By Noah Kopf
As any member of Slow Food can tell you, good, local food can be found – almost no matter where you live.
But is there really enough to keep you well fed? Last month, I tried to answer that question with a personal experiment – for 30 days, I would eat only food that I grew myself on 3500 sq ft of land in suburban Newton, MA. Especially where I live, there is a common misconception that local agriculture (CSAs, farmers markets, etc) are more a source of entertainment and culinary enjoyment than a constant, substantial source of food. This project was designed to shake this belief and inspire others to not only eat local on occasion, but make local food a continuous part of one’s diet. I called it Homegrown 30.
The planning for Homegrown 30 began last October, when I started making a crop plan that would maximize the amount of food ready for harvest from August 23 to Sept 21. I quickly ruled out crops like radishes and lettuce – though they are prolific and easy to grow, they aren’t a major source of calories or protein, which would be in hot demand during the project. Instead, I chose potatoes as my staple crop, planting around 90 seed potatoes in April. I also grew lots of tomatoes, kale, collards, garlic, and cabbage, but I was most excited about the edamame, which are packed full of calories, protein, fiber, iron, and fat. As the growing season progressed and certain crops became ready to harvest, my freezer filled up with garlic scapes, shelling peas, wild blackberries, tomato paste, and fava beans. When I could, I tried to preserve crops without a freezer – I let cranberry beans dry out in the pod, put tomatoes in the oven to “sun dry”, and pickled turnips in a salty brine (using salt I had distilled from ocean water). I also rented chickens! Two weeks before the start of the 30 days, Chick Chalet delivered a coop, food, bedding, and four laying hens!
However, not all crops were successful. I planted the carrots too early, so they were large and tender in early July. By August, they were even larger, but tough and woody as well – I roasted them in the oven to make them edible, but I was never able to enjoy a fresh, crunchy carrot. I also planted 8 yams, which were new for me. They seemed to be doing well, but one day in mid-August, a raccoon (or some other critter) tore up the roots and ate every single yam.
From day one of the project, my diet revolved around two central staples: potatoes and vegetable stir-fry. As I was eating 3.5 pounds of potatoes per day, I experimented quite a bit with how to make them taste good. I tried baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, microwaved potatoes, and mashed potatoes, but nothing compared to plain old roasted potatoes, sprinkled with salt and baked to a oil-free crisp. In the evenings, my big meal of the day also included a jumble of cooked vegetables, which usually contained 1/2 of a cabbage, 1 bunch of kale, 1 bunch of collards, 300 grams of peas, 2 big handfuls of wax beans, and 300 grams of tomatoes.
The most important lesson I learned about Homegrown 30 cooking is that simple is better. Several times, I tried to get fancy and make something familiar – tomato sauce with garlic, herbs, and spices, or gnocchi made out of eggs and potato starch. At worst, such creations were revolting (edamame/potato/basil “pesto”), and at best they were simply mediocre (the gnocchi). I was not hungry at any point of the challenge, but I sure did miss normal food and satisfying cooking.
So am I now an advocate for 100% off-the-grid local eating? No way – basic staples like flour, oil, and sugar are far too important (and delicious) to give up. But flour, oil, and sugar are not the messed-up part of the industrial food system – fruits, vegetables, and animal products take far more resources to produce, and have a much bigger impact on what the food system as a whole looks like. To everyone who wants to eat more local, sustainable foods, I recommend this: start with buying local animal products. Animal products like meat, milk, and eggs take way more resources than vegetables to produce (per calorie as well as per pound), so buying local has a big effect on the food system. Even sustainable meat takes hundreds of times more resources than grains, beans, or vegetables, so cutting down on the amount of meat you eat is the largest single thing you can do to eat a more sustainable diet. Another big step is to eat seasonally – farmers markets and CSAs ensure that all produce is local and seasonal, and deliver more profits to the farmer by cutting out the supermarket or distributor. And if you want to try to grow your own food as well, make sure to plant plenty of potatoes!
Learn more about Noah Kopf, a most enterprising Newton South High School student, in Edible East End.