Skip to main content

When I set out to spend three weeks on the 100-Mile Diet, I'll admit I was skeptical. Normally, I don't do diets. I know myself too well: Tell me I can't eat something, and I will obsess over the privation. Throughout my two pregnancies, all I could think about was cool, pristine sushi and ripe, raw milk brie - both forbidden by my obstetrician.

But the 100-Mile Diet is different from most of the eating fads that top the bestseller list. It's not about changing your body shape or lowering your cholesterol; it's about trying to slash the carbon footprint of your grocery bill. Our food chain has never been more globalized. Our garlic comes from China, our lettuce from California and our apples from New Zealand. Just the other day, I thought I'd buy fresh rosemary to dress some spring lamb, until I read the fine print: The "packaged in Canada" sprigs had flown all the way from Colombia.

Those rosemary sprigs were my call to arms. Though I try to eat local, seasonal foods (going to farmers' markets, buying my meat from a boutique butcher), it was time to take a harder look at where my food was coming from. So I grudgingly pushed my cold-pressed Tuscan olive oils to the back of my cupboard and signed up my family for a three-week experiment.

"How will you possibly find enough to eat?" my mother asked, concerned for the welfare of her two granddaughters. She suggested we record our weights before we began.

I had my own concerns about my daughters, who are two and four. I gingerly broached the subject of eating foods that were close to home and promised to make strawberry smoothies with maple syrup and yogurt. But I waited till they left the kitchen to hide the cookies.The idea for the 100-Mile Diet was borne out of a single meal that Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon cooked at their cabin in the woods, which launched the Vancouver couple on a year-long project to eat only foods that had been grown and processed within a 100-mile radius of the city.

As I planned my own menus in Toronto, I assumed, like most people, that the primary constraints would be geographic and seasonal: You can't grow rice on the Holland Marsh, and nobody harvests Ontario asparagus in December. When I met Ms. Smith and Mr. MacKinnon in March, they told me the 100-Mile Diet had been their best year of eating. Yeah, right, I thought. The claim seemed far-fetched on a grey winter day when most farmers hadn't even planted their seeds. But it might just be possible in July. I had visions of ripe, weeping strawberries over whipped cream and homemade scones. I'd shell sugar-sweet peas and sauté them with mint and fresh spring garlic. What better way to celebrate summer?

Of course, there would be hardships. We'd have to give up things that don't grow in Canadian soil, like mangoes and avocadoes. Somehow, I was going to have to wean my two young daughters off peanut butter and pasta. Salt, an essential mineral, would have to be sourced from Goderich, just beyond the 100-mile pale. According to Google, our new foodshed extended west to London and Niagara, and east to Belleville; the northern limits were Owen Sound and Bracebridge.

There'd be no chocolate, no sugar and no spices - only locally grown herbs. Ms. Smith and Mr. MacKinnon were vegans before they began their experiment, and neither drank coffee. My family was not so pure. We allowed ourselves one extravagance: a morning cup of fair-trade, shade-grown, organic coffee. (As my doctor husband pointed out, caffeine is an addiction.) At least we'd drink it with local milk.

Wrong. Despite the fact that southern Ontario is dotted with dairies, you can't drink 100-mile cow's milk - the dairy quota system requires milk to be pooled and most farms can't afford to pasteurize their own milk. The closest milk, from Harmony, a co-op of farms within a 200-kilometre radius of Hagersville, still travels up to 300 kilometres to get to my local health-food store.

Everywhere I turned, it was the same story: As businesses get bigger, it's harder and harder to find truly local products. Call me naïve, but I always assumed that Ni-He-Za Farms eggs and butter actually came from a single farm. In fact, it's just a brand. Two egg companies, L.H. Gray and Burnbrae Farms, control 90 per cent of the egg market in Ontario. "There's been consolidation in nearly every area," explains distributor Neil Goldenberg. "Even Balderson, which looks like a local cheddar, is owned by a multinational, Parmalat." Another item to strike off my shopping list; the plant is too far east, anyway.Already, I was beginning to realize how little we know about the origins of our food, despite the cram of information and numbers on the back of most grocery items.

In 2005, a public-health planner for Kitchener-Waterloo studied 58 foods imported to the Waterloo region that could have been grown locally. Marc Xuereb calculated that they travelled an average of 4,497 kilometres, accounting for more than 51,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

But who could tell me how far the strawberries or peas on a store shelf had travelled? From day one, the supermarket clerks looked at me as though I were from Mars. Surely it was enough to know that the produce came from Ontario.

Even the farm stands weren't much better: One guy insisted everything was 100 miles "as the crow flies," until I followed him into the back. The boxes from Leamington and Aylmer told a different story.

We ate well for the first few days, but a pattern quickly emerged. Potatoes became the starch for nearly every dinner. Breakfast was either homemade granola (just imagine baking and stirring it every 10 minutes for two hours in the sticky heat) or toasted sourdough with honey. As far as I knew, there were only two commercial loaves in the city that were made strictly with local ingredients. Marc Thuet made both, and sold them at a handful of gourmet shops around town. Though his sourdough is one of the best in the city, we were all soon tiring of it. "Can't you find another bread?" my husband asked despairingly as he sliced another dense semi-circle.

No one in the family will forget this year's strawberry season. It was a banner year. We discovered a new variety, Kent. The tiny, dark berries were soft and ripe enough to squeeze into juice between your tongue and palate. We ate them for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner: For six days, strawberries were the only local fruit available. A canker developed under my tongue.

