No-Bar-Code Challenge: Locavores Try to Eat Local Every Meal

Family's experience trying to live as locavores and eat local every meal holds promise for those searching for a locavore's approach to food.

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Apples from the big-box stores just aren't as good as those picked right off the tree.

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Americans sometimes worry more about their dogs’ diets than their own. Valerie Jaquith of Crested Butte, Colorado, once was guilty of such an attitude, before her and her family became locavores and attempted to eat local every meal. “A lot of people make changes in their lives when they first have children. For us, it was when we got our dog,” she says.

Valerie didn’t like the processed food she was feeding her dog, Tessa, so she began to buy meat scraps from a nearby plant that processes elk for hunters. She couldn’t help noticing Tessa’s improved health. Valerie began wondering about her own diet.

“I wouldn’t feed my dog out of a bag, why would we feed ourselves out of a bag?” she recalls asking herself.

Like a growing number of Americans, Valerie had been searching for a way to motivate herself to buy fresh, local produce. After her dog-food epiphany, she decided to avoid eating food that came in packages affixed with barcodes, and she launched a blog about her experience, Food Without Barcodes (NoBarCodes.WordPress.com/about). It’s a unique twist to eating local. Valerie and her husband, Jeff, try to avoid buying bar-coded foods, other than items like olive oil and salt. Instead, they try to grow or hunt their own food and buy from local farmers. The benefits of such a diet can be huge for an individual’s health, the environment and the local economy.

Nutritionists are coming to a consensus that a diet cannot be healthy without whole grains and fresh fruits, vegetables and meats, which are more often found when you buy local goods. Even the U.S. government’s Women, Infants and Children food program, much maligned by many nutritionists for its reliance on white-flour foodstuffs and sugar-filled cereals, has finally overhauled its national regulations to allow clients to purchase some whole grains and fresh produce.

Environmentalists hope eating locally can cut down on the carbon footprint of the typical U.S. diet by eliminating excess packaging and delivery miles. Estimates suggest the average spoonful of food in a U.S. diet travels between 1,500 and 2,000 miles to get to the dinner plate.

Farm advocates also believe the locavore movement is the only way to strengthen small farms and slow down the consolidation of farmland into ever-larger and often absentee agribusiness. Buying locally through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs pumps money into the local farm economy instead of exporting it to overseas growers. A study by the Maine Organic Farmers & Growers Association found that if every Maine family spent just $10 a week on local produce, the resulting revenue would funnel an extra $100 million to local farmers each year.

Jeff and Valerie estimate that more than 80 percent of their food comes – without bar codes – from local sources in any given month. Along the way, they’ve learned a lot about how to prepare and preserve food, and also about the type of food system they want to support. While they aren’t always successful in eating completely local food, they’re happy with the progress they’ve made.

“It’s been quite an adventure,” Valerie says.  

The challenge

The ground rules of the no-bar-codes challenge are relatively simple:

  • Purchase raw ingredients from local sources.
  • Make your meals from scratch.
  • Process all your own food at home (i.e., make your own bread and cheese, even render your own lard).
  • Eat out as little as possible.
  • Avoid big-box stores and shop locally.

The core of the challenge, Valerie writes in her blog, is “to purchase as much of your food from local sources as possible … in order to support your local rural community and small farmers.”

In practice that can be tough in an industrialized country, where cheap food is plentiful, and space and time for farming is not. Valerie and Jeff quickly realized it was impossible to grow all their own food. Their small plot of land sits about 9,000 feet above sea level, with a growing season of just a month without frost, which limits their gardening possibilities.

“I’m not a rancher, I’m not a farmer,” Valerie says. “Whatever will happily grow without much pampering, I’ll put in the ground.”

Their local environment does have some advantages, however, including giving locals an acute awareness of the tenuousness of a long-distance food system. (During parts of the winter, the major roads become impassable.) The region has a rich hunting tradition and infrastructure, including the nearby elk processing plant. There also is a “banana belt” farming region some 30 miles away, with a milder micro-climate where farmers can maintain orchards.

Jeff believes everyone lives in a microclimate that has its own strengths and challenges. The trick is to take advantage of what’s available locally.

“Everyone can forage at some level,” Jeff says. “Even if you don’t hunt elk in Colorado or fish in the Atlantic Ocean, you can still go no-bar-code.” 

Tips and suggestions

On her blog, Valerie suggests ways people can wean themselves from bar-code food:

  • Shop at a farmers’ market before going to the grocery store.
  • Sign up for a community-supported agriculture program with a local farm for your produce needs.
  • Join a local herd-share program to get your dairy products and meat from local farmers.
  • Grow what you can, even if it’s just a window box of basil or a plot of carrots.
  • Purchase what’s in season and preserve it (freezing, drying, canning) to last throughout the year.
  • Visit and purchase food directly from local farmers and get to know your local producers.

Knowing they couldn’t grow everything they needed, Valerie and Jeff instead focused on other strategies, including helping to strengthen their own local food economy, preserving the local food that’s available, and preparing more of their own food.

Jeff readily admits Valerie makes their no-bar-code diet work with her efforts in the kitchen. He works as a carpenter; she’s an artist who works at home and is in charge of the kitchen. Valerie says she likes the work, and she estimates going no-bar-code has her spending, on average, three hours each day preparing food.

Freezing is their easiest option to preserve food, and their freezer usually is well-stocked with greens, grouse and elk meat. Valerie also prefers to ferment and dehydrate foods instead of canning, feeling the nutrients are more accessible that way.

Above their woodstove is attached a 12-by-24-inch homemade dehydrator with seven shelves that Valerie constructed using food-grade stainless steel shelves and scrap wood. When in use, it’s wrapped in cheese cloth to keep out debris.

“I built it originally for the fall and took it down for the wintertime, but now I use it year-round,” she says.

She ferments some vegetables and milk to increase the helpful digestive bacteria. Some nutritionists believe fermented foods were used in ancient times to help people digest less-digestible food, like meats, that were eaten during the same meal.

For vegetable fermentation, Valerie uses a simple crock. She covers the vegetable in brine, then pounds it to release the vegetable’s natural juices. Sometimes she keeps the juice as the end product, other times she keeps the vegetable and the juice is drained.

For milk, she introduces a culture like the one in yogurt, to convert lactose sugars into a more easily digestible form.

Jeff is the hunter of the family, and the couple share equally in processing the meat.

The couple buys about 20 percent of their meat from a local farm through a herd-share program. Along with buying from local farmers, Valerie and Jeff also serve as their community’s drop-off point for two community-supported agriculture farms. They supplement their meat intake with legumes like beans.

The payoff

Since Valerie and Jeff have taken the no-bar-code challenge, they’ve suffered just one cold apiece. Valerie’s digestive problems have cleared up.

Their eating habits have changed in unexpected ways, too. Jeff realizes that while he enjoys the food he eats more than before, he eats less of it.

“You get a fortifying feeling,” he says. “When you have a nice meal … it feels like you don’t need to eat as much.”

And they feel their community is healthier when they buy local products, as well.

“It’s a little more out of your wallet, but in the big picture, you actually save money in your community,” he says. “The benefits for society and us outweigh
the cost.” 

Freelancer Craig Idlebrook has written for more than 30 publications from his home in Ellsworth, Maine.