Book Review: The 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon
Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes
The 100 Mile Diet is a candid portrayal of an ambitious couple who, during a twelve month period, strive to “do the right thing” ecologically by making every effort to consume food and beverages whose origins lie within 100 miles of where they are living at a point in time. Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon truly get back to the land, as they forage in the woods in British Columbia for mushrooms and other edible flora, cart their raw materials back to their humble, television-free log cabin, and prepare, cook and eat their meals.
This high level of vertical integration, in which the couple all but abandons the outputs of big agribusiness, results in food procurement and preparation becoming, at the very minimum, a part-time job. In other words, the current state of affairs in North America make such a lifestyle virtually unsustainable; at the end of the year of eating locally, the authors relish the prospect of eating food that is either heavily processed or comes from far away.
The authors make a valiant effort to locally source key foodstuffs such as fish and flour. They discover that it is often frustratingly difficult to meet such needs locally. The authors’ year-long local eating experiment includes many stressful periods, as the couple debate food gathering and preparation options; for them, it is not a matter of just pulling a Swanson dinner out of the freezer and slapping it in the microwave.
North America has dumbed down its diet to an unnecessarily narrow variety of choices, thanks largely to industrial agriculture. Much of our mainstream ‘normal’ diet consists of corn, tomatoes, wheat, apples and potatoes. These items are great in and of themselves, but the authors remind us that there are hundreds of types of vegetables and fruit indigenous to North America that, for the most part, consumers, and the industry that feeds them, choose to ignore.
The book is entertaining, informative and inspiring. It touches on both practical and philosophical issues. For example, one might intend to eat eggs that were laid by a local hen. Beyond this, one could ‘swim upstream’ and inquire as to where the hen was born. Even if the hen was born and raised locally, what does one do if one discovers that the feed consumed by the chicken comes from far away? Does eating these eggs constitute ‘eating locally’? The authors allow that such analysis may border on the absurd, but these are fair questions nevertheless.
The food we North Americans eat exposes practical, philosophical and even political issues. Other things being equal, the decision to eat locally results in food having a lower carbon price tag (it took less fuel to ship it to the consumer), and often supports local farmers. However, if one has the choice of local celery grown with the help of pesticides versus organic celery that took a two thousand mile truck trip to get to your store, what do you do? Further, what if the local celery is available free of packaging, whereas the organic celery is sold in a plastic bag that took fossil fuels to produce, and will take over 100 years to biodegrade? This celery scenario is one our family faces quite often, regrettably. We usually do the politically correct thing and support the local farmer who uses pesticides to grow his celery, and forego the more healthful organic celery that, unfortunately and perhaps ironically, comes with a heavy carbon price tag.
I recommend this book to anyone who is striving to eat in a way that minimizes the ecological footprint of one’s dietary choices. The book raises as many questions as it does answers – it is not a ‘how to’ book, nor does the book pretend to be such. If enough people read the book and start to demand that their grocery stores stock locally grown items, the planet, and we who inhabit it, might all be better off.