The Local Food Challenge
No stops for a late night burrito. Chicken wings downtown? They’re out, too. And never mind stocking up on soda. Heck, even bananas are out of the loop. But does that seem to faze Hampshire students involved in the Local Food Challenge?
No, not really.
“We want to see how the [Pioneer] Valley can sustain a diet that’s completely native,” said Malaika Mara Spencer, one of the students involved in the challenge.
As the name implies, the Local Food Challenge is about eating only things grown or produced close enough to know exactly where they’re coming from. The idea stemmed from a Real Foods conference. Everything from organic gardening to fair trade was discussed, but it was the local aspect that ended up really catching their attention.
“We have a Local Foods Initiative here, that’s been around about five or six years, so a lot of students are eating locally. But the next step was to do a challenge,” said Tobin Porter-Brown. “We wanted to determine what it would mean, what we would have to do, to only eat local.”
During spring semester last year, they and seven other Hampshire students, Ella Harris Field, Graham Jeffries, Leah Mawhinney, Jon Strieff, Justin Mest, Noah Kellerman, and Pesha Wasserstrom, collaborated in an independent study with environmental microbiologist Professor Jason Tor to figure out whether there was a wide enough assortment of food grown within a 150-mile radius to provide them with the basis of a healthy diet, without having to go broke paying for it. The answer surprised even them.
“It’s just amazing what is here, emu and eggs to local brie, vegetables and fruit, wine and beef. I was growing garbanzo beans and black beans and grains. It’s incredible what can be produced in the Valley,” said Porter-Brown. “At the end of the study, we had a list of all the producers we could get things from.”
The game plan successfully designed, Porter-Brown, Spencer, Mest, Kellerman, and Emily Ryan dove into the challenge at the start of this school year. Since four of them share the Greenhouse mod in Enfield (Mest, who is basing his Div III on the nutritional and economic aspects of the challenge, lives a few mods away), it’s been relatively easy to collaborate on meals and food pickup.
The cost of eating local so far has averaged out at about $25 a week, and that includes stocking up on supplies for the winter. They have about 500 pounds of wheat berries stored at a nearby farm, and they use that to make their own flour on a bicycle powered mill stored in their living room. Summer fruits have been dried, boxes of tomatoes turned into sauce, sunflower seeds harvested for oil that will be ground out in a homemade press. Honey and maple syrup have taken the place of cane sugar, and the students are learning how to make everything from muffins to pizza with localized variations on typical recipes.
‘There are some really wonderful ingredients, and we’re being creative with them. So many things can be done with what we have,” said Ryan. ‘And anyone can come over for dinner any time they want. We always cook for more people than are here.”
While the students will try to subsist completely on local food this semester (with excused breaks whenever they happen to be out of town), next semester they’ll also be frequenting restaurants that are doing their part to support local producers.
“Restaurants are a vital part of the community,” said Porter-Brown, while Spencer added that, “What’s important are the connections with people.”
The reason most of the students say they’re doing this is a passion for good food. Being able to get groceries from around the world is something they enjoy, but the Local Food Challenge is an attempt to focus attention on the wide assortment of things that can be found nearby as well. So for the next semester, there won’t be any candy bars to snack on. But there’s always maple syrup mixed with milk. And who’s going to turn their nose up at a fresh-baked apple pumpkin muffin, especially when you’re buddies with the farmers who grew the ingredients?