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'What is it?'

A reflection on the 100-mile diet

by Kim Cornford

Manna Matters June 2009

The quiet at the end of the day comes at last and I am settling into the evening peace of sleeping children and a warm cuppa.  We've been thinking about 'food miles' and as I read the label on the block of chocolate in front of me, my mind journeys around the globe, crossing four continents.  The cocoa beans in my chocolate have been grown in both Ghana and Costa Rica, then processed in Belgium, and ended up with me in my comfy lounge in Melbourne. That's quite a journey.

This idea of food miles essentially asks how far our food has traveled to get from paddock to plate.  Tim Lang, the English Professor who first coined the term, says: 'The point was to highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way...'. It forces us to recognise that transporting food vast distances (the norm in our global food system) has impacts in terms of oil production and carbon emissions, and is a significant contributing factor in climate change. As we discussed in the last edition of Manna Matters, it is the poor who suffer most from a changing climate.

Late last year we joined a small group of people having a go at the 100-mile diet for a week.  This meant figuring out how to source our food from within a 160km radius of Melbourne.

Our preparations began with a simple pantry audit. After filling two pages of my A4 notebook with items and noting where they came from, I discovered that there were only four items labelled 'Product of Australia' and the rest were labelled 'Made from local or imported ingredients'.  Gulp.  This was not leaving many pantry items for our 100 mile diet week.  Then I realised that two out of the four 'Product of Australia' items included golden syrup and sugar, neither of which come from Victoria, let alone within 160 kilometres.

In one of the early planning meetings of the group we were asked to share what things we would miss.  I was (quietly) bemused that most folk only mentioned one or two items. When it came around to me, all sorts of things came tumbling out... sugar, tea, coffee, rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, curry pastes, spices, and so the list went on. (I must confess, in the end I just couldn't give up coffee and salt.)

However, as the hunting and researching continued, together the group sourced heaps of good food, and I was increasingly impressed at how the week's menu was shaping up.  For breakfast we had strawberries and yoghurt, followed by homemade toasted sourdough with honey.  Lunch most days was homemade sourdough with smoked trout, and an assortment of tomato, lettuce, rocket, cucumber, mushrooms, fresh peas, gouda cheese, butter, eggs from home, and honey.  Evening meals?  Spelt pasta with tomato sauce including onion, garlic, olives, and mushrooms... Roast chicken stuffed with rosemary, chives, sage and lemon; silverbeet sautéed with garlic and butter, roast carrots & potatoes, and broccoli... Pork Pie... homemade gnocchi ... wild rabbit stew...  We ate pretty well!

Undertaking the 100-mile diet for one week was a great way of forcing us to learn more about where our food comes from. Now we diligently read food labels, and have substituted a number of our imported pantry items for Australian grown products.  We don't buy some products at all now or only when they are in season. Other items have become luxuries for special occasions.

But to be honest, doing the diet for just one week was pretty hard, and we certainly have no intention of trying to live by it. It also demonstrated that living by any arbitrary rule quickly presents many anomalies - for example, it sometimes meant choosing conventionally grown vegies (and therefore with high oil-based inputs) over much healthier and more sustainable organic produce. Nevertheless, I would recommend it to anyone as one of those challenging, eye-opening experiences that is good to do from time to time.

One of the most important things we learned was that there is rarely a perfect purchase. Ethical shopping and eating involves making trade-offs and personal value judgments.

And what did I miss most over the week?  When Sunday came around, I have to say I have never quite looked forward to a bowl of muesli as much as I did that morning.