The 30-day local food challenge

How hard can it be to eat only Irish food for a month? Harder than you might think, especially if you’re addicted to sugar

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Ever since reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she documents her family’s year of eating locally in the US, I’ve been entertaining the idea of eating only Irish food for a year. Could I really live without chocolate, pasta, rice, ginger, oranges, pepper, spices, avocados and all the other imported delights I enjoy?

And really, why bother? Yes, I am concerned about food miles. It makes me sad that food that lands on our plates has travelled thousands of miles just to be eaten by us. But it is about more than that. My partner and I have a garden and polytunnel in our home outside Ballybunion, Co Kerry. We grow most of our own food. We are privileged in that we know how delicious fresh vegetables taste when they are picked straight before mealtime.

In the run-up to the 1916 centenary year, all the talk is of commemorating our independence. In 2016 it feels to me that Ireland will be even less independent than it was 100 years ago.

We owe billions to European banks, multinational corporations own our assets and our children are forced to emigrate because we are not able to offer them employment. Our air, water and natural resources (including seaweed) are on offer to the highest bidder. We import most of our food, even though we can easily grow everything we need. Farmers are subject to the whims of international quotas, trade agreements and supermarket chains that flood the market with vegetables at prices below cost. We closed our sugar factories and now import millions worth of sugar a year; Siúcra is now the property of a German company called Nordsucker, and Hughes Brothers (HB) Ice Cream has been subsumed into Unilever.

We live on an island and have a unique opportunity to become a world leader in organic food production. We have the rain. We have the water and the soil. We just need the vision and commitment.

It is not easy to eat only Irish food for a year. There are hungry months in late spring when the food is just not ready after late frosts. So I decided to do a trial month: a 30-day local food challenge.

September seemed a really good time to undertake this challenge, as the garden is abundant with tomatoes, kale, spinach, herbs, peas, beans, onions, garlic, beets, carrots, parsnips . . . the list goes on. It is a luscious month in the gardening calendar. To eat Irish still