Food For Thought

By Reina V. Kutner

October 2, 2009 5 min read

It all started when James MacKinnon and his longtime partner, Alisa Smith, made a meal one night in their native Vancouver, British Columbia. They realized at that point they knew where everything on their plate came from, and all of it was local. They wondered whether they could eat everything locally.

They did this strictly for one year, which led to the release of their book "Plenty." Now localization and sustainable food practices are the talk of the town -- both for regular consumers and top-notch chefs.

"The more chefs are educated about their choices the more they understand it and take steps to run sustainable kitchens and the more they can influence their customers' buying habits," says Melissa Kogut, executive director for the Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that encourages chefs to understand where their food comes from and what is involved in producing it.

Why should you only eat locally? Besides environmental impact, MacKinnon says there are many reasons, including getting to know local growers, sustaining your local economy and even just because the food tastes so good.

"I think that it started out as an environmental issue, and now I just keep eating locally because the food quality is so much better," MacKinnon says.

Kogut agrees, adding that you get more nutrition out of your vegetables if they come from nearby and are eaten when they're fresh.

And just because you're eating locally doesn't mean you can't have any meat.

"I was a vegetarian for many years, but for the process of eating locally, I started eating meat again. It depends on how your meat is being produced," MacKinnon says.

Both MacKinnon and Kogut agree that you need to make sure that the animals you eat are raised by sustainable practices. Kogut says that for meat and poultry, you need to make sure the animals are raised humanely, not industrially, and not given any antibiotics or artificial hormones. For fish, it's how it travels and also how it is raised.

One of the most important elements of eating sustainably is to make sure that all the items you purchase are seasonal. "We have been so accustomed in the past many years to be able to walk into a grocery store and buy any vegetable any time of the year," Kogut says. MacKinnon adds that many of the ingredients that people eat travel 1,500 miles to get to their plates, which doesn't help with your carbon footprint.

For the freshest vegetables, head out to your nearby farmers market for delicious goodies. They will feature quality produce and other ingredients, and all their vegetables will be seasonal to your local climate. Also, you will be able to discuss with the farmers about what grows when and develop relationships with them.

And if you really want to know where food comes from, it can be as easy as growing it yourself. Many chefs, such as Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" winner Rick Bayless, have been growing their gardens to make sure the best ingredients with the freshest flavors go into the dishes at their restaurants. MacKinnon says that when he and Smith were doing their one-year experiment, they grew food on the balcony of their apartment and found a community garden patch where they also could reap what they sowed.

For those who are worried that local eating may put dents in their wallets, MacKinnon says not to fret.

"What we have found is that it can take a little bit of adjustment about how to eat locally, but once you go through that, people find that they have been spending the same amount -- but eating better food -- or spending less than they ever have before," he says. "Local eating is not organic eating. It's not like paying a premium."

MacKinnon and Smith now are using 90 percent of their ingredients locally, and they feel fortunate to be able to enjoy food from near their home.

"We're often sitting at our table and looking at the food we're about to eat and feel like the luckiest people on earth," he says.

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