News | The eating experiment: four students keep it local

Greening McGill initiative supports Montreal and regional food producers

Four Greening McGill students are coming to the close of a two-week challenge to eat food produced within a 100-mile radius of Montreal, a project designed to demonstrate that it’s possible to eat locally.

Aynsley Merk, Ian Vogel, Tim Dowling, and Johanna Paquin have planned their diet exclusively around food coming from an area bounded by Burlington, Vermont to the South, Jean Baptiste to the North, Ottawa to the West, and Sherbrooke to the East. An online blog tracks their experience.

“I don’t think about what we can’t have, but what we can have,” said Merk. “I look forward to what will come into season, and it changes every week.”

Eating locally both saves on fossil fuels burned to import food and supports fair payment for farmers. Supporters of the movement swear that local food just simply tastes better; naturally-grown produce arrives fresh in comparison to fruits and vegetables cooped up during long-distance travel.

The Greening Mcgill group was inspired by Vancouver duo of Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who documented their year-long experiment with local food in the bestseller The 100 Mile Diet.

McGill’s experimenting locavores searched for local food by metro, foot, phone, and on the Internet.

Participants found it challenging to make time to buy produce directly from local farms and expanded their food diversity beyond an initial reliance on eggs and potatoes.

Vogel explained that misleading food labels made it difficult to be sure that products were made locally.

“Foods are often labelled ‘Produit du Quebec,’ but it might just be the processing that is local and not the ingredients,” he said.

While all four admitted to spending far more time in the kitchen than normal, they maintain it’s possible to adapt to local eating.

“As long as you are willing to change your lifestyle and diet a bit, you could do this diet at any time if you wanted,” Dowling said.

The group avoided processed goods and mega stores like Provigo, which tend to carry imported and long-distance products.

The students explained that local eating doesn’t break the bank. They could afford pricier goods like honey and local, organic Liberty dairy products with the money saved by cutting out caffeine and take-out. All participants saved money due to the near-impossibility of eating at restaurants.

For good sources of local foods, the group suggested FrigoVert, McGill’s Organic Campus, Jardin de la Renaissance, community garden projects, networking and meal-sharing with other locavores, and dumpster diving.

Matthew Hawco, a volunteer at Organic Campus, suggested the group’s weekly food baskets as a convenient source of local produce. The baskets are stocked with fruits and vegetables from Farm True Food Ecostere, a family farm an hour outside of Montreal.

“Through the winter we have root vegetables and even apples, which can be stored in a cold room,” Hawco said, explaining that basket orders wane from almost 100 to about 30 through the cold months, when favourite produce items like leafy greens are no longer available.

While none of the students are planning to commit strictly to the diet once the experiment is up, there is a consensus that they are more willing and better equipped to seek out local foods in the future. Greening McGill will amass the tips and experiences of these students in a distributable form.

“I haven’t eaten this well since I got here in September. The meals have been wonderful and often the four of us will meet and make meals,” said Dowling. “Now it is sort of becoming routine, I don’t even feel like I am being challenged, because I have it figured out enough.”