Authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon on asparagus season, a more just local food system, and pandemic gardens of hope. First in a week-long series.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon in the book jacket photo for The 100-Mile Diet, published in 2007 by Random House after the couple launched the concept with a 2005 series in The Tyee. All this week J.B. MacKinnon will guest edit related special coverage.
Fifteen years ago, The Tyee launched a series called The 100-Mile Diet written — and lived — by Alisa Smith and James (J.B.) MacKinnon. The idea was simple. Alisa and James were trying to live a year eating only locally-sourced food. The first I heard about it was standing around my barbecue on a sunny day in June 2005, Alisa and James looking on as I grilled some salmon.
They were attending a small backyard party I was hosting for the fledgling Tyee team. Alisa had written the Tyee’s very first cover story on how the BC Liberal government’s weakened child labour laws put kids at risk; James, her partner, was already a well-regarded freelance journalist, too. The two of them listened as I bragged about the Copper River salmon from Alaska I’d procured. I explained I’d paid a premium for those beauties, but I’d probably go to heaven for it because eating sustainably-managed wild salmon was so much better ecologically than farmed salmon. They looked at each other and laughed.
When I asked why, they pointed out that here in B.C. we have our fair share of wild salmon — and it doesn’t have to be flown 2,500 kilometres to land on our plates. They patiently explained that moving food around the globe consumes prodigious amounts of energy and serves to weaken local food security. And that was why lately they’d committed to living only on food grown close to home.
You should write about that, I said. They said they would be glad to. Why not call their experiment “The 100-Mile Diet?”
The “100-Mile Diet” 15-part series we published on The Tyee beginning June 28, 2005 sparked a global phenomenon. In 2007, Smith and MacKinnon wrote a best-selling book by the same name in Canada and titled Plenty in the U.S. They spoke in almost every state and province and from Dawson City to Miami to Kalamazoo, invited to look in on folks growing, cooking and living according to the 100-Mile Diet ethos. They established a foundation. They even had their own 100-Mile Diet reality TV show, which aired in 30 countries. And the 100-Mile Diet helped grow the local food movement emerging back then — “locavore” was named word of the year by the Oxford American Dictionary in 2007.
Today, Alisa Smith has shifted to writing spy thrillers, most recently Doublespeak, set in post-World War II Thailand. J.B. MacKinnon’s writing appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Hakai Magazine and elsewhere. He is an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Journalism, Writing, and Media. His most recent book is the national bestseller The Once and Future World, about rewilding, and a new one, on consumerism, will be out in spring 2021.
To mark the 15th anniversary of the 100-Mile Diet, James agreed to guest edit a week of Tyee stories on people whose lives have been changed by the 100-Mile Diet and how to strengthen B.C.’s local food economy today. To kick it off, he and Alisa were kind enough to grant this interview in which they talk about the early power of the internet, today’s local food realities, how veganism compares to the 100-Mile Diet approach, and a lot more.
The Tyee: So it’s been a decade and a half! Recall that era for us. Suddenly “locavore” became the word of the year. Why did the movement sprout right then?
Alisa Smith: Big systems change gradually across decades, but there always comes a time when people suddenly notice how far things have gone. In 2005, I think a lot of people were doing the same thing that launched the 100-mile diet for us — they were looking down at their plates and realizing that they no longer had any idea where the food on it had come from. At that point, it doesn’t take much of a spark to start the fire.
J.B. MacKinnon: At the same time, a lot of people had been working hard to raise awareness about local food and local food systems for a couple of decades — organizations like FarmFolk/CityFolk, Your Local Farmers Market Society [now Vancouver Farmers Markets] and SPEC [Society Promoting Environmental Conservation]. As that awareness started to build, writers smelled it in the wind. So, you know, it seemed very strange at the time, but all of a sudden, in one year, there was our book, there was Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and there was Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. All about local eating. It was just that kind of zeitgeist moment. And those of us who wrote these books received a lot of attention, but leading up to that moment and leading away from it, the hard work was really done by the activist community around local food.
How did writing The 100-Mile Diet change your lives?
