As you know, NWEI staff, board, volunteers and hundreds of individuals and organizations throughout North America are gearing up for the two week EcoChallenge starting on Saturday October 1st! Bill Gerlach has been blogging about his 125 Mile Local Food Challenge. Below is an excerpt. For the full post, please click here.

Every once in a while you have to put what you believe in to the test. And for those who have been reading TNP (The Next Pursuit) for a while or know me “off screen”, you know that I’m a huge supporter of the local food movement as a vehicle for building community, local economies and sustainable living. So with that backdrop, I’m excited to launch this new series of posts chronicling our family’s participation in the 2011 EcoChallenge sponsored by the Northwest Earth Institute.

The annual Challenge allows individuals and groups to identify areas in their life where they can make positive changes that benefit them, their communities and the environment as a whole. Participants can choose the area(s) that best fit with their situation, including water conservation, energy efficiency, sustainable food options, alternative transportation and trash reduction. After a quick sign up — which allows you to participate as an individual or team — you are up and running. I am doubly-excited because NWEI has asked me to be a feature blogger for this year’s Challenge, sharing posts and updates with the entire NWEI community.

Our challenge is straightforward: For the two week period of October 1 through October 15, eat and drink only what is grown and/or produced within a 125-mile radius of our home in Rhode Island.

While straightforward, this challenge is far from simple. Though the local and regional food infrastructure has been built up in recent years, it is far from complete — as is evidenced by our research and planning. Our particular challenge is also complicated by the fact that our family of five is vegetarian, has three young children running around and geographically speaking, we are headed into the tail end of the primary growing season.

Measuring Our Progress

In thinking about how we’ll “score” our progress, we’ve decided that we will “grade” our food consumption by where it falls on this very non-scientific scale:

  • Tier ONE — Food (or ingredients) is grown and produced within 125 miles (e.g., vegetables, milk, flour)
  • Tier TWO — Food (or ingredients) is grown outside the 125 mile radius but produced within the 125 radius (e.g., our favorite local brew)
  • Tier THREE — Food is grown/produced outside the 125 mile radius (e.g., well, we’ll have to see)

In chronicling our efforts, we believe we can help shed some light on both the great work that has been in play to create local/regional food systems as well as identify the gaps when it comes to the practicality of trying to eat locally/regionally. Think about it: If something were to happen overnight that rendered cheap energy and the ability to ship in food (raw, processed or otherwise) from hundreds or thousands of miles away obsolete, would your local food system be able to support its surrounding population? For the vast majority of us, I am going to say ‘no’. In a very small way, participating in this Challenge will help me bring some real-world experience to the table — literally and figuratively — allowing me to help spur the right kind of system growth.

It’s All About Planning

Since deciding to participate in the Challenge, we have been doing our homework and figuring out what we’ll eat and where we’ll buy the food/ingredients. Truth be told, my wife, Sara, has been doing the heavy lifting in this department — mapping out our eventual menus, trips and budgets. Here in Rhode Island, we’re fortunate to have a great non-profit called Farm Fresh RI. Their maps and databases of locally-grown and produced food have been a big asset. When we’ve emailed them with questions about hard to find things like flour, grains and beans, their staff have been extremely helpful.

We plan to take this as granular as possible — all three meals, beverages, snacks, treats, etc. So that means I’ll be foregoing things like coffee, tea and chocolate (thank goodness for our local dairy farm, brewery and winery!). Beyond that, we’ve had to have discussions around just how far to take this: Do we not use base ingredients like sugar and salt (we think we have flour covered so Sara can make her breads)? What about other spices and herbs we can get fresh? Can apple cider (it’s apple season here) make it as an orange juice substitute?

And then there are the kids. Three strapping youngsters who (fortunately) are very open to pretty much anything you put in front of them. As an adult, you could probably tolerate eating greens and hefty salads three nights in a row. I’m not sure about the kids. We’ll have to see. (Full disclosure: Writing those last few sentences makes me extremely sensitive to the reality that so many kids here in the U.S. and across the globe are food insecure and I’m sure would not bat an eye at having fresh greens three nights in a row. I feel extremely fortunate that we are in a position to even take on this “challenge” when so many are challenged just to survive.)

Haven’t signed up yet for your EcoChallenge? You can do so here: www.ecochallenge.org!

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