Strength Test #8: Could your community survive on local food?

This article is part of a series on the Strong Towns Strength Test, a simple method to help determine your town's strength and resilience. This series offers step-by-step guides for giving your town the test along with ideas for actions you can take to help your town grow stronger.  We'll publish one article in this series every couple weeks. You can read all our previous Strength Test guides here.

The question we're exploring today is #8 on the Strong Towns Strength Test

If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you?

A Strong Town shouldn’t rely on resources that come from halfway around the world in order to survive, and food is one of the most basic resources we all need. This Strength Test question tells us how antifragile your food system is, and how well you’d be able to withstand volatile shifts in food and transportation prices. 

How to take the test

A farmers market stand. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

A farmers market stand. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

1.   Define local. Food that comes from within 100 miles is something of a standard definition for “local food,” but this aspect of the Strength Test question is open to interpretation. Perhaps you want to aim for even closer. Or perhaps, after going through the steps in this test, you'll want to expand your local perimeter a little farther to 150 or 200 miles and see whether you can produce better results. That’s up to you.

2.   Make a list of what you eat in a typical week. The question asks “If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you?” With that in mind, draw up a rough list of the typical foods in your diet. Think about breakfast, lunch and dinner in an average week. Don’t forget drinks. Now break down those meals into food items.

If you can immediately tell that your usual breakfast—say, a Pop-Tart—won’t be locally available, list some substitutions (bread, jam, etc.). If you typically eat a processed food (literally anything that’s not a raw ingredient), look up a recipe for something similar and write down the ingredients. If you’re doing this right (and you don’t eat an incredibly restricted or repetitive diet), you should end up with a pretty long list. I came up with more than 25 ingredients for just one day’s worth of food. Don’t leave off seasonings, oils, vinegars, etc. Account for everything.

Local pork, stored in a freezer. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo.)

Local pork, stored in a freezer. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo.)

3.   Research local sources for these items. Some ideas include: grocery stores, farmers market, specialty food stores (bakeries, butchers, breweries, etc.), restaurants, foraging/hunting/fishing in nearby woods and lakes, or your own garden.

As you research, take stock of all the options. How hard would it be to access these things? If your local food plan involves fishing, do you know where to fish? Do you have the proper equipment? If your local food plan involves procuring milk or cheese from a nearby dairy, is this available at your neighborhood grocery store or would you need to call up the farm and make a special arrangement to purchase it and pick it up?

4.   Consider origin vs. production. This Strength Test question is about locally-produced food, so that might give you some leeway around, say, locally roasted coffee beans that weren’t actually grown in your region, or locally made bread where the wheat doesn’t actually come from within 100 miles of your town. It should be acknowledged, though, that global food and transportation prices still have an impact on your community’s access to this item. If the cost of raw coffee beans increases abroad, you’ll still have to pay more, or even go without coffee from your local roastery. Even so, you’re better off having the local processing plant option, rather than relying on food that is imported and processed far away.

Canning tomatoes. (Source:  TheBittenWord )

Canning tomatoes. (Source: TheBittenWord)

5.   Take seasons into account. Consider that this local food exercise might be possible in the summer, but would probably be much harder in the winter unless you live in a very temperate climate. If you were undertaking the local food challenge in the winter, you’d need to learn how to can, dry and cure food, and you’d need considerable freezer, fridge and pantry storage space. You’d also need to plan ahead.

6.   Reevaluate your plan. I can pretty much guarantee that at this point, you’ve realized the foods in your diet are not 100% locally available. So let’s turn to a new question: If you had to eat only locally produced food, could you survive? Are there enough basic food groups available in your region to create a life-sustaining diet? Look at your list of local food options and see how many meals you could create from it.

7.   Bonus: Take the challenge. That’s right. I challenge you to only eat locally-produced food for a month. Or maybe just try it for a week. Then tell us how it goes.

