Traveling light

'100-Mile Diet' limits pollution, supports locally produced food

Locally raised Vegetables, such as those pictured here, sold at the Lawrence Farmers Market, would be eligible for the 100-Mile Diet. The plan advocates eating locally produced food to cut carbon emissions created by transporting ingredients to our dinner plates.

Most of the food that we eat travels at least 1,500 miles before it reaches our dinner plates, according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

That statistic bothered Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, a Vancouver couple concerned about the environmental impact of their eating habits.

So they decided to attempt to eat only local food – grown or produced within 100 miles of their Canadian apartment – for an entire year. They document their efforts in “Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally,” published in April.

With all the publicity surrounding the book, the 100-Mile Diet – also known as the “carbon-free diet” – has become something of a national craze. The theory goes that eating local foods cuts down on the emissions created when food is shipped cross-country.

Nancy O’Connor, education and outreach coordinator for Community Mercantile, 901 Iowa, says a local-food diet is not hard to come by in this region, and more people are starting to understand the concept.

“If you go to the farmers market and buy a tomato from 10 miles away, it doesn’t have the environmental impact of one that was grown in California,” she says.

Riffing off Smith and MacKinnon’s 100-Mile Diet Web site, people in cities across the country have formed networks to help consumers eat food grown within a 100-mile radius of their communities. The Kansas City Food Circle has a group, and provides information on its Web site,

O’Connor suggests the best way to get started on such a diet is to meet area growers and find out what’s available nearby. It’s also important, she says, to understand what it really means to eat locally.

In Kansas, for example, where the growing season only lasts a limited time, 100-mile dieters would have to stock up for the winter and learn how to keep food edible over time.

“I think you’d have to be smart because you’d have to learn food systems and some level of food preservation,” O’Connor says. “You’d have to understand that you would eat differently.”

Amy Saunders, owner of Amy’s Meats, 2548 Wallace Road, agrees that education is important. She says there are eight local meat providers – many of them sell products at the Lawrence Farmers Market – with whom customers can talk about how they produce their meats.

She also notes that the health benefits of a local-only diet are potentially great because customers know the producer and the history of the food.

“It’s really important to know what you’re putting in your body,” she says. “You know where that product comes from, and you know the practices that go into (raising or producing) that product.”

The Merc’s “Miles to the Merc” program labels how many miles food travels to get to the store. O’Connor says defining local food is difficult because of varying perceptions of what qualifies, and the government doesn’t regulate the “local” label on foods. To some, local food might be grown in Lawrence; for others, it might be grown within a 400-mile radius.

O’Connor says the program required a lot of work but serves an important function.

“It lets them decide what is local, instead of us telling them,” she says.

She cites the example of organic frozen foods, an area in which demand is outpacing supply and grocers are having to import from other countries, such as China.

“It doesn’t take a formula to see the environmental expense in that,” she says.

The Merc and farmers market aren’t the only places in town to buy locally produced foods. Dillons, for example, carries a variety of products from the area. In the region that includes Missouri, Kansas and part of Nebraska, Dillons has 40 to 50 local vendors. Sheila Lowrie, a spokesperson for the grocery chain, says customers want to buy locally produced food.

“It’s a wide range of items: special barbecue sauce, tortillas and homemade noodles,” she says. “With our produce items, it’s sweet corn, cantaloupe and pumpkins.”

When it comes to the 100-Mile Diet, though, Saunders says consumers should be prepared to spend more money on groceries.

“People tend to make poor choices because it’s cheaper,” she says. “Local food is not cheap, because you have to pay the face value of what that product is.”