“Are they all going to fit?”
Five weeks ago, my husband, Chad, and I were staring at the three local chickens we’d purchased from the Double Check Ranch at the farmers’ market for that night’s family potluck dinner. My extended family had all volunteered to cook 100 percent local (or as close to it as possible) for this dinner, since I was in the middle of a 30-day challenge to avoid any food not sourced within 250 miles of Tucson. Knowing that they would balk at the idea of paying $20 for an uncooked bird, I had signed us up to provide two roast chickens. The third chicken was for later that week. We were trying to cook all three at once in pursuit of every desert-dweller’s summer goal: to turn on our stove the absolute minimum number of times.
We managed to squeeze all three chickens into the oven with an inch to spare. I turned my attention back to the local cauliflower and butternut squash arrayed on our countertop. A bag of Hayden Flour Mills dry polenta waited patiently in line. The roasted tomatoes, prepped earlier that afternoon, were cooling on the stovetop, ready to be peeled and added to the now-roasting chickens and onions. Our 10-month-old daughter had surprised us both by opting for a marathon afternoon nap, and we were taking full advantage of the baby-free time. School was back in session for Chad, in addition to his full-time job, so he studied while I prepped a week’s worth of local food. Of course, the idyllic afternoon didn’t last—the baby woke and needed to nurse, so Chad gave up on his schoolwork and took over cooking. We ended up arriving at dinner 45 minutes late—but brought with us two juicy chickens resting on a bed of roasted onions and tomatoes, with some cheesy polenta as a side dish. Except for a little white wine and some pepper, everything had been grown, raised, or harvested in Baja Arizona.
I started Local Girl Goes Local with a simple goal: To eat 100 percent locally sourced food for 30 days. Everything I ate would need to have been grown or raised within a 250-mile radius of Tucson. Prior to this project, I had never been to a farmers’ market. My cooking expertise was somewhere in-between “capable of making box mac and cheese fancy with sautéed spinach, ham, and sriracha” and “can throw together a delicious casserole, but don’t let her anywhere near a roast.” I had always considered eating local to be the kind of thing I would love to do—emphasis on the “would”—but when the Edible Baja Arizona staff floated the idea at this year’s editorial retreat, I saw the challenge as an opportunity to finally make the switch to a more deliberate way of eating.
I’m happy to announce that I emerged from my 30 days of eating local with both my sanity and my wallet more or less intact. I had expected it to be a lot of work, and I was right: I cannot count how many nights I stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. in order to find time to work. Part of this was due to the fact that our daughter acquired her third tooth during the 30 days and required extra large helpings of parental attention, and part of it was due to me replacing my work time right after the baby went to sleep with cooking. My routine became focused around food: remembering to put the beans in water to soak at night; getting up in the morning and turning on the crockpot; feeding and stirring my sourdough starter every 12 hours; planning what to cook to last us until the next farmers’ market or CSA pickup.
And yet, as the project continued, I found myself spending fewer late nights cooking, as I got faster in the kitchen and my stock of pre-prepared local foods increased. My food preparation routine became quite literally routine, and I soon reached the point where it seemed strange when I didn’t have some food maintenance task to perform. By Day 18, eating local had gotten easier—a lot easier. Anyone who’s had a baby knows that once you get past the terrifying notion of being responsible for an infant, you accept that the baby’s needs and moods are just your new normal. I had a similar experience with eating local. Instead of heading to the grocery store whenever we ran out of something or happened to find a gap in our schedules, I designated time for going to the farmers’ market, and made sure to go, no matter what. Instead of longing for the foods that are not part of Baja Arizona’s foodshed, I focused on figuring out what I could make from the foods that are. Most importantly, I allowed eating local to become a way for me to have fun. Getting to know the local food community was an opportunity to talk and relax, not just rush to the checkout line. Cooking was a chance for me to get creative and challenge myself to make something exciting, not just stick with what I knew.
Which brings me to the million-dollar question. Was I able to eat 100 percent local for 30 days?
Not exactly. I did discover that is it possible to spend a month eating exclusively local food. It is also fairly easy to do so once some basic routines are in place. But I did not manage to totally avoid nonlocal foods. I realized that refusing to eat outside my own house was hardly a realistic portrayal of a well-rounded locally sourced life, so I also ate at Diablo Burger and Zona 78, both restaurants with a commitment to local sourcing—but not necessarily 100 percent. Worse, when my co-baby-wrangler headed out of town for a work conference, the pressure of spending every moment outside of work caring for one tiny human almost dragged me off the wagon with a mere four days left in the challenge. Graze Premium Burgers saved me from eating a meal devoid of local ingredients that night—they purchase their beef from Double Check Ranch—but it was a significant compromise, given how many ingredients were not sourced locally. In the end, while I cannot say I ate 100 percent local, 100 percent of the time, I can say that for 30 days, every single meal I ate included at least some local ingredients, and that 98 percent of the time, my meals were indeed 100 percent locally sourced.
Was eating local as difficult I expected it would be? Absolutely not. Some of my initial assumptions were correct. Eating local is frequently more time-intensive, both when it comes to shopping for food and when it comes to preparing meals; the food from small local farms often costs more than the food from industrial-scale farms; and there are a number of foods that I had previously taken for granted that are basically impossible to find within the Baja Arizona foodshed.
While these challenges did mean that I had to change my eating habits, they were hardly the back-breaking burdens I had feared. I found myself savoring my weekly trips to the farmers’ markets and Tucson CSA. Within the tents and tables of Tucson’s farmers’ markets, there exists the most delightful community: producers and consumers striving together to abandon the industrialized food system in favor of a more human—and in the case of meat, milk, and eggs, more humane—way of sourcing food. The food I bought at market was food I could feel good about. I could talk face-to-face with farmers who knew exactly what had gone into growing some of the reddest tomatoes I had ever seen.
As for the cost of the food, I’m happy to report that while our grocery bill did go up, all cost increases were more than balanced out by the reduction in what we spent at restaurants and fast food joints. Cutting back on the dining out was a needed change: since the baby arrived, Chad and I had grown accustomed to embracing the siren song of the drive-through. In our month of eating local, we actually ended up spending about $100 less on food than we averaged in the months leading up to the challenge, and that includes money spent on bulk item purchases that have outlasted the initial 30 days. To be fair, we had already been purchasing organic produce and free range and antibiotic-free meat, milk, and eggs prior to the challenge, so we’re used to spending a bit more on our groceries. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that although I spent more time shopping for food (I went to the farmers’ market three times in the first week), I did not actually spend more money on our food. This was true even when I added the cost of eating out on top of the money I spent at the farmers’ markets, CSA, and local grocery stores. (Time Market was a particularly good source for Hayden Flour Mills’ products, and Food Conspiracy Co-Op was a good place to get Fiore di Capra goat cheese and Arizona Cheese Company cheese curds.) That said, our ability to afford the higher price tag and the fact that we had both reliable transportation and a working kitchen mark us as significantly privileged—there is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure local food is as accessible as possible for the entire Baja Arizona community.
I had initially worried about the restrictions on individual foods—or rather, the temptation that I expected restrictions would bring. I panicked at the thought of not being able to eat any bread, but when my sourdough starter failed, I ended up forgetting to pursue local bakeries—I’d already been getting my fill of carbs with homemade tortillas, pancakes, and pasta. And every temptation I encountered was made more bearable by reminding myself that my choice to eat local was not some dietary whim, but rather a deliberate step toward supporting a more sustainable and diverse foodshed.
Like any major lifestyle change, there were moments where it took all of my willpower to hold the steering wheel straight and ignore the convenient temptations of the multiple grocery stores, hot dog carts, and restaurants we passed every day. The best trick I found for resisting was to make sure I never left the house hungry, or always brought a snack. Sure enough, the one time I found myself on the road without food in my stomach or in my purse was the time I ended up at Graze.
What surprised me the most was how easy it was to make healthy food choices while sourcing 100 percent locally. It wasn’t so much that I had decided I couldn’t eat ice cream; it was just that in order to eat it, I would have to make it, and tracking down the equipment and ingredients needed was just not worth my time. Beyond making sure I consumed enough nutrients to support one 19-pound baby’s local milk source (a.k.a. me), my energy was spent making sure my food came from within the Baja Arizona region. For now, most locally sourced foods are only available in a whole, unprocessed state, and because of this I couldn’t help but fill up my mealtimes with healthy whole foods. They were easier to cook and took less time to prepare than the rare non-whole food item I consumed, and I consistently went to bed with a happily filled stomach.
Finally, eating local also brought with it some surprising rewards. True, we only ate at restaurants three times over the course of the month—but the luxury of eating food prepared by someone else was something I started to appreciate far more. Eating out became A Big Deal. For that matter, so did eating in—and my freshly minted next-level cooking skills can attest to the added value I gained from being forced to spend more time in the kitchen (nevermind the lesson learned when I, attempting to follow a pasta recipe’s instructions, piled my ingredients on the counter instead of in a bowl, and ended up desperately scrambling to contain the liquid ingredients overflowing my too-shallow well). Another thing I didn’t realize I could gain by eating locally? Pride. Not in a smug, localer-than-thou kind of way, but an actual, I-worked-hard-on-this kind of pride. Every time I pulled together a localized take on a recipe or whipped something up on a whim, and it resulted in an actually tasty, Instagram-worthy meal, I couldn’t help but puff out my chest a little bit.
When I started this project, I thought that eating local would be something I should do in order to lessen our household’s environmental impact and support the Arizona economy. “Should,” as in, I would do it because it was the right thing to do, not necessarily because it was fun or easy. I feared that localizing our eating habits would leave me feeling deprived or that I would never be able to juggle all my obligations and maintain a (mostly) local diet. I was wrong. Eating local does require some changes in how we experience our food system, but it’s trading an old set of compromises for new ones. A few nights ago, I picked up our first non-locally sourced meal from Nico’s Taco Shop: Super Nachos for me, a Carne Asada Burrito for Chad. It was easy, it was cheap, and goodness gracious was it tasty after 30 days of eating so very, very clean. But when I picked up my food and asked the cashier how her day was going, she responded with a standard “Fine, thanks”—nothing like the genuine conversations I’d grown accustomed to at the farmers’ market and CSA pickup. When I looked at the Styrofoam box of nacho goodness, my inner environmentalist cringed at the waste. And while I did manage to turn my nacho leftovers into the base of a pretty amazing rendition of huevos rancheros the next morning, there was no real sense of pride to find in my microwaved accomplishment.
Eating local has become something that I not only believe I should do, but something that I enjoy doing. I feel empowered by the knowledge that I’m supporting local growers and helping sustain the next generation of American farmers. I get to discover foods I wouldn’t even glance at in the grocery store (if they were there for me to see at all), and the reduction in ready-made foods provides compelling motivation for me to continue to learn new skills in the kitchen. I feel more connected to my food, and my body appreciates the extra attention it receives from the fresh, whole foods that eating local invites into my diet. I can state with confidence that eating local is something I’m going to be doing for a long time–even if I don’t continue to source 100 percent local food, 100 percent of the time. I only regret not having done so sooner. ✜
Some foods are so easy to make, you’ll never want to buy the premade versions again.
Like beans. And tortillas.
Being able to eat 100 percent local at a restaurant is equivalent to winning the lottery.
Instead, focus on rewarding restaurants that make the effort to source local ingredients.
Eating local requires planning—but not as much as you’d think.
By keeping common ingredients in stock and cooking in bulk, I could easily prepare a meal on a whim.
It’s awkward to refuse food.
Be prepared to assure your host–multiple times–that it’s a voluntary inconvenience for a good cause and no apologies are necessary.
Cheese will be harder to come by—but it tastes like heaven when you do find it.
The first time I got ahold of some goat cheese, I ate half of the log directly from the package.
You will be shocked to realize just how little local food is sold in supermarkets.
I would never have been able to eat entirely local without the farmers’ market and CSA pickup.
You will Google “how to make _______” on a daily basis.
I eventually got tired of piling sautéed veggies on top of wheat berries and calling it dinner.
Experiments fail. That’s O.K.
My sourdough starter was a terrific flop: lots of funny-smelling jars, no bread.
Forcing yourself to go full-on locavore initially makes eating mostly local afterward a walk in the park.
Or usually, the farmers’ market.
Eating local can mean learning to make do, or do without.
Having local limitations caused me to become more creative—and more confident—in my cooking.
Kate Selby is Edible Baja Arizona’s digital content manager. While she may be done with her 30-day local eating project, there’s lots more to see and learn from Local Girl Goes Local. Check out her ongoing series of vlogs, blogs, kitchen experiments, sourcing guides and more at LocalGirlGoesLocal.tumblr.com. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/LocalGirlGoesLocal.