Evolution of a Locavore

Do you ever sit down and realized just how much you’ve changed over time, even though you still feel like the same “you” you were fifteen years ago? And wait…fifteen years? Was I even alive then? Wait – I was not only alive, but I was doing something meaningful and being kind of an adult fifteen years ago?


Care to dive into my food habits over the last decade and a half? It’s really interesting to see how my definition of healthy eating has changed over time and paychecks.  More after the cut…

Fifteen years ago, I was in college and mostly eating in the cafeteria. Our cafeteria wasn’t bad, though it went downhill, I think. I recall some Sundays when the only thing edible was white rice and yet another limp salad, because I didn’t consider frozen waffles and canned ravioli to be “edible,” even then. I loved the wok bar. I would stir-fry up my own veggies, white rice, and sometimes meat (pilfering veg from the salad bar if the wok bar didn’t have enough options) toward the end of a meal. Then, since you were allowed to take a slushie out of the cafeteria, I’d fill a slushie cup with the stir fry and hold it up to my mouth as I left the cafeteria. Instant bedtime snack!

And I definitely needed my bedtime snacks. Some kind of noodle was my first choice; the bathroom of my dorm always functioned as a kitchen, too. Ramen, with its MSG, gave me vivid dreams; sometimes my roommate and I would split a pack and compare dreams in the morning. Like a cheap and legal acid trip for the chickenhearted, I suppose. 🙂 Even eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day, I still weighed about 115. I tried eating vegetarian a couple times, but each time I came down with a cold within a week. I think there just wasn’t enough good fuel in the caf to keep me going without meat.

My senior year, I had an apartment. Pasta was a mainstay. One time, I was grocery shopping with my roommate and we noticed between the two of us, we had about 10 pounds of pasta in the cart for a week or two’s supply. All white flour, the cheapest the big chain supermarket had to offer. Kraft parmesan cheese, though; that off-brand stuff was just nasty.

After college, I started getting my first real paycheck: $1400/month, of which $425 was rent, plus car payment, insurance, and student loans. It often struck me that I was making about twice minimum wage at that time. How could I have made do on half my current income? I’m not sure how I would’ve made it if I hadn’t been teaching music lessons to supplement my actual paycheck.

I was eating more brown rice and veggies at that time, and I made one other important switch: instead of stretching a packaged pasta-sauce-and-veg mix with more pasta, as I’d done in college, I stretched it with more frozen vegetables. I admit, part of this was spurred by having put on 30 pounds in about 2 years while losing muscle tone, but I was also realizing that pasta would cause me to “carb crash” almost as badly as dessert. There was apparently a very nice farmers’ market in the town I lived in, but I never went. Well, I think I went once to see what was there, but I didn’t buy anything and it certainly wasn’t a habit. I tried to shop some at the co-op, but it was small, and the produce, especially, was pricey and limp.

After a few years, I got married, and we decided that it was a priority for us to start buying more organic food. Some we got at a local health food store and some came from the giant groceries-and-stuff store. By this time, the proportion of veggies to noodles was about 50/50, up from 75% noodles. It was also around this time that I realized dairy was not so good for me. My husband also switched to rice milk; corn flakes, rice milk, raisins, and apple juice were staples of his diet.

Then we moved to Ann Arbor, home of an amazing food coop and an astounding farmers’ market. I started learning about food miles and the benefits of keeping money within the local economy. I also learned about the coercive pricing practices of places like Wal*Mart, the (un)sustainability of ocean fisheries, the spectre of GMOs, and the evils of feedlot beef and dairy. We continued to buy organic, switched 75% of our monthly grocery bill to the co-op, market, and another local “natural” grocery store, and started seriously looking at changing where our meat come from.

I think some of my interest in “localness” is the puzzle aspect. Can I make a whole meal out of food from within 100 miles of here? What’s in season now? Who are my local suppliers? What are the hidden bugaboos in my diet?

A big one for my sweetie was the corn flakes. He realized they were calorie-dense but nutrition-poor, and switched from eating them to eating organic yogurt. It was a fairly big price difference, but cutting them out also cut a ton of packaging from the cereal and rice milk boxes. And rice milk…that’s not really a food, is it? It’s just as processed as the corn flakes – though not GMO. The latest step in that particular evolution is that he’s now making his own yogurt from local milk (bought in a returnable glass bottle) and I’ve made several kinds of jam to flavor it. Suddenly, the price is back down to the price of a bowl of corn flakes, there’s no waste to speak of, and it’s all made of Real Food.

I’d also put on another 20+ pounds, and decided this was just silly. I started exercising every day – just 10 minutes a day at first, to establish the habit, then up to 30 mins or so, which is where I am now. I also looked at my diet and realized how many hundreds of calories of pure carbs I put away in a day. Not that carbs are inherently bad; it’s just they are so dense, you can eat way too many without realizing it. And when I paid attention, I could see that the more pasta I ate, the hungrier I felt. So I no longer eat pasta or white rice as a main dish – it’s more like a side, or it’s “diluted” with a lot of veggies, some meat, and a fair bit of fat to keep it from slamming into my bloodstream like a snowplow. I’ve lost about 25 pounds and kept it off for several years, up from my too-thin childhood and teen years, but down from my sedentary days.

Then last year, I inaugurated National Local Food Month. Many friends were doing some variation on National Novel Writing Month – producing a novel, or album, or art show within the months of November. I decided that food is my passion, and that’s what I would focus on. That was really a big shot in the arm to get me where I am today.

I would guess that 75-80% of our diet is from local sources in the summer, and about 40-50% in the winter. I’m working on root cellaring this year to try to bump the percentage up then, too. Last winter, we ate “virtually local” foods as much as possible – things that could be grown and stored in this climate, even if this particular sample came from California. The local supply really does just dry up around January, except maybe for potatoes and meat.

I’m eating more meat these days, which is a little ironic, because I’ve always thought of meat as essentially bad – bad for my health, bad for the environment, bad for the animals. I’ve come to realize, however, that livestock that gets to eat natural foods, roam at will, and be slaughtered individually (not on a conveyor belt)reduces or negates most of those objections. And conveniently, it’s also less processed than, say, white flour. I totally respect the decision to eat a vegetarian diet, but I will eat meat as long as I can get meat that meets my values.  So we’ll see how long meat stays a central part of my diet. For the moment, it works well, interspersed with vegetarian meals 7-12 times a week.

I guess my point here – if I have one, beyond reminiscing – is to say that change can start very slowly. It can take a sudden uptick, but even if it doesn’t, it still adds up. Fifteen years ago (shoot, five or six years ago!) I was eating mostly cheap pasta with a few frozen veggies and the occasional chicken breast, factory farmed and trucked in from who-knows-where. Today, I’m eating much less refined starch, many more fresh vegetables, and more meat (as much as 4-5 oz every day). And a huge percentage of my food is grown within a hundred miles of my home.

Sometimes I’m not even sure how I got here. 🙂



  1. Jen in MI said,

    August 18, 2008 at 5:38 am

    I think many of us who are trying to be locavores and eat whole foods have followed a similar journey. It’s interesting to see it documented!

  2. August 18, 2008 at 6:25 am

    Well done, Emily. I think many people are intimidated by locavorism because they think it’s an all-or-nothing deal, but you’ve beautifully illustrated that, like any other changes in eating habits, it’s an ongoing process, fueled by what you continue to learn.

  3. Barbara (in Tennessee) said,

    August 20, 2008 at 7:57 am

    good morning,

    I just thought I’d let you know that I made your Sag Daal recipe this morning, yes, I got up really early. I’ve never had it before, but I love it!! and it will be a regular in my cooking plans.

    Thanks so much for posting that recipe.


  4. Emily said,

    August 20, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Jen and Jennifer – I think you’re right: reading blogs of people who are a fair ways along the path can be intimidating, because you don’t see all the steps that went before. I hope some folks will take inspiration that you really CAN start with small, simple steps and move pretty quickly away from a typical American processed diet.

    Barbara – I’m so glad you liked the Sag Daal! Isn’t it easy and tasty? And cheap, too! I think I calculated once that it costs about 25 cents per serving.

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