels like a romantic peak into the past, they’re not afraid to talk about how the experience made them do some weird things (like picking mice poop out of wheat) and took a toll on their relationship. Plenty asks us to look at the geography of the foods we eat and ask “Does this make sense?” Something that has become easier and easier to ignore in our current food system.
Have you read Plenty or heard of the 100-Mile Diet? How does eating locally play into your life?