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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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Meet Shelly Randall, our Guest Conference Blogger! She’ll be posting throughout this week’s conference on sustainable food and communities on what she’s seeing and learning, so if you wanted to join us but can’t, we hope this will be a way to share the learning.  Also, its not too late to join us!  There are still spaces available!  Click here for this week’s conference info!

Salutations from Port Townsend, where I know many of you will be heading in the next couple of days for NWEI’s biannual North American Gathering. Let me introduce myself as the conference’s guest blogger.

I’m Shelly Randall, a 35-year-old freelance writer and mother of a just-turned-3-year-old, and I’m thrilled to be launching my new blog, Sustainable Together, concurrent with the conference. In fact, the impending conference date circled on my calendar has been the kick in the pants I needed to pull off the blog project. I first heard about the NWEI gathering through Local 20/20, our umbrella sustainability organization, and couldn’t shake the idea I had to be there. At the time, I was contemplating “my life’s purpose” as part of a personal finance plan, and when I inputted “sustainability” as the personal and professional goal, everything else fell into place.

So I registered for the conference two months ago and have been working steadily ever since to organize my thoughts into a mission statement and to essentially rebrand my communications business, shifting from a maritime focus to a sustainability focus. You see, I sailed—I really did!—into Port Townsend more than a decade ago. For two years after college I had been crewing as a shipboard environmental educator, first with a program on Long Island Sound, then with Sound Experience, on the schooner Adventuress. I met my future husband here at a contra dance and decided to stay. My first job was reporting for the weekly newspaper, covering the port and shipyard beats, among others. I later worked for the Northwest Maritime Center and freelanced for maritime publications.

It was my newspaper’s publisher who encouraged me to take my first NWEI discussion course, Choices for Sustainable Living. This was in 2000 or 2001, and he had just completed the course with other city and county leaders and thought it would be worthwhile for his staff. Obviously, it was!

Back to the present: I  have enrolled in NWEI’s EcoChallenge  from Oct. 1-15th (view my profile) to kick off my own “ecochallenge” for Sustainable Together. My year-long experiment, which I’ll be tracking on my blog, is to strengthen my community networks by and for living more sustainably. My hypothesis is that support systems (of family, friends, and institutions like food co-ops) are absolutely necessary for and a happy byproduct of moving along the sustainability spectrum. To that end, I will be getting involved in Local 20/20, joining the barter network Fourth Corner Exchange, and using an NWEI course this fall to bond with other like-minded parents of young children. These are all worthwhile activities I have meant to do for years, but have not prioritized until now. You can read all about these endeavors and more on my blog, and subscribe to get ongoing free tips and inspiration for “going sustainable together.”

Thank you to Deb McNamara for offering me this plum position (!) as guest conference blogger, and I look forward to posting throughout the conference on the lessons learned at presentations and break-out sessions.

P.S. At the conference, I’ll be actively seeking success stories of “going sustainable together” to feature on my blog over the coming months, so if you would like to impart how you share the journey toward a more sustainable life, please seek me out!

Shelly Randall blogs at SustainableTogether.com and can be reached at shelly@sustainabletogether.com or 360-301-2540.

Today we have a guest blogger writing on her experiences with NWEI courses!  Course participant Sheilah Toomey recently participated in NWEI’s A World of Health  discussion course. She was raised in Portland, Oregon and on a farm in Sherwood, Oregon.  She is currently retired, age 70, and “watching her budget carefully – especially now that I have committed to buying more local and organic food!”  Here are some of her reflections from her recent discussion course:

“Since taking part in recent discussions focused on A World of Health: Connecting People, Place and Planet, I have immediately made lifestyle changes in the areas of what I eat, where I live and what I use for personal care.  I’ve researched all my cosmetics, and thrown away almost all the toxic ones.  I’ve put a lady-bug sign on my lawn that says “Pesticide Free Zone” and have committed to non-toxic lawn care.  I’ve gone back to using just plain washing soda and vinegar for most cleaning.

The course has also reinforced some ongoing habits.  I continue to drive less and consolidate errands, which I’ve been doing for years. I also continue to ride my bike to the grocery store for a “few things” in the summer and fall.

In the area of food, I’ve begun to buy mostly organic produce (and have tried to keep calm as I see the total at the cash register).  I also subscribed this spring to a vegetable program through a local CSA.  I stored away all my nice plastic containers and bought glass containers and waxed paper sandwich bags for leftovers (so, what do I do with 2 new rolls of plastic wrap?).  I’m working on engaging community members in making change, and spoke to managers of my two Trader Joe’s about providing tomatoes in glass jars (but am also finding that fresh tomatoes actually make a pretty good spaghetti sauce!). I also recycled the plastic water bottle I keep in my car, and replaced it with stainless steel.

As I write this, I still have two chapters left in the course book.  I am afraid to look ahead but look forward to continued changes towards a healthier world.”

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