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The 100-mile Diet

Eat me.

Amy Collins turned to buying locally-grown food out of frustration and guilt. “It ticks me off, at myself, that I’m not able to have a garden and grow my own food for my family,” says the 36-year-old who home-schools her daughter in the Columbus suburb of Grove City. “And it ticks me off to pay Kroger for something I ought to be doing myself.”

Her decision to join a local Community Supported Agriculture enterprise did far more than soothe her troubled soul. Turns out, she says, the produce she buys from a nearby farm is tastier, healthier and fresher.

Collins buys a ‘half share’ in the cooperative. That entitles her family to fresh-picked produce all summer: cucumbers, squash, potatoes, peas, beans, watermelon, sweet corn – 22 different crops, all picked within the previous 24 hours.

“I prefer this food because it’s healthier for my family and for the environment, and because there aren’t so many pesticides involved,” she says. “The CSA is just one step away from growing it myself.”

Collins is one of a growing number of consumers in the Ohio Valley who are looking for ways to close the distance between the farm and the dinner table. Whether they join CSAs, shop at farmers markets or grow their own, these self-described “locavores” are embracing the value of the “100-mile diet” movement. Inspired by popular books and online communities, these consumers try to purchase all their groceries within 100 or 150 miles of their home.

Buying local, they argue, is the cure for many plagues brought on by modern agribusiness. It takes a lot of burning fossil fuel to transport produce that travels, on average, more than 1,500 miles from the place it is picked to the place where it’s eaten. That’s bad for climate change, not to mention sustainable local economies.

Under the best conditions, buying your food locally “offers an opportunity to develop a different relationship between the grower and the eater,” says Matt Kleinhenz, an associate professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science.

“Typically, people who eat from mainstream system will never meet a farmer,” he explains. Through a farmers market or CSA, consumers can have an immediate and direct influence on crop selection, pesticide use and other farming practices. The growers, in turn, benefit because much of the guesswork is taken out of their market research: they know exactly what their consumers want because they know their consumers.

“Before, when I harvested, I was stressed out about what I was going to do with the vegetables,” explains Tim Cook, who operates a CSA from his family farm in Circleville. “We tried a roadside stand, but business wasn’t consistent.”

Tim and his wife, Christy, started their Community Supported Agriculture enterprise in 2004 with 49 paid subscribers. In four years it has grown to 220 members, including Amy Collins, who lives about 30 miles away.

Critics of the 100-mile diet scoff that it’s easy to buy local in places like Ohio or Kentucky, where the climate and the transportation system provide a bounty of produce. But most large American cities couldn’t possibly support even half their populations if everyone limited their diet to foods they could buy locally. And in arid parts of the continent, ‘buying local’ might suggest a move toward large scale irrigation and other environmentally questionable technologies.

That’s carrying the notion to illogical extremes, counters Kleinhenz. With more than 300 million people in the United States eating two to three meals a day, even a slight shift in consumer choice could have a huge influence on local economic patterns – and make a big difference to farmers like Collins.

“When we talk about providing 600 million meals a day, if the local growers can capture only 1 percent of the market, that’s a large sum of money.”

Randy Edwards lives and works in the Scioto River Valley, specifically Columbus, but gets out as often as he can.