Eating Local Food for One Year

One couple's concerns regarding food prompt year-long, eat local project.

Jo Young

Jo Young on a field trip for the Eat Local One Year project in Ojai, California.

Jean Picard

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Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, one Ojai, California, couple decided to commit for one year to only eating food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius of their small southern California town.

Kristofer and Joanne Young had three main reasons for starting the project they call Eat Local One Year: global warming, security of the food supply and supporting the local economy.

“It was very sobering to read that if every person in the country ate just one meal a week of local foods, it would save over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week,” Jo says.

Concerned about recurring outbreaks of food-borne illnesses caused by E. coli and Salmonella, Kris says, “Food is critical. It’s obvious that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, but that’s what industrialized farming does.”

Never satisfied to give less than their best effort, the Youngs began preparations eight months in advance. Always inspired to draw others to a worthwhile cause, it was only natural that they enlist others for the project.

Their aim was to have 100 core participants. They reached a peak of 43 in September 2008, but that number dropped as people realized that, for various reasons, they weren’t up to the challenge. Ultimately, 21 residents of Ojai and nearby towns took up the challenge, and, on January 1, they embarked on a life-changing, gastronomic adventure.

The 100-mile “rule” is doable in most parts of the country, though people in the desert might need to extend it to 250 miles. The Youngs knew a 100-mile radius of Ojai would afford them many dining options throughout the year.

Nevertheless, only careful planning will ensure success. During the eight months leading up to January 1, participants met for strategy sessions and workshops on topics such as canning and vinegar-making. At the kickoff potluck meeting, two participants decided to learn how to make cheese from locally produced milk.

Recognizing that most people have a few imported things they would have a hard time giving up for a year, three exceptions a month (plus salt) were allowed. Those choices varied from one person to the next, even within the same family.

Since whole grains are an important part of the Youngs’ diet, one of their exceptions is a rotation of grains. Coffee is probably the most popular exception, but Kris decided to see if he could live without it.

To demonstrate just how doable it is to eat locally for one year, Kris had the group compile a list of all the local foods that would be available at least part of the year. At the same time, he recognized the challenges and that to eat local for one year would be quite an accomplishment.

Like the Youngs, most of the participants shop farmers’ markets and grow some of their own produce. Some are part of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. A few who live in a rural setting even keep some animals for eggs and dairy. Gardens have been expanded in anticipation of sharing harvests. Months of research uncovered local sources for meat and other foods, and field trips have allowed the members to get to know the growers.

Two off-the-program meals per month are allowed so that dining out does not become impossible. This was important to 21-year-old Heather Rilling, the youngest in the group, who could foresee some difficulties with her dating and social life. Her other challenge is being prepared at all times.

“I surf, and surfing makes me really hungry. If I were to leave the house in a hurry without taking the time to prepare local foods to take with me, I would be tempted to go eat just anything. So this is going to take some planning,” she says.

“This is going to be an amazing thing,” Heather adds, “when I’m older and looking back, when I have children someday, I can say that I ate totally local for one year when I was 21.”

Many proponents of eating local see it as a way of preserving the rich farmland of Ventura County and staving off irrational and unsustainable development, a way of fighting the urban tide. “To pave and build over our fertile land is a bit like birds fouling their nests,” Kris says. “When residents of our county understand the critical health, food safety and global environmental benefits that accompany raising and eating local food, land-use choices will favor agriculture and put development in its proper place.”