You may be about to learn two new words (I did).

“Locavore” is now an accepted word (it was the Word of the Year in 2007 the Oxford American Dictionary).  It combines the root words “loca” or “local” with “vore” or “consumer.”

“Foodshed” denotes the region around you on all sides, where your produce is freshest.  Some define their personal foodshed as a certain mile radius; for others, its size and shape are purposely undefined.

If you are a locavore (some say “localvore”), you are someone who believes that your life is healthiest when the food you consume comes from the closest possible sources (within your foodshed).

The locavore movement began, as one might expect, in a place where many trends are born: California.  Specifically, again not surprisingly, in the San Francisco Bay area.  The word itself is attributed to Jessica Prentice, a chef, author (Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection) and founding member of Three Stone Hearth, another California initiative.  Three Stone Hearth is a community-supported kitchen in Berkeley that sells locally grown and cooked meals for carry-out.  TSH’s foods are planned as much as possible to take both season of the year and distance from San Francisco into account.  Jessica’s partners in Locavore are Jen Maiser, Sage Van Wing, and DeDe Sampson, but now there are many others in the surrounding region calling themselves “concerned culinary adventurers.”  Quite the innovators, Jessica and her cohort also helped design the “Food Wheel” for the San Francisco foodshed.  The Local Foods Wheel concept is catching on elsewhere.  Two new wheels recently devised are for New York City and the Upper Midwest foodshed produce.  You might want to design one for your own state or region.  The two-part wheel illustrates what foods are available regionally and seasonally.

locavores food wheel
Click to enlarge.

Contemplating the big issue—where food comes from, and why nearer is better—I thought about the first time I ever heard about this concept.  It was back in the early 1960s, when I began to explore the life and work of Edgar Cayce (pronounced K-C), sometimes called The Sleeping Prophet.  In that glorious era, as I was entering not just college but the School of Life, knowledge of people like Cayce seemed to simply osmose into the collective consciousness.  Once you talked about Cayce, you quickly found peers who were also “into” his work.

edgar cayce
Edgar Cayce, 1910

Edgar Cayce was born into a conventional Kentucky farming family in 1877.  He left school by the ninth grade, not unusual at the time, and started a business as an insurance salesman.  Severe laryngitis put an end to that career, and Cayce sought a cure through hypnosis.  As it turned out, it was he who cured himself in a hypnotic trance.  Subsequently, he began to give what were called psychic readings, going into a voluntary trace state to assist people with all sorts of illnesses, even treating them by mail, holding a letter in his hands.  He usually began the reading by saying, “We have the body.”

In addition to verified cures for a wide variety of ailments, Cayce’s trances yielded information about arcane themes—auras, Atlantis, and the coming Apocalypse.  On these matters one must judge for oneself if Cayce had any true prescience, but his cures are a more reliable measure of his accuracy.  The Association for Research and Enlightenment, founded by his son Hugh Cayce, maintains an archive of Cayce’s readings, which were transcribed by trustworthy assistants.

For me, the most significant take-away from Cayce’s statements, something that he often repeated to different “patients” who came to him for readings, was that we should endeavor as much as possible to eat food that is grown locally, as close as possible to home.  Thus, Cayce was, if not the first, certainly an early proponent of the locavore ideal.

Cayce was consistent in advising that people consume local foods.  This could include meats and fish as well as vegetables, grains or fruit.  In one reading, after being questioned about specifics of diet, he stated in clarification, “As indicated, use more of the products of the soil that are grown in the immediate vicinity.  These are better for the body than any specific set of fruits, vegetables, grasses, or what not.”  In other words, what was vital was to eat local; what one ate was less important, to Cayce, than following the locavore principle, pure and simple.  Bear in mind that in Cayce’s day, a lot of country folks did eat food that was raised, plucked, picked, or slaughtered fairly close to home.  So when he said close, he meant really close.

If you are a locavore—and you might have been one for years without knowing about this new rather recent movement—you may grow some of your own produce.  Even we, as urban homesteaders on less than a quarter-acre, grow and can our own tomatoes, blackberries, and peppers, along with consuming and canning locally grown apples, strawberries, and peaches (within a 25 mile radius).  Canning is an excellent way to keep a locavore table all year round.  By the time the fresh tomatoes are coming back into season, we are usually reaching for the final jar from last year.

