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The month of eating locally 

Alejandro de los Rios took on the Eat Local challenge. How he succeeded – and didn't succeed

click to enlarge Farmers markets are excellent places to find local produce and get recipe inspiration.

Photo courtesy David Richmond and NewOrleansOnline.com

Farmers markets are excellent places to find local produce and get recipe inspiration.

On May 31, the Rouses on Baronne Street hosted a kickoff party for The New Orleans Eat Local Challenge (ELC), which entreats participants to eat foods grown or sourced within 200 miles of New Orleans for 30 days. As a participant, I came on a dual mission: Get free food and booze, and figure out what I was in for.

  NOLA Locavores co-founder Lee Stafford and members of the Hollygrove Market and Farm created the enent to raise awareness of local foods. Now in its third year, the challenge has grown to include 51 participating restaurants, which feature dishes made with all-local ingredients; a mobile phone app; cocktail contest and scavenger hunt. At the kickoff party, Stafford told attendees the goal was to get them to scrutinize the origins of their food and to educate participants about how many local foods were available to them. I asked Stafford to give me a preview of my next 30 days.

  "The first day is the hardest," he said. "Everything is new and you have to restock your fridge. But once you get stocked up, you should find it gets easier."

  This wasn't the case for me.

  I won't mince words: From a practical standpoint, I found it pretty much impossible to eat only locally sourced foods. By restricting my diet to food grown within 200 miles, I eliminated a significant number of my dietary staples. No more gumbo, etouffee or po-boys, all of which use flour as a key ingredient. It took a lot of time to prepare, cook and clean up after every meal — time I have only because I work from home. There's also the issue of cost. Meat and dairy purchases caused the biggest sticker shock.

  "Meat is more expensive and it should be," Stafford said. "Meat is harder to produce. Local meat is all grass-fed, and it's an animal."

  The rising food bill was one of many crises. On several occasions, I questioned the entire endeavor and thought about quitting. I proclaimed to anyone within earshot that I had never cleaned my kitchen so much only to see it remain so messy. I wondered why certain locally owned restaurants weren't OK to patronize just because they cooked with olive oil or had a few nonlocal ingredients in their dishes. Thankfully, I wasn't alone.

  During the challenge, I spoke with Adrienne Kasprowicz, who volunteers at the Hollygrove Market and Farm and participated in the ELC on the "ultrastrict" level last year. (There are four levels of strictness, from "ultrastrict" to "ultra ultra lenient." My level allowed for three vices and three "off-the-wagon" meals a week.)

  Despite all the extra time and effort it required, being an ultra-strict locavore for 30 days last year changed Kasprowicz's diet drastically and permanently, she says. She finds herself eating less meat and smaller portions.

  "We started to practice conscientious eating and took our time to enjoy and protract our meals," she says. "It made us realize we consume more than we need. My husband lost a lot of weight."

  That is one reason I kept doing the challenge: It encouraged me to eat healthy. Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian at Ochsner's Elmwood Fitness Center, says a locavore diet has benefits because of all of the foods you avoid.

  "The biggest thing with local food is not what you're adding but what you're not including in your diet," she says. "You don't have the chips, the cookies and processed packaged foods."

  Kimball, who participated in the ELC last year, says the health benefits of eating locally produced foods are linked to the quality of food you consume. Produce that travels a shorter distance to your home spends less time off the vine exposed to the air, heat and light that strips it of vital nutrients, she says. Also, local farmers are more likely to use organic practices, even if they can't afford to get certified organic by the government.

  Still in its infancy (the term "locavore" was coined in 2005 and was the 2007 New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of the Year), the locavore movement is a response to the ongoing dominance of mass-produced foods. There's also the issue of how mass food production has led to genetically modified (GMO) foods. Global food giant Monsanto faces a growing backlash against its GMO products, and Japan and South Korea recently banned imports of U.S. wheat after GMO grains were found in a field in Oregon. Mass-produced foods also have been linked with the decline of healthy snacks consumed in America. However, as Kimball points out, just because something is local doesn't mean it's healthy.

  "A lot of restaurants offer fried oysters and shrimp and grits which may be local but not really that healthy," she says. "You do have to work a little more to find lean proteins or omega-3-rich fish."

  The restrictions on what I could eat were a consistent source of frustration not only for me, but for people around me. Less than a week into the challenge, my girlfriend said she was sick of me talking about food all the time. If it wasn't for the fact that I was doing the second-strictest level of the challenge, I would not have been able to go to dinner parties. Kasprowicz had a similar experience last year.

  "We found it's an imposition on others," she says. "Socializing with friends, we'd cook everything so they didn't have to do it for us."

  Entering my third week of the ELC, I threw in the towel on my strictness level. I also excused myself for using olive oil and non-local butter as opposed to more expensive pecan oil and local butter. But like Kasprowicz, I found my diet and way of thinking about food had changed. Weekly trips to Hollygrove for the market's $25 produce box are now part of my routine, as is a weekly trip to the Crescent City Farmers Market.

  More important, I found the benefits of incorporating more local foods outweighed the drawbacks (a sentiment echoed by Kasprowicz and Kimball). Not only had my diet diversified, but I also gained experience cooking food I never would have prepared otherwise. I slow-roasted a whole duck, made barbecue sauce from scratch and discovered a simple recipe for homemade fruit leather.

  At one point during the challenge, I sought inspiration from Three Muses chef Daniel Esses, whose restaurant participated with a speckled trout and potato salad dish. The dish, Esses admits, wasn't 100 percent local. But in his mind, the challenge to eat local is less about strict dietary restrictions and more about recognizing which local ingredients are available.

  "I want to highlight a few local ingredients, and if you have a few nonlocal ingredients, so be it," Esses says.

  For a hardcore locavore, that kind of talk is blasphemy. But it doesn't take a medical degree to realize it's not healthy to cut vital foods out of your diet because they aren't local. As always when it comes to diet, the trick is to find a balance. Most of the stress I experienced trying to make all-local meals would have dissipated if I had remembered something else Stafford told me at the kickoff party.

  "It's a personal thing," he said. "First you start by buying local, and then you start making the food and then you realize, 'Hey, look what I made.'"

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