Next steps

If you've taken the local food test and realized that your town doesn't offer the foods you need and want, here are some steps you can take to help improve access to good local food.

A backyard vegetable garden (Source:  woodleywonderworks )

A backyard vegetable garden (Source: woodleywonderworks)

1. Plant a garden. A home garden is about as local as it gets. Whatever space you have, even if it’s a tiny balcony, make use of it for food growing and you’ll have a source local food within walking distance to your kitchen. 

People fly-fishing. (Source:  Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service )

2. Learn to fish, hunt and/or forage. Wild food is usually an affordable (basically free, minus the costs of equipment and license, if that’s required) way to feed your family. Like gardening, it takes skill, so grab a knowledgeable friend, a helpful book or an online resource to teach you. I’ll never forget my uncle’s story of the first time he went deer hunting on his own; He succeeded in bringing down a deer and then promptly pulled out his phone to watch a YouTube video about how to skin and clean the animal. Fortunately, another hunter came by and gave him a hands-on demonstration. His willingness to learn (even if he looked a little silly doing it) means that now every year, he and his family have a huge freezer full of deer meat to feed them for months.

Prepping vegetables (Source:  Jeff Kubina )

Prepping vegetables (Source: Jeff Kubina)

3. Develop some basic cooking skills. If you want to work with locally-grown food, you’re probably going to be dealing with a lot of raw ingredients—rice, beans, meat, vegetables… You need to know how to turn those into a meal and if you’re used to pulling a frozen pizza out of the freezer or pouring a bowl of cereal for breakfast, you’re going to need to learn how to make homemade pizza (here’s my favorite easy recipe) or granola (here’s a tasty recipe) or some other substitute. As with gardening and hunting, it’s best if you can have a friend or family member cook with you and teach you. Cooking classes are also a good option and the internet is full of cooking resources. There’s also the good ol' cookbook. Here’s a basic one I suggest for beginners.

Cowgirl Creamery stand (Source:  Joe Mabel )

Cowgirl Creamery stand (Source: Joe Mabel)

4. Support local farmers and food producers. If you’re really dedicated to bolstering your local food options, you could start your own farm or ranch or dairy. But a much easier route is to simply support existing local food producers. Buy from them, attend their events, and get to know them. Find more tips on accessing and supporting local food here.

Regions With Ample Local Food Options

This might be the toughest question on the Strength Test. Most of us would probably not die on a diet of only local food, but our options would likely be very limited. Here are three regions that could score a “Yes” on this Strength Test question:

Willamette Valley wine country. (Source:  Sheila Sund )

Willamette Valley wine country. (Source: Sheila Sund)

The Willamette Valley in the Pacific Northwest

The Willamette Valley is a lush area of the country full of fruits and vegetables, as well as plenty of local meat and dairy. Plus, it’s home to lots of wine and beer ingredients and producers. Check out this extensive guide to Willamette Valley local foods created by the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition.

New Orleans, LA

The Gulf Coast is known for its plethora of seafood, but its temperate climate also means that lots of fruits and vegetables grow well here. New Orleans has an Eat Local Challenge coming up for the whole month of June so if you’re in the area, it’s a great opportunity to take the Strength Test with a community of people alongside you. The website has a ton of resources for where to find local food and what kinds are available

Winona, MN

Strong Towns reader Luke Sims suggested Winona, MN (his hometown) as a potential “Yes” to this Strength Test question. Winona produces a considerable amount of dairy, corn, beans and meat, especially beef, as well as a decent amount of produce and feed for livestock. Sims admits that things get more challenging once winter hits, but with enough planning and food preservation, you could probably survive the winter, as Minnesotans have been doing for centuries. Here’s some information on local farms from Winona’s local food co-op, Bluff Country Co-op.

Finally, I'll close by sharing a few resources that I've found helpful in my own journey to understanding local food options:

Please share any other resources that you know of and I’ll add them to this list.

(Top photo source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

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