No fear: on becoming a locavore

Friday, September 17, 2010
Christy Shi

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself transformed into a locavore.  This term, which Oxford English Dictionary named its word of the year for 2007, refers to someone who eats a local diet.  There are a multitude of reasons a person might become a locavore.  I certainly didn’t start out with that as a goal.  I just wanted good food.

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself connecting with people who grow food and have become a more proficient food grower myself.  I’d say that at this point, about 85% of what I eat is grown by someone I know.  When I give thanks for the hands that feed me, I can do so by name.  I find this sense of connection to be a reward all its own.

I’ve become so connected to food that I now run a business, with my brother Wes, which promotes development of local food system infrastructure.  At Know Your Farms, we test out alternative models of local food distribution, foster intra-grower cooperation, and advocate for local farms.  We also seek to raise awareness of where food comes from.  I want you all to think about it. 

Toward that end, we worked with five college interns this past summer.  At any given meal there was a crew of college-aged eaters milling about the kitchen.  They weren’t just hungry: they were responsible for learning as much as they could about growing, preparing, and preserving food.  They needed this knowledge as counselors later in the summer for Camp FOOD SCOUTS, our pilot project to reconnect children with the source of their food.

Later in the summer, the interns sat down to share some of what they learned in the kitchen.  The comments flew: “Cooking onions,” “Knife skills,” “I do like vegetables,” “Don’t be afraid of fat.”

Don’t be afraid of fat?  

Later that night I happened across an old journal from my college days.  Among my notes I saw a pattern emerge.  “Which fish has the lowest fat?” “Here’s how to convert that high-fat recipe to a lower-fat version…,” “Keep recording daily intake of fat grams.”  Wow.  I was really afraid of fat.  

Had my college self visited our kitchen this summer, she would have refused to eat.  “Did you just sauté that in bacon fat?” “That’s not REAL butter is it?” “Those aren’t cholesterol-free eggs.” “OMG-you’re going to whip heavy cream?”  I would have thought that my future self was CRAZY, and headed for an early grave.

In fact, that’s exactly what I originally thought was happening when I started down this local path.  I had been so trained to seek out “fat-free,” “lite,” and “low-calorie,” that I found myself in raging conflict when I sought out local food.   There simply aren’t cholesterol-free local eggs; there’s no fat percentage written on the label of my locally-grown ground beef. 

But by this time I knew the people raising the eggs and beef.  I had spent time with them and heard their stories.  I had unwittingly become a locavore, and I wasn’t interested in stopping.

After a year or two of this “real food” diet, I finally summoned the courage to get my routine blood work done.  I knew the results would quantifiably prove the fatal toll locavore living was having on my body.  All those fat-laden foods I’d been consuming as a result of wanting to support people I knew would be the death of me. 

But then I heard the doctor say, “Keep doing whatever you’re doing—all your bad cholesterol has gone down and your good cholesterol has gone up.”  What???

Thus began my unapologetic campaign for consuming fats in a local diet.  Reserve the bacon fat to cook onions.  Sauté that okra in spicy sausage grease.  Value the imported olive oil for its flavor, not its reputation as a healthier fat. 

This works because my diet doesn’t contain much in the way of processed foods.  Sure, there’s the Pepsi addiction that I haven’t been able to kick.  But my diet doesn’t really contain much else in the way of processed foods.  That means I know the kind of fat and the amount of salt I’m eating.  I’m not subject to the messages of the mainstream; I don’t have to seek out “low-fat”.

This is due in no small part to my avoidance of mainstream food channels.  It’s shocking, but I only visit the grocery store once in a blue moon to stock up on staples such as sugar, salt, and pepper (and the occasional 12-pack of Pepsi).

I let the seasons dictate my diet.  Apples started mid-summer, but I had to prioritize melons, berries, and peaches which have a shorter season.  There are three more months to harvest apples, and then stored properly, they’ll last through March.  Lettuce is about to appear again as the temperatures are backing down; I’m so excited about getting a salad soon!  And the arugula, that is fast attaining weed status for its proliferation in the garden, is spicy and delicious and I just snuck out mid-sentence to grab a bite.

Yes, technically I’m a locavore.  But I value it not for the sake of being trendy or even being local.  Instead I feed on joy and seasonal anticipation of what is to come.  I appreciate things more, not only the foods themselves, but also the people who labor quietly in the fields and orchards on our behalf. 

But most importantly, I’ve eliminated fear from my diet.

Christy Shi started Shi-Day Consulting. She can be reached at Christy Shi

Views expressed in this commentary are entirely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, its staff, or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Photos by Christy Shi