As the search for 100-mile ingredients gradually took over my life, I was beginning to feel like an alien - or perhaps more accurately, like a conservative Mennonite trying to navigate a horse-and-buggy through downtown Toronto. Adhering to a strictly local diet in farm country is one thing. Here in the city, we are entangled in the global food web.

On the seventh day, I bought a whole chicken from Fenwood Farms (48 miles). The Healthy Butcher flattened it for me and I made stock out of the carcass. I stuffed the chicken with Kitchener-Waterloo butter (local, but illegal since I bought it straight from the farmer's wife) and herbs plucked out of the garden. Grilled flat over charcoal, the moist meat tasted deliciously smoky and herbal.

I found the sugar snaps (65 miles) I'd been dreaming of at the Dufferin Grove Farmers' Market, far sweeter than anything sold at the toniest greengrocer. I sautéed them with spring garlic in a little butter, and drizzled them with sweet Minus 8 vinegar from Niagara. I tossed in some homemade gnocchi (a useful way of disguising all those potatoes), and crumbled a little local sheep's milk feta over top.

My daughters, at first suspicious of the misshapen dumplings that had taken all afternoon to make, soon cleared the plates. For the first time in a week, everyone seemed happy with dinner. "See?" I said to my husband, who had taken to calling our diet the All-Potato Diet. "It is possible to eat well." Then it was time for dessert.

"Let me guess," sighed my husband, who normally can't manage a day without chocolate. "Strawberries?" Even my two-year-old could now tell the difference between Kent and Annapolis varieties. But tonight, I had a surprise.

Earlier in the day, I had dropped in on the Harvest Wagon. Eureka! An entire display was devoted to local fruits that had arrived in that morning. To my eye, each basket looked as gorgeous and precious as box of jewels. There were cherries from Niagara, red and white raspberries, red and white currants, even gooseberries. I felt like a kid in a candy store and bought them all - just because I could.

The family devoured a quart of perfumed, scarlet raspberries in one sitting, scattered on a pie crust that had been brushed with honey. The organic whipped cream may not have passed the 100-mile test, but I wasn't going to quibble.

Now if only I could figure out a way to eat this well without spending half the day in the car. That, of course, is the great irony of our globalized food system: To eat locally, you actually have to clock a lot of miles. And nobody holding down a job or trying to raise a family could call this diet sustainable - hunting and gathering is a full-time occupation, just as it was back in the Stone Age. Nevertheless, that dinner gave me hope, and an incentive to persevere. Surely there must be a way to make local eating more manageable.

Produce from the pavement

When Hanna Jacobs first started growing vegetables in an alleyway off Queen West last year, some neighbours were skeptical. "Are they safe to eat?" one health-conscious downtowner asked. "People don't realize this is the norm in most cities around the world," Ms. Jacobs says.

Jacobs's Matchbox Garden and Seed Company could be the poster child for the new urban agriculture movement. Its raised beds and sunken bowers make for a stunning downtown oasis. Cucumber vines climb teak ladders while a shock of nasturtiums cascade over a stone wall. Her 1.2-metre-by-1.2-metre plots are a pasta sauce waiting to happen, growing garlic, two varieties of tomatoes and three herbs.

Such "kitchen gardens" are becoming increasingly popular throughout the city. Though our condos have yet to start growing their own rooftop vegetables (as they do at one building in downtown Vancouver), architects are at least talking about the possibility; rumour has it that Toronto Community Housing is considering an edible roof for at least one of the new Regent Park buildings.

Chefs, who have always kept a close eye on their ingredients, are also getting into the game. This spring, Lorenzo Loseto of George Restaurant commissioned The Stop Community Centre to grow heirloom seedlings for his narrow balcony garden, located above the restaurant's dining room. Sugar Baby watermelons and peppers now grow in self-watering recycling boxes. "I'll have to find another rooftop next year," says Mr. Loseto, who hopes to hire a full-time gardener to grow even more ingredients.

Now in her second growing season, Ms. Jacobs plans to harvest up to 27 kilograms of heirloom tomatoes a week from the 800-square-foot space to sell at the Trinity-Bellwoods Farmers' Market. "One of my goals is to encourage people in the city to try growing their own food," says Ms. Jacobs, pointing to squash and eggplant growing in containers. "If you're creative, you can do a lot."

A 100-mile dinner: The shopping list

Fenwood organic chicken: The Healthy Butcher, 565 Queen St. W., 416-674-2642.

Ewenity feta, Pfenning's potatoes, Black River organic apple juice and Harmony milk: The Big Carrot, 348 Danforth Ave., 416-466-2644.

Sugar snaps, basil and fresh garlic: Plan B Organics, Dufferin Grove (Thursdays, Dufferin south of Bloor) and Riverdale Farmers' Markets (Tuesdays, Winchester at Sumach Street).

Honey from Bees Universe: Dufferin Grove and Riverdale Farmers' Markets.

Minus 8 Vinegar: All the Best Fine Foods, 1101 Yonge St.,


Red and white raspberries: Harvest Wagon, 1103 Yonge St.,


Oak Manor flour: Whole Foods, 87 Avenue Rd., 416-944-0500.

Next week: My husband discovers he can't drink beer and my daughters learn to make their own pasta.

Interact with The Globe