JBM: It made me more optimistic about the possibility of change. When we wrote The 100- Mile Diet, I thought it was an interesting experiment but that changing big systems like industrial agriculture was never really going to happen. Then there was this surge of interest in local food, and it really showed me that if enough people got on board with an idea, then circumstances can change very quickly. In the case of the 100-mile diet, there were all these visible changes even within a year or two — grain farming where there hadn’t been grain farms for decades, all of these new farmers markets, hundreds more community garden plots. There’s still a lot that can be done, but also no doubt that the local food system is stronger now than it was before.
AS: That’s a good point — gains in optimism. I often think about how we got invited to speak a lot in the heartland states in America. We spoke to a lot of audiences who would probably be called Republican, and they were responding to different aspects of the book than Democrats were, but they were some of our most receptive fans in the U.S. It made me think that there are ways to overcome the political divide. And that’s an incredibly useful lesson for today.
It was pretty early in the internet, too. Facebook had just been launched and The Tyee had a much smaller audience. How did the web make the popularity of the 100-Mile Diet possible?
JBM: Without the internet, we might not even have written the book, because we really tested the idea by writing about our experiences on The Tyee and on the web. And it was out of that that we thought, wow, there’s a lot of interest. Maybe we should write a book about this. I remember how, when we first started writing about it online for The Tyee, it wasn’t just that we started hearing from people in Vancouver or B.C. or Canada — in a matter of days we were hearing from people in India and Israel and Bali. We had 10,000 people a month reading our blog.
How local is your diet today?
AS: Fifteen years later, it’s still very local. Basically, every vegetable I eat is 100-per-cent local. All of our meat, eggs, and dairy. A lot of our grain, our morning granola, all of our fruit. There’s just a small handful of things, really, that that we gather from the global supermarket, and even a lot of those are produced not that far from home. If I put a number to it, I’d say probably about 85 per cent of our diet is still from within 100 miles.
What, if any, non-local foods do you eat?
AS: Chocolate is my big vice, just because it’s delicious and it doesn’t grow here. Maybe I could set up a greenhouse if I was really ambitious. There were some people for a while running this pretty cool experiment where they tried to bring raw cocoa to Brooklyn by sailing ship, and then make the chocolate by hand — they wanted to remove the fossil-fuel element from long-distance foods. It’s the kind of dream that’s good to try out.
JBM: Most of our non-local food is grain products, like pasta and rice. That’s not even because there is a lack of local grain — we do have local flour and oats and even local rice on hand a lot of the time — but because there’s a lack of time in our lives to make our own pasta and bread. And then you have effectively some luxuries, like there’s still not a lot of beer made with local ingredients, and we use the odd lemon, olive oil, tofu, some spices. But most of our herbs are local. Actually, all of our herbs are local.
Why is it important to you to continue to eat locally?
JBM: You couldn’t convince me to stop eating locally. The food quality and flavour is so much better. I feel like I’m eating much more nutritious food. I really appreciate the connection that I have with the people who produce my food, some of whom I count as friends. I really enjoy the way I’m connected to and pay attention to the seasons through the cycle of food throughout the year. There’s always something to look forward to. You know, we just passed through asparagus season. We were so excited to see it, and then we ate a lot of asparagus, and now we’re comfortable to let it go and move on to the season of peas and beans and tomatoes and so on throughout the year.
AS: For me, supporting the family farm is huge. It should be right at the heart of local culture, and it is a bigger part of our culture than it was before. I feel good about that, because if you want to know where your food’s coming from, how it was grown, who grew it, how the animals were treated, how the soil was treated, you need that local connection. If you wanted to, you could go to the farm and check it out for yourself. I think that’s so important for our personal health and also for the health of farmworkers and the environment. If it’s done locally, small scale, it’s not going to be subject to the same kind of abuses of the race to the bottom for price.
What do people most often misunderstand about the 100-Mile Diet?
