The Northwest Earth Institute’s EcoChallenge, for those who aren’t familiar with the event, is a fun opportunity to take on an environmental challenge for two weeks. Maybe you’ve been meaning to reduce the amount of trash your family creates, or you’ve been looking for a good reason to experiment with alternative transportation–the EcoChallenge provides a chance to take on the challenge of your choice, with the camaraderie of the NWEI community.  The 2010 EcoChallenge will take place October 1-15, so mark your calendars, and plan to join us in demonstrating the collective power of many people making one sustainable change!

Read on for a 2009 EcoChallenger’s insights from her experience taking on the Sustainable Eating challenge–and upping the ante by deciding to eat only local foods. Emily took on the 100-mile diet last October and learned a lot about sustainable eating in the process. (And don’t be scared off by the intensity of Emily’s challenge– the great thing about the EcoChallenge is participants choose their own personal challenge, and set about achieving it in a way that works for them, and their family. )

Guest Contribution by Emily West

My journey with food awareness began seven years ago.  I wanted to be healthier, so I started with simple things like eating whole grains, more vegetables, fruits, and less red meat.  Slowly, my eyes were opened to the current system of food processing and consumption.

When my son was born, he had many food allergies, including an allergy to preservatives. This motivated me to learn more about the additives, chemicals, and GMOs that are in our food.  This is when we switched to eating mostly organic whole foods in our family.

This past fall I took my food awareness to a new level when I chose a “100 mile diet” for my NWEI EcoChallenge.  Eating locally really aligned with my values, so I decided to make that my personal challenge.  While reading ingredients had become second nature to me, I wasn’t trained to ask where my food was from.

I’ve always enjoyed shopping at farmers markets, but unfortunately those trips became harder to make with small children. Instead, I resorted to seeing how quickly I could get in and out of the grocery store.  I still grabbed organic whole foods, but didn’t pay attention to where they originated.  I hoped my EcoChallenge would teach me new things, and force me to slow down and consider all aspects of the food my family was eating.

During the two-week EcoChallenge I had many “aha” moments.  The first week, I found myself looking for local rice… umm… rice? Grown in Oregon? The learning began.  I giggled in the grocery store aisle and luckily caught myself before asking someone to help me locate the local rice section. So rice was eliminated from our diets for the two weeks of the EcoChallenge — this was a challenge for my family in and of itself.  I managed to find local pastas but they were outside of our food budget, so I made my own. I also found that local eggs are yummy but expensive too. Local potatoes on the other hand are inexpensive, unless you want them organic, in which case they can be expensive too. Fortunately, we have a good size organic garden which supplied most of our veggies during the EcoChallenge.  My children thrived picking and watering our vegetable garden.

A few nights into the EcoChallenge I found myself putting non-local condiments on my food without even thinking about it, proving that eating locally was a lot tougher than I thought.  We found a few local meats we could afford — chicken and salmon but shrimp was out (too expensive), and without the rice and beloved teriyaki sauce from afar, dinner just wasn’t the same. Local wine is widely available, but less affordable — and I missed my “two buck Chuck”.

I wanted so badly to do the EcoChallenge perfectly and proudly. I thought I was really good at the non-packaged whole foods thing, but I realized I was hooked on products that weren’t local, or  environmentally friendly, and possibly even from companies that mistreat their workers.  How did I get so far away from the basics?  When did it became the norm to have corn in December, strawberries in January, and bananas every day of the week?  I was a consumer just like the rest of them and it made me a little sad.

I hope that eating mostly local foods for those two weeks provided some additional support for local dairy farmers and agriculture farms.  I hope that less fuel was used to transport and process the foods that I chose for those two weeks.  I wouldn’t begin to know how to measure the numeric benefits of my EcoChallenge. What I can measure is the impact the EcoChallenge had on my personal food choices. My awareness of what I buy, and when I buy it, has noticeably increased.  I value local growers and food producers more. I also realized that when it comes to continuing to buy locally, cost is the biggest issue for my family. Maybe if we all decided to buy local, then the costs would go down, but old habits die hard.

Thanks to NWEI’s EcoChallenge, I plan to continue buying more local, seasonal foods and fewer long distance, processed foods.  I will continue to look for a local rice grower! Mostly, I will continue to focus on improving myself and my habits on behalf of the Earth.

Emily West is a wife, mother of two young children, teacher and a volunteer for NWEI who lives in Portland, Oregon.