Whenever Harry MacCormack talks about the beginning of the Bean and Grain Project, he invariably "blames" Chris Peterson for making the connection that got the quern turning. In an article for First Alternative Co-op's monthly publication, The Co-op Thymes, May, 2006, Chris noted that none of the items in the Co-op's bulk food bins were locally grown. This insightful article, entitled "Searching for Locally-Grown Foods in the Co-op's Bulk Section," revealed that locally grown staples, at that time, were really, really hard to find, that the bulk items at First Alternative came from as far away as Paraguay and China, and that without local staples, the Hundred-Mile-Diet is problematic in the northwest–or just about anywhere else in the United States!
Upon request, this summer of 2012, Chris Peterson unearthed this first article and a second–written seven months later describing how Harry MacCormack responded to her revelation. For the sake of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project archive, the two articles have been reprinted here at Mud City Press. The first is below, the second follows on a separate webpage. Together they set the premise for what has since become the vision of the project.
Just how varied could a Hundred-Mile-Diet (HMD) be here in the Willamette Valley? That question arose in last month's Thymes about a couple in Vancouver, British Columbia who vowed that all their food and drink for the next year would come from within a one-hundred-mile radius, starting on the first day of Spring, 2005. It was a tough, lean go at first, but highly enlightening as they made discoveries about their region and our global food system. Their self-imposed challenge is raising eyebrows and awareness far and wide.
Shopping (theoretically) for an HMD at First Alternative is equally enlightening, sometimes jaw-dropping.
Because we live where we do, have great farms, farmers' markets and the Co-op, I assumed it would be easier to do an HMD here. Not so, I'm discovering. Naturally, you'd do best starting in summer when more produce is available to preserve for winter, but even strict vegetarians need more than produce. The B.C. couple discovered their 15-year vegetarian diet was not HMD-feasible because soybeans came from eastern Canada and the U.S. mid-west, and were prohibitively expensive when they finally found them grown locally. As in Canada, eggs, dairy, and meat are produced here, but the grains fed to some animals (another local requirement for the couple) are imported. That's a level of thinking not normally plumbed as we shop for food, is it?
I consider the bulk department First Alternative's second best feature (after local produce) so I began my research there. It seems more environmentally-sustainable than packaged foods, right? I'd written articles in 2001, calculating how many containers were saved in that department by shoppers bringing their own. It was a staggering amount, but if I were concerned about environmental impact I should have asked an even deeper question: where does the product come from? Thanks to research help from bulk manager Gabe Pallastrini, we're finding out. Even millions of reused containers or bags can't make up for really long-distance shipping, especially when products come from…China! That's where F.A.'s organic black beans, garbanzos and raw, shelled sunflower seeds are from. That's almost 6,000 miles away. No wonder the average mile traveled by an item of food on Americans' plates (yes, yours, and mine too) is so high:1,615 to 2,485 miles, according to World Watch. But that doesn't include the fossil fuel needed to grow, harvest, and process it. In an article entitled "SUV in Your Pantry" in the May/June 2006 issue of Touch the Soil, Tom Starrs, vice president and C.E.O. of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, translated fossil fuel calories needed to produce and transport our food calories into almost 34,000 kilowatt-hours of energy, or more than 930 gallons of fuel, for a family of four, annually…for comparison, the average U.S. household annually consumes about 10,800 kilowatt-hours of electricity, and about 1,070 gallons of gasoline…We use more than three times as much energy to obtain our food as to fuel our homes–nearly as much as we use to fuel our cars," he wrote.
We've only scratched the surface in researching products to date but, so far, none are from Oregon. All the following bulk products are organically-grown if both organic and non-organic are offered:
The soybeans in Surata's tofu come from Iowa and Minnesota. It is difficult to trace the specific source of wheat because such high-volume commodities are blended from across the country, but flours at F.A. come from U.S.-grown wheat; whole wheat high-protein flour is milled in San Francisco and white flour in Minneapolis. Cane sugar comes from Paraguay, pinto beans from Idaho, navy beans from South Dakota, and rolled oats from "somewhere in the U.S.," according to the distributor. The hulled barley and green lentils come from Canada. Non-organic sea salt and cornmeal come from California, as do organic spaghetti and buckwheat noodles. Hard red wheat comes from Utah and amaranth from Bolivia and Peru. The basmati rice comes from Arkansas. Most major ingredients in Emerald Valley Kitchens' salsa comes from California, with minor dried ones from Oregon, Washington, and cumin from Turkey. They said not much is available locally on a commercial basis in consistent, year-round quantities.
Even though locally-grown or processed bulk items are hard to find, F.A. is able to support a local distributor based in Eugene, GloryBee, by ordering many of its bulk products through them.
Availability and consistent quality were themes I heard repeatedly when contacting Oregon companies that sell processed food at First Alternative in other departments. Meat, eggs, and dairy suppliers are also being contacted. Future articles will reveal those surprising (and sometimes reassuring) discoveries, as well as more from the bulk department.
But first, having raised the question of where bulk foods come from, what will we do with the information? According to local history and current farmers, most of the bulk items mentioned above have been and could again be grown here. Why aren't they? What roadblocks do farmers face? The dearth of locally-grown food reflects the reality of our global food system: hidden subsidies for water and oil, international trade agreements, hidden health problems related to environmental pollution and unhealthy ingredients, and the fact we all want food at the lowest possible price.
If we could contract with local growers for even one bulk item, would we be willing to pay a higher price, if necessary, for the farmer to receive fair compensation? Are the farmers in China and Latin America fairly compensated? Where do our food dollars really go, especially when we buy minimally-processed item like many of those in the bulk department?
Photo courtesy of Tom Hunton, Hunton Famly Farm.