Last week, I checked out Plenty from the library. It’s the memoir of a year of eating very locally in Vancouver, BC and environs, written in alternating chapters by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon. I had read some of their blog posts, but I was pleasantly surprised by the book itself. The whole enterprise can be taken as a stunt, especially when interpreted as a bunch of rules that do nothing but impose privation. But near the beginning, MacKinnon says

Can I admit, then, that part of me silently questioned my own idea for a year of eating locally? That the essential pointlessness of such a gesture is not lost on me? I am acutely aware that efforts like the 100-mile diet are readily dismissed at “the new earnestness,” which is currently enjoying a very temporary cool, and I am not deluded enough to feel that I’m making a difference or being the change I want to see in the world. Both of these contemporary platitudes contain kernels of truth, but both are also overwhelmed by stark realities. I have travelled these ethical pathways in one way or another for twenty years now, choosing to ride a bicycle in homicidal traffic, to reuse my tinfoil and plastic bags as though I lived in the Depression, to shop little and buy less. It doesn’t make me feel “good.” It makes me feel like an alien. As I pedal through another midwinter rainfall, virtually every indicator of global ecological health continues to worsen, from biodiversity to energy consumption, and my being has done little to change the world. My actions are abstract and absurd, and they are neither saving the rain forests nor feeding the world’s hungry.

So why do it at all? Smith and MacKinnon live in the Pacific Northwest, a region so blessed by nature that the native peoples came up with the potlatch, where “the status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources.” I live in California, which is similarly blessed, growing almost all of the nation’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins, and walnuts. I prefer to see eating locally as a positive celebration of place, rather than an ascetic regimen of denial. I picked apricots on Saturday in an orchard whose owners cannot afford to sell their fruit. It costs too much to pick and pack and distribute. Even though Village Harvest distributes this fruit to grateful recipients, there is something wrong with a food system that brings in apples from over the wide Pacific, while letting fruit fall rotten to the ground in the Santa Cruz mountains.

A very common reaction to eating locally is “But you can only do that if you live in California! It would never work in Minnesota!” And to that, I say, fine. Let it work here in California. I won’t worry about your winter lettuce or your strawberries out in the Midwest. But if, in fact, it cannot work here in California, then we’re all doomed.

But I don’t eat locally because of any sense of doom. I do it because I do live in a land of inconceivable abundance. I do it because I love my home, and I love what it provides for us. Food comes from the ground; plants grow in the soil and animals eat those plants. It matters to me where and how those plants and animals grow.

One Response to “Plenty”

  1. akabini Says:

    Interesting… I had no idea (not having read the book) that they took such a negative stance on what they were doing.

    I believe it’s like anything else: if you’re looking at what you DON’T or CAN’T have, you’ll be disappointed and deprived.

    But what I love about what you’re doing here is reminding us of what is abundant right at our feet. And you’re so right: for all of us, it’s insane to ignore what goes to waste right at home (whatever it is, in whatever season) in favor of the trucked-in-from-far-away.

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Working to build a local, sustainable food system in San José