AS: A lot of people think eating locally is much more expensive than it actually is. I was just looking up some statistics. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 2019 was a historic low for how much people spent on their food compared to their disposable income, at 9.5 per cent. In 1960, it was 17 per cent. Now we’re spending our excess money on cellphones and digital gadgets that didn’t even exist in 1960. Obviously not everyone can pay premium prices, but many people can and yet they keep seeking the cheapest possible food. It’s also hard to reconcile the concern about price with the fact that Canadians throw out 63 per cent of the food they buy. That’s food they could have eaten. And there are other ways of saving money on local food that people haven’t fully delved into yet — growing some food yourself, cooking with fewer ingredients, preserving foods in season, or just being selective in what you buy locally.
JBM: People also often think that we were promoting the idea that you should only eat local food. The 100-Mile Diet was an experiment. It was something we did in an unusually strict manner in order to explore our local food system and how possible it was to live off of it. But we never said in the book or in our talks that people should only ever eat local food. Our argument coming out of the experience was that we should build strong local food systems first, and then look to regional, national, and international systems to strengthen and enrich it further. But we really felt strongly that more of us should be able to eat more local food for so many reasons, first and foremost for the pleasure of it.
What aspect of the book is most overlooked?
AS: I feel like people view it as some kind of political treatise, but it was also a very personal story. I hoped people would appreciate local food more if they thought about it from the personal side. But that’s not something that I hear from people. I think people still feel like local eating is a political choice, not something that can be woven into the fabric of your life.
Is that what you happened to you?
AS: Yeah — that’s why I still do it. If it was all about suffering and political posturing, it would be hard to maintain for 15 years. But for me, it’s been nothing but an improvement in my quality of life.
JBM: I think another aspect that is often overlooked is the different ways that a local food system can provide food. There’s quite a bit in the book about rewilding and how we should be working to bring historical fisheries back to their older baselines of abundance, when we had spectacular runs of salmon and oolichan smelt in the Fraser River and so many more rockfish in the sea. That’s part of the local food system as well. People have tended to look to farms and farming, but rebuilding natural abundance is a big part of it, too, and an area where I think we can learn a great deal from the kind of collaborative relationships that Indigenous people had with the land and seascape.
If you wrote a sequel today, doing the same experiment in the same place again, how would it be different?
AS: Well, the main thing is it would just be so much easier. It might not be that interesting a book at this point! Many of the greatest challenges we had back then would not be challenging today. For example, eating through the winter or early spring isn’t difficult anymore. You don’t even really need to preserve any food. You can just go to the incredible winter farmer’s markets and buy fresh food out of cold storage and eat an amazing diet all through the year. Or instead of searching for months to find a farmer who might have grown some wheat that they could spare for you, you’d sign up for a grain and cereal CSA and have it delivered almost to your door. At the end of the book, we head to Bamfield to boil seawater for the salt. Now we’d go to Granville Island and buy Vancouver Island Salt Co. salt from Black Creek.
JBM: I think a sequel written now could look at how to make the local food system even better. How can it feed more people? How can it feed people who can’t afford it right now? How can it be more just for the people who work within it? If you shop at a grocery store, you’re buying a lot of food that is produced in ways that would not make you ethically comfortable, but it’s out of sight and mind. A key advantage of local food systems is that they are more transparent — but we don’t always act on that. We know that farmworkers, both migrant and otherwise, have always been treated as a special class of workers with fewer protections and less pay. It’s incumbent on us to call for better working conditions, better pay, and — in my own view, anyway — a pathway to citizenship for temporary workers who return repeatedly to Canada, and for their families.
Maybe you should write a sequel?
JBM: We once joked about what we’d need to be paid to put our relationship through writing another book together. We decided $2 million would do it.
AS: Luckily, no one has made us an offer.
Veganism is at the center of discussion around sustainable eating today. Should we now be trying to eat a vegan local diet?
AS: If people are not eating meat because they ethically don’t believe animals should be killed for our consumption, then that is a very personal, important choice for them to make. And I think there is definitely a way you could explore being both vegan and eating local. For instance, we grew chickpeas in our backyard garden back in the day and they did fine. So there’s definitely things that aren’t yet a part of the local food system, but could be.
