Whenever they had visitors at their remote summer cabin in northern British Columbia, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon wanted to be good hosts and showcase the local area. They laid out a strictly local feast: Dolly Varden trout, chanterelle mushrooms, potatoes from their garden, boiled dandelion greens.
"It was delicious," Ms. Smith recalls. "We thought, 'Why can't we eat locally when we're at home in Vancouver?' We decided to make a whole experiment out of it."
The pair dubbed their idea the 100 Mile Diet and vowed, for one year, to eat only foods grown within a 100-mile (160-kilometre) radius of their Kitsilano home. And to hold themselves to it, they decided to go public with their experiment.
The couple, both professional writers, have turned their dietary experience into a diary published by The Tyee, a B.C. on-line magazine at http://www.thetyee.ca, and their experiences have turned into an Internet phenomenon of sorts.
Since the series began on June 28, about 100,000 people have logged on to read about their culinary adventures. Next month, The Utne Reader magazine will reprint part of the series. Gardening and organic agricultural publications throughout North America have asked for copyright permission. Ms. Smith and Mr. MacKinnon are in demand as speakers to diverse organizations of food-lovers or environmentalists, and the City of Vancouver has taken up their challenge, with a 100 Mile Breakfast served to city councillors yesterday.
"People all over North America are contacting us," says a bemused Ms. Smith, explaining that she and Mr. MacKinnon started the 100 Mile Diet as a deliberate lifestyle choice.
"I really like the idea of being in touch with the city around me, of talking to my local farmers, being in touch with the growing seasons and what's good to eat right now." One delightful discovery, she says, was local cantaloupes. "They're a thousand times more delicious than a California cantaloupe!"
In their articles on The Tyee website, Ms. Smith, a freelance writer, and Mr. MacKinnon, an author known as J. B. MacKinnon, offer tales of making jam from local strawberries without sugar (honey works, but is costly), and how, restricted to meals in which "every single ingredient had to come from the earth in our magic 100-mile circle," their wallets shrivelled and their bodies shrank.
When they started their diet last March, without grains imported from elsewhere for bread -- meaning no pasta, bread or rice -- and only potatoes for starch, "we lost about 15 pounds in six weeks."
Ms. Smith noted: "While I appreciated the beauty and creativity of James's turnip sandwich, with big slabs of roasted turnip as the 'bread,' this innovation did little to stave off the constant hunger. James's jeans hung down his butt like a skater boy. He told me I had no butt left at all."
Their bodies filled out again through the summer, when local food was plentiful. Now with heavy winter rains setting in, the pair's series may take on a winter chill.
Soon they will find out the answer to a question posed by Ms. Smith in their first published piece: "But what . . . will we eat all winter?"
From coffee out of Colombia to garlic from China, urban Canadians enjoy a cornucopia of foods from around the world. Canadian families spend, on average, as little as 4 per cent of income on food, one of the world's lowest food budgets.
But activists point out that this bounty comes at a cost to the environment and food security, that the foods must be transported long distances, and supply lines could be seriously disrupted by environmental or man-made catastrophes, such as war or terrorism.
The popularity of the 100 Mile Diet "is an overnight success story that's taken us three decades," says Herb Barbolet, a Vancouver researcher, community organizer and writer, who has spent decades advocating local food production.
"They're blog celebrities," said David Beers, publisher and founding editor of The Tyee, who jumped at the chance to publish the diary.
Spring Gillard, a member of the City of Vancouver's Food Policy Council, says the 100 Mile Diet "is something people can wrap their heads around. If you look at the world's problems, you get overwhelmed and say, 'Why even bother, because I don't know where to start.' But the idea of even trying to have one meal as a 100 Mile Diet is accessible."
Mr. Beers says Ms. Smith and Mr. MacKinnon make the subject of food sustainability compelling reading for the general public because they include their personal saga.
"It's a story of a couple trying something new and trying to get along in the process. . . . There's a challenge every two weeks, and canning corn almost breaks up their relationship. It's all in the telling.
"This could have been a self-righteous, didactic journey, but James and Alisa are exceptional writers," he said. "And they recognize that eating well is part of the joy of life, that food has to be savoury and sensuous."