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Deconstructing the Dark Days Challenge

Okay, so Dark Days been my Sunday post since Thanksgiving…but what the heck was it?

Well,  I first heard about the challenge accidentally—a friend of a friend mentioned it on her blog, and I decided to check it out over at Urban Hennery.

The task: cook at least one 90+% locally-grown meal a week from November through March.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard someone snark that local is the new organic.  First, let me say this: your food consumption should not be determined by fads.  For the love of all that’s holy, eat healthy food you like that doesn’t have huge collateral costs (environmental, human/labor, whatever) and hang the fads!  (Related: the next foodie that tells me that chipotle is “soooo over” is liable to get a chipotle stuffed up said foodie’s nose.)   Secondly, I believe in promoting local agriculture, like many of my readers probably do.  If you want to know what exactly that means to me, read on.

I was drawn to the challenge because it seemed like a good way to connect with some like-minded people.  Besides that, the bar was set achievably low.  Just one local meal a week?  Ha!  A cinch, I thought.  I was all over this one, not least because November through March aren’t terrible growing months for us in a lot of Arizona.  You want harsh?  Talk to me in July and August when it’s 115 and higher for weeks on end here in Phoenix. That’s when the pickins get slim.  I was in, even though I knew I had an unfair advantage thanks to my geographic location.

Yes, I was cocky going into the challenge.  However, sitting here on the other side of it, I sure can tell you a few things.

The first thing I figured out was that it wasn’t too hard for me to cook a local meal—but it was significantly more challenging to cook something that was not only local, but also both novel and photogenic every week so I could post it here.  During the Dark Days, particularly as a vegetarian, there was a somewhat limited bag of tricks unless I wanted to start devoting large chunks of time to meal prep.  I didn’t want to.  This is the Simple Spoonful.  Elaborate meals are fun, but not regularly…not when the Unicyclist and I have very full lives.  Plus, we don’t really mind eating a slight variation on the same thing we ate last week.  It just doesn’t blog well, you know?

The second thing I figured out was that while it’s pretty painless for us to get a good chunk of our essentials (veggies, eggs, and beans) locally from the farmers’ market and our CSA (which we were doing before this challenge started), it’s significantly more challenging to aim for a completely local meal once a week.  It’s a lot easier for us to be 60-75% local most of the time than 100% once a week…unless we don’t care about the nutrient balance in that one meal.  But I care, friends.  I care.  I want all my starches and my protein and my good fats all snuggled up contentedly with each other on my plate.  Then I want them all happily co-existing in my tummy before moving on to my intestines and—sorry.  I’ll stop before I get carried away.  You get the gist.

The Dark Days experiment confirmed it: the Unicyclist and I are not locavores.

We support local agriculture, yes.  But we are not about to commit to a foodshed with a 100-mile radius.

Part of that is the fact that we live in a desert.  That simple fact means that a locally based diet isn’t de facto the most sustainable one out here, thanks to a limited water supply.  Yes, the Akimel O’odham and Hopi and Diné and Tohono O’odham et al survived here for a dang long time without produce shipped in from California, but their population density was not exactly what Arizona’s is now.  To complicate matters, traditionally water-rich areas have been greatly depleted through water waste, damming, and water diversion techniques.  The vegetation currently dotting the floodplain of the Salt River, for example, doesn’t hold a candle to what it was even thirty years ago, and various efforts are being coordinated to try to restore riparian areas along the Salt.  For these reasons, the Unicyclist and I put a fair bit of importance on supporting desert-adapted native foods (crops that handle the heat and aridity well) such as tepary beans, mesquite meal, chiles, nopalitos, and quelite greens rather than whatever somebody decides to grow here with extensive irrigation systems.  Keeping geographically-adapted foodstuffs in modern diets is an important part of seed-saving efforts; it not only ensures that people sill maintain the knowledge of how to prepare and consume such foods, but, if farmers know a market exists for their crop, that demand also helps ensure that not all the plots of teparies or prickly pear cactus give way to other, more water-intensive crops.

A related factor in our reluctance to leap into the locavore movement is that we live in the Wild West, where knots of developed land are still separated by large tracts of nothing but the Wild West itself (no, not farmland—just land), a structure with which East Coasters and Midwesterners might not be as familiar.  Let’s just say you don’t want to be caught without your water bottle on your bike ride out of town.  The oases are few and far between out here.  That, in turn, means food is shipped within the state itself pretty large distances.  Salads from Yuma, tomatoes from Willcox, peaches from Queen Creek.  All well and good, but I’ll come clean and admit that this is a pretty large state.  Shipping things within the state of Arizona isn’t quite the same as shipping things within many of the Eastern states.  On the upside, our very large state is also a diverse one.  When you consider that Flagstaff, at nearly 7,000 feet of elevation, has a very different growing profile than Phoenix has, it seems foolish to suggest that responsible agricultural endeavors shouldn’t try to work with that diversity and grow sets of crops better suited to the different regions rather than forcing ones that strain the environmental resources unnecessarily.

All that said, I greatly admire locavores who have made their choices while keeping in mind responsible environmental stewardship.  I also think that attempting to live as a locavore, even if for only one meal a week, is an incredibly valuable tool to understand our current food production and distribution system.  However, these weeks during the Dark Days challenge have allowed me to gradually formulate my own philosophy on local foods, which amounts more or less to the points below.

  1. If something can grow in your area without excessive strain on your community’s resources, do your best to get it from your community when you are financially able to do so.  Supporting a diverse local foodshed is an important part of establishing long-term food security for a community, so if you have a choice of sweet potatoes from just out of town vs. sweet potatoes from Walla Walla Washington, choose the ones closest to you if you have no compelling reason not to do so.
  2. If it can’t grow in your area, evaluate how essential it is to your diet and health (E.g., how desperately do you need dragonfruit from Indonesia three times a week?).  Is it reasonable to choose a substitute that fills your nutritional needs?  If oranges don’t grow in your area, but you want to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C, have you considered sources like strawberries, bell peppers, or broccoli (yes, I swear) which also contain relatively large amounts of vitamin C?  I’m not saying you can never have an orange again because THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ said so.  (By Great and Powerful Oz, I mean me.  That’s my day job.)  I’m only saying you may consider a more environmentally friendly balance.
  3. If a food is essential to your diet and health but you can only get it from somewhere beyond your local foodshed, try to get it when it’s a) in season b) from a responsible grower.  However, dry goods like beans, oats, flour, and rice are fair game at any time of the year, thanks to their fantabulous storage qualities. Also, since they require relatively little packaging or special transportation, I personally have resolved any angst I may have had with consuming dry goods shipped to my neck of the cactus forest.  Yes, the Unicyclist and I still get a lot of our beans from around here, but I don’t bat an eye when I buy my California rice at the store. (Note that we do choose to get the California rice instead of the Thai rice, however.)
  4. If you have space, try growing a few things yourself.  Interestingly, many of the most fragile items to ship, the ones requiring lots of special packaging and refrigeration (such as pricey herbs and salad greens) at a relatively large environmental cost are basically weeds that are very, very easy to grow even in small spaces.  They are also the first things I ever grew successfully, and my mum used to think I had a black thumb.
  5. Don’t blow any gaskets over this.  No, really.
  6. There’s a good bit of scientific buzz about how freshly-harvested foods generally have a higher nutrition content than those that have been sitting in trucks and warehouses (or in your fridge), which is another good reason to eat local when you can; the food tends to have been more recently picked.  If you can’t buy local for whatever reason, see the above rule.  No blown gaskets, please.  Just shoot for unprocessed, whole fruits, veggies, legumes, and grains as much as you can, regardless of where they come from.  Just doing that, you’ll be eating more healthily than the majority of people in this country.

By the way, for those of you feeling the pinch when you consider moving away from big box shopping and toward farmers’ market shopping or CSAs, please take a look at the comments from my last post.  Depending on your community, you may have options of which you’re not yet aware.  Or you may just consider lobbying to make more options.  Check it out.

Just some food for thought as most of you are moving into planting season.  Maybe this is the year you will plant a few things for the first time…or for the first time in a long time.

Spring is a time for beginnings and rebirth, after all.


7 Comments so far

  1. Michelle @ Find Your Balance March 25th, 2009 11:09 am

    All if forgiven for not eating 100% local??! Thank goodness. I’d starve to death all winter in Boston. But, now that summer is on its way I’m looking forward to my new CSA share and the Farmer’s Market! p.s. i just launched my new site, What Does Your Body good is retired :-)

  2. Lauren March 25th, 2009 8:17 pm

    Glad to hear that the challenge made you think – that’s really the goal at the end of the day. I completely agree with your posts and would be the first to admit that we’re not true locavores – perhaps I should write a post about that – as we often use California organics to sub when we can’t find a local source.

    In particular, your rules 4 and 5 are right up my alley. Even if all you grow is herbs and lettuce and a pot of scallions, you’re replacing things that are often shipped from very far away.

    Thanks for playing along – I really enjoyed your posts and your meals, many of them are on my list for this summer when we’ll have fresh produce again!

  3. Laurel March 25th, 2009 9:52 pm

    You are hereby absolved of all non-local infractions. (However, you wouldn’t starve if you planned ahead…Mangochild’s done a bang-up job staying local all winter in CT, but she stored up like a herd of squirrels. She knew what was coming.)

    Thank you! The challenge was fun, and I really appreciate all the work you put in…those round-ups are killer!

  4. Laurel March 25th, 2009 9:53 pm

    P.S., Michelle: CONGRATS!! on the new site. Looks beautiful!

  5. Mangochild March 27th, 2009 4:26 am

    Laurel, what a thoughtful post. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d love your permission to share it with my family. They are trying to support local growers (after seeing garlic from Holland in the stores and knowing it grows here too) but are intimidated by some of the hype out there. You brought such a refreshing view to it all.
    And yes, the Dark Days was fun! I will miss reading the weekly updates.

  6. Michelle @ Find Your Balance March 27th, 2009 6:47 am

    Thanks Laurel! I’ve got projects coming out my ears these days. Will have to check out Mangochild…feels like canning and fermenting are in my future but I’m just not quite there yet :-)

  7. Laurel March 27th, 2009 10:20 am

    Mangochild: Share anything you find here with anyone! I’m glad you thought it was helpful, and I hope your parents do. :)

    Michelle: I hear you. Part of it for us, to be frank, is living in townhomes/apartments. It feels a little crowded here already. It’s difficult to imagine where we’d tuck away a 3-month canned good supply in addition to the dry goods we already have lining the shelves.

    I think the most important thing for everyone in terms of diet is to feel like it’s okay to do the best they can do working within the resources and restrictions they have. Plus, anyone considering a diet change to more fresh, whole foods should absolutely not need to feel like they should be doing it “perfectly” tomorrow, or that they can never choose deviate from that.

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