JBM: If what you’re looking at is what kind of industrial food system should I eat from, then I think a vegan industrial diet is probably your best choice. But local food systems are much more fine-grained than that. The idea that we would simply ignore the enormous wealth of the sea in this particular food system, or the contribution that livestock can make to the sustainability of small farms, doesn’t make sense to me. And would universal veganism mean either giving up local food security to draw on global systems or clearing more natural landscapes here for land to grow nuts and beans? There’s a lot of question marks hanging over it for me. All that said, Alisa and I don’t eat a lot of meat.
Critics charge that eating locally has become a pastime for wealthy elites, and The 100-Mile Diet arguably contributed to that. How do you respond?
JBM: I remember one of my brothers, not too long after The 100-Mile Diet came out, saying to me, “Thanks for making onions six dollars a pound at my local farmer’s market.” There’s some truth to that. One thing that happened is that demand for local food surged, but a series of governments have refused to strengthen and support the supply side. You know, we’re eating up farmland to build condos rather than tearing down condos to expand farmland. But it’s also affected by problems bigger than the local food system, like the fact that Vancouver is becoming a city divided between haves and have nots — and the haves will pay a premium for organic food and an heirloom tomato. There are local products we rarely eat anymore ourselves, like seafood. We feel priced out of that market.
AS: If you go back to the roots of local eating, it’s the backyard garden, but how many of us can have a garden now? We don’t have one — we’re renters. Meanwhile, cheaper food has become possible through the abuses of the industrial food system, paying the workers poorly, relying on temporary immigrant labour or undocumented labourers, treating livestock inhumanely. To me, thinking about how to address those problems defends the local eating movement. We all need to pay a bit more for our food, and there is a way to make that work for everyone. We don’t want to see people being paid so badly to grow industrial food that they, in turn, cannot afford to buy healthy food for themselves.
A lot of studies show that one or another product can actually be imported to Canada with a lower carbon footprint than producing it here. Meanwhile, food miles from shipping have been shown to be a fairly small part of our diets’ climate impact. Does the 100-Mile Diet still make sense as an action for the climate?
JBM: I absolutely think the 100-Mile Diet makes sense as an action for the climate, but at the same time we need to recognize that “local” doesn’t necessarily mean low-carbon. The studies that people point to so frequently often make comparisons like, if you want to eat a fresh tomato in February, does it make sense to grow it in a gas-heated local greenhouse or to ship it in from another country? But the answer from a 100-mile-diet perspective is, well, you don’t eat tomatoes in February. You eat your canned tomatoes, or your sun-dried tomatoes, or you eat no tomatoes. And then you wait for tomato season when those plants are produced on the energy of the sun. When I think about our local food system, I just see so many ways that carbon is reduced: in all the manual work done on small farms, in urban farms where transport is done by bicycle, in the fact that we buy most of our products unpackaged or minimally packaged. Or the fact that when I make spaghetti sauce, everything is local rather than having 15 different ingredients shipped in from around the world to put in a jar that gets shipped to a grocery store.
AS: I think it’s very difficult for people doing statistics to truly, properly measure what’s going on in people’s backyards, community gardens, small farms, and farmer’s markets. If you’re growing food in your backyard, it’s zero carbon. There’s just no way of beating that.
What did the coronavirus pandemic look like from 100-Mile Diet perspective?
AS: Food security became real to me when the two meat-processing plants in Alberta lost about 1,600 workers between them and 70 per cent of Canada’s meat supply was suddenly at risk. I never thought of anything like this happening in Canada, even though I was well aware that the highly centralized industrial food system was in theory less resilient than robust local food systems, where there are many independent parts that are not so reliant on each other. I think a lot of people’s eyes were opened up to the idea that we need a strong local food system first and foremost.
JBM: It seemed as though people responded to that idea almost instinctively. I’m sure that there are more victory gardens in people’s front and back yards this year, and in the boulevards, than ever before.
AS: I’ve been doing my weekly Zoom calls with my work colleagues, and I’d say the most popular topic is what’s happening in Wes’s garden patch. He’d tell us all about what his garlic was up to. When the garlic scapes came out, everybody was riveted. It was kind of amazing.
JBM: Why do you think they were riveted?
AS: It seemed like the only thing real that was going on, the only thing that was growing in a positive way. Positive things were happening in Wes’s garden, and that somehow gave people hope.