Eating Local: Too Expensive for Regular Folks?

mostly-local groceries

$116.30 worth of mostly-local groceries

I guess this eating local thing isn’t for sissies! (No disrespect meant to sissies, by the way.)

If you happen to have read some of my recent posts, where I talk about the surprisingly huge negative impact of cheap meat on climate change and about the amount of oil that goes into growing and transporting typical grocery food, you won’t be surprised that I’m trying to change my food-getting to a hard-core localvore approach.

The conversation with my girlfriend, who’s a pretty remarkable person, went something like this:

ME: I’m terrified by how bad the climate change problem is. We have to go localvore right away. It will probably be expensive and a huge pain in the butt.
JANINE: I get where you’re coming from and understand all your concerns. I’m in.

OK, we didn’t literally talk like that, but Janine, who is emphatically and blessedly not the kind of person who does something just because someone else says to, already understood a lot about the problem and was willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary. May every one of you who reads this have a significant other as smart and supportive as Janine.

So this weekend we headed out to buy some local groceries. We already tended to buy sustainable and organic products and cage-free eggs, all with as minimal a level of packaging as we could get, but we haven’t in the past paid very much attention to how far away our food originated. Now, suddenly, that’s our primary concern. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

… growing the food is the least of it: only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.  At least in terms of the fuel burned to get it from the farm to my table, there’s little reason to think my Cascadian Farm TV dinner or Earthbound Farm spring mix salad is any more sustainable than a conventional TV dinner or salad would have been.

So if it’s between organic food from across the country and conventional food from across the county, I now know which one must win if we’re going to fight off climate change. It has to be local.

Photo by Church Street Marketplace

City Market in Burlington – photo by Church Street Marketplace

You would think that in Burlington, Vermont, at the wonderful City Market/Onion River Coop, eating local would be easy. Vermont has a strong localvore movement, and Burlington, though small, is the biggest center of commerce and innovation in the state.

Was it easy? Hell no. Was it cheap? Hell no. Was it even possible to find all the foods we wanted to get, foods that are we already know somebody somewhere does produce in Vermont? No!

The process was more complicated than we expected. Fortunately, practically every kind of food we looked at had some kind of labeling that let us know whether it was from Vermont or not. (In a couple of cases, we also bought foods from nearby New York and New Hampshire. Parts of Quebec would also be fine.) However, the label often told us only where the food was packaged and (where applicable) processed. For instance, we were excited about being able to get some Vermont meat products from a company called Vermont Smoke & Cure, and we got practically all the way to the registers before we realized that the products we had from that company all had an announcement on the label stating that they were sourced in different locations in the United States and Canada, but smoked and packaged in Vermont. For all we knew, the livestock in question could have been raised in the Midwest. We put the products back and got others that said specifically on the label that the livestock were raised in Vermont.

Breakfast cereals (other than granola), mustard … a variety of prepared products couldn’t be found with Vermont sources at all. We completely failed on our breakfast cereal, buying products sold by Barbara’s Bakery, a California company. Going forward, I think we’ll need to find some locally-made products that aren’t available in most stores or else simply switch the kids to oatmeal and that kind of thing. Local oats, we can get–and that’s less processing, too. Maybe that’s the way to go.

We did find mustard from New York. It’s weird mustard (dark brown in color and kind of sticky), but it tastes good.

I wanted to buy some whole chickens, but the local ones (from Misty Knoll Farms, which has a great local reputation) cost $20-$25 each, and we just can’t afford that. We did buy some local ground turkey and such, but at prices that we may not be able to continue to pay on our middle class incomes. Obviously non-meat sources will be important, too; we’re working on that.

Dairy products were a bit easier than others, although still painfully expensive. One of the delights of the shopping trip was re-discovering Strafford Organic Creamery milk: it’s a local product produced by pastured cows (instead of cows fed subsidized agribusiness corn) and sold in returnable glass bottles; you pay a deposit on them. No plastic except for the cap! We also had some pretty good yogurt and cheese choices, as you can imagine. Local eggs from free-range, pastured chickens were available but expensive.

Produce was a disappointment, and it’s a reminder that we’re going to need a winter CSA share and/or some edible plants growing in our house and/or a little greenhouse. We found bags of romaine lettuce, three heads per bag, with such a small amount of lettuce in each head that the three of them together didn’t amount to as much lettuce as one normal head. This cost over four dollars. After some continued shopping, we discovered that the four dollars and fifty cents or so that they wanted for those three tiny heads was a discount because the lettuce was getting near its time; normally the heads are $1.89 each! We sucked it up and bought the shrinky-headed discount lettuce.

We talked a lot about other options. That greenhouse might be a good idea for winter produce, and despite the electricity expense, we think we can probably achieve a substantial net carbon savings by getting an efficient chest freezer for produce and pastured meat bought in bulk from local farmers. (Pastured, local meat doesn’t have anything like the terrible carbon impact that corn-fed meat from a distant source has.) We might even try keeping some chickens in the fortunately-large back yard we have at our disposal. This is made a little more plausible because we have children who can help us grow food and maybe look after small livestock.

So we still have a long way to go, and at some point we’ll have to make difficult choices about things like citrus and the delicious fake coffee we buy (Teeccino … not my favorite name for a product, but it sure is good). We have taken the first step, though, and as long as we keep pushing forward, I think we can make huge changes for our family … then maybe help other local people do the same.

The Secret to Climate Change Resolve

Facing climate change sucks. We’re just not built for it.

Human beings are built for problems with lots of feedback. If the climate reacted every year to how poorly we treated the environment in that year alone–or better yet, if that happened every month–then we’d be able to handle it all. We’d make bad choices and immediately be slapped down, then make better ones and feel relief.

But of course, the way it really works is that there’s a massive backlash that builds up over time and can’t be clearly traced from exact cause to exact consequence. We take an airplane flight to Honolulu, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect. We buy a hybrid car and it also seems to have no effect. A hurricane strikes the northeastern U.S. and we can’t say for sure to what extent climate change contributed. Mistakes seem infinitely forgiveable and smart choices seem to have no impact. The problem is huge, and it feels like we’re too small to make a difference.

That’s why we need Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell

Who’s Joseph Campbell? He was the man who compared religions and mythologies from around the world and found that as human beings, there are certain stories and attitudes we share regardless of where or how we live. Perhaps the most powerful idea he unearthed was the story of the Hero’s Journey, which underlies everything from ancient myths to modern blockbuster movies. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey talks about how writers can employ this structure to create a compelling story. Here’s a diagram Vogler offers to explain the Hero’s Journey:

The Hero's Journey

That all might seem kind of fanciful and irrelevant to climate change, but Vogler also provides the following version of that diagram, phrased not in terms of story or myth but in terms of emotion and change. For me, at least, the applicability of the Hero’s journey to the process of radically changing our lives jumps out in this next image.


“1. Limited awareness of problem”? I certainly had that. Then Hurricane Sandy and the flooding of Venice drove me to look closer and voila, there I was at “2. Increased awareness of need for change.” My immediate reaction was described by “3. Fear; Resistance to Change.” I’m now at “4. Overcoming Fear” and “5. Committing to change.” This is exactly how it feels to be facing this problem.

What is it like for a dragon to menace your village, or for Mongol armies to invade? It feels like climate change: massive, disastrous, unstoppable, and far too big to do anything about individually.

The useful thing about this is that it provides a way to think about the problem that can empower us. We are each the hero in this story, because we are facing our fears and reluctantly going on a journey into an unknown landscape where we’re certain to be facing difficulty, trials, pain, and loss. Ultimately, though, if we don’t turn back, we come back home and find ourselves not only changed, but also in possession of a prize that’s desperately needed by our family, village, town, school, friends, country, or world … we will have successfully shown the way to transition to a lifestyle that will save us from the worst ravages of climate change.

Don’t be distracted by the word “hero”: it’s not likely that we’ll come home to a ticker tape parade (those always seemed horribly wasteful to me anyway). Many people may not even notice that we did anything.

But we’ll know–and what might be even better about all of this is that the fear, the feeling of helplessness we face at the beginning of the process, will be largely gone. The emotional difference between fearing what we do won’t be enough and actually doing everything we can is enormous. We don’t have to succeed. We don’t have ride triumphantly into town with the corpse of a slain hurricane dragging behind us. We just have to step out into the wilderness and be willing to face the trials that are coming. Courage–that is, acting despite being afraid–is its own reward.