But even if you embrace the locavore concept, even if you have a small farm and produce much of your food, you will probably maintain some exceptions to your own locavore ideals.  Your food exceptions may include some basics like coffee, teas, and condiments including salt and sugar.  And then there are some foods we are told are good for us, that may not be available anywhere nearby, like oatmeal, ginger, dark chocolate, and salmon.

In the last half of the twentieth century, all of us grew dependent, some might say overly so, on foods that come from afar.  There is, of course, a rationale in favor of trying new foods and enjoying nature’s bounty, wherever found or however delivered.  But having done that—and we all like to experiment at times—it’s also a good idea to understand some of the pitfalls of eating far-flung goodies.

So, let us think of eating local as the new experiment, an admirable ideal that deserves our attention, and think of “eating remote” as the current norm.  That way, the local food initiatives can be seen as daring, while eating anything and everything we see in the supermarket can be the boring norm.  Let’s take up the locavore challenge, even if we fall short of perfection.

First, the facts:

Two things happen when food is harvested and then travels.  First, from the minute vegetable matter is taken off the tree/bush/vine, or out of the ground, it begins to die, slowly or quickly depending on your definition of what constitutes plant death.  It droops and changes consistency: if crisp, it becomes soggy; if pliable, it becomes stiff, as its chemical composition shifts into morbidity mode.  Left alone, without refrigeration or modification, celery droops, apples get pulpy, carrots go spongy, corn kernels turn dry and un-chewably tough.  In Cayce’s time, there were few preservatives so he was only looking at this first factor of loss of food’s vitality.  Today, the modern locavore has greater cause for concern, because the second thing that happens, in order to market the product, is some form of preservation, whether by cold storage or the application of chemicals.  Only by the use of artificial preservatives can fresh fruits and veggies maintain their color, shape, and consistency.  But even with preservatives, they lose their “bloom” and eye-catching hue.

When a Red Delicious apple leaves Washington state and arrives in North Carolina, it is text-book red, uniformly shaped, and toothsomely crisp, but it has no bloom (only a coat of sprayed-on wax to make it look shiny), almost no flavor to speak of, and far less juice than any fresh local variety.  It doesn’t even get to prove itself in its own foodshed, so quickly is it whisked away from home after harvest and treated with magic potions by food undertakers to keep it pretty for its funeral display, on the shelves of your (but not its) local market.  It will look as good in the dead of winter as it did in the fall when it was ripped untimely from its leafy home.

It’s ironic, too, that by choosing fruits and veggies that look better and are available out of season, we are forgetting good local winter foods like “keeper” apples, root vegetables, dried tomatoes, and the like.

So, even without consulting a prophet, we know that when food travels it becomes denatured.  Beautiful foods from afar are meant to stimulate the eye with attractive color.  Great color, not great nutrition!  Some are hybrids created to grow big, with a concomitant loss of flavor.  Watery tomatoes; fat, bland green peppers; wet, tasteless apples; hard but very yellow bananas—have we all not seen them, tried them, wished for better, and bemoaned the way things used to be?

And what is the effect on health?  That was Cayce’s concern because many of the people who came to him had chronic, nutrition-based illnesses.  We are eating food with no life force left in it.

Historical marker to Edgar Cayce in Selma, Alabama
Historical marker to Edgar Cayce in Selma, Alabama

Locavores (check their website: www.Locavores.com) decry the fact that Americans now eat food that travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to the table, often spending time in distribution or storage centers, all of which adds to its costs and subtracts from its flavor and nutritional potency.  As the Locavores state, “what is eaten by the great majority of Americans comes from a global everywhere, yet from nowhere that we know in particular.”  Amen to that!

And another negative to food from afar is that our children are no longer aware of where their food comes from, or really, what it is.  As a child I saw my mother and grandparents growing, harvesting, and processing tomatoes, corn, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers; and getting eggs from hens that pecked in the yard.  Children in our cities haven’t got this wonderful heritage anymore.  So, not only are we and our children missing out on healthier, tastier food, we’re all missing out on our connection to the earth.

And, as the Locavores like to remind us, it’s harder to “act responsibly and effectively for change if we do not understand how the food system works and our own role in it.”  So, the Locavore initiative is not only about eating local and eating better because of it, it’s an inroad into global connectivity.

The Locavores recommend a foodshed of a 100-mile radius.  They realize that people will, as mentioned before, make some exceptions; some foods we like to eat are only grown under certain climatic conditions, and some things we like to eat year round are only available fresh in certain seasons.  But awareness is the key, as it is in all movements that lead to change.  So, the Locavore chain goes like this: if not local, then organic; if not organic, then family farm; if not family farm, then local business, and so on.

I can’t prove it, but I would be willing to bet that the grocery stores of my childhood bought nearly all of their fresh produce from local farmers.  Now, in order to get ordinary veggies grown in one’s own neck of the woods, most city-dwellers have to go to farmers’ markets that are sometimes few and far between.  That creates the paradox of having to drive outside your immediate region to get foods from your region.

But in some places, there is a positive push-back.  The Local Food Hub of Charlottesville, Virginia has worked with local growers using grants and donations to promote foodshed produce.  A group called ELF (Eating Local Foods) in northwest Ohio is networking to educate people about the values—economic as well as nutritional—of encouraging local growers and consuming food from the region.

Jen Maiser, one of the Locavore founding mothers, offers some interesting reasons, apart from the obvious ones, for eating local on her informative website, Eat Local Challenge:

  • Eating local means more for the local economy.
  • Eating local is better for air quality and pollution than eating organic.
  • Buying locally grown food is fodder for a wonderful story.
  • Eating local protects us from bio-terrorism.
  • Supporting local providers supports responsible land development.

Cayce took the locavore concept a step further by suggesting that if you move, you should immediately begin to acclimatize your body to the new region’s foods.  Cayce was advising this for people moving within the United States.  We tend to think of our American diet as standardized, but there are many regional differences that we can enjoy, imagining or designing our own local food wheel and taking Cayce’s careful approach to each new foodshed.

Modern locavores are nearly as variety conscious as the mainstream; they just suggest getting your variety by more sensitive processes.  Cayce was not concerned about variety; in his day, variety was limited and what concerned him foremost was healthy eating for healthy bodies, long-term cures for what ailed the many people who sought his advice.

It’s worth noting, too, that Edgar Cayce said that eating food produced outside one’s locale causes allergies.  When I read that a few days ago, I was far more intrigued than when I read it originally.  Back in the sixties, food allergies, allergies in general, were rare; now they are rife.  Frustrated parents wonder what is wrong with children who can’t seem to tolerate a wide variety of foods; many parents have begun to use strict food control not just for general health but as a way of coping with everything from allergies to autism.  We no longer fully trust our most basic necessity.

What if Cayce were right on this one, as he often was about other nutritional issues?  People reported cures from taking his advice, which were rarely overnight “miracle” healings but most often involved a slow, carefully prescribed regimen of diet and herbal remedies.  What if a locavorous regimen could reduce or eliminate some of those seemingly pervasive allergic symptoms?  What if it isn’t gluten or grains or acidity that makes foods hate us, but is instead a matter of simple propinquity?

All this thinking made me hungry, so I went to www.NCFarmFresh.com to see what I could eat within locavore limits right here in North Carolina.  I admit, I was impressed and proud to see that the website has a colorful food chart for North Carolina produce, reminiscent of the Food Wheel.

Click to enlarge.

I quickly realized that my winter choices would be pretty restricted, so I decided on a summer menu, for a perfect sunny day in July.  Right here at home, I could be a locavore with the following selection:

Breakfast: Eggs, fresh tomatoes, and cantaloupe

Snack: Peanuts!

Lunch: Fried chicken, okra and tomato stew, and green beans

Snack: Sliced watermelon!

Supper: Carolina pork barbecue, cole slaw and butter beans….with peaches and cream for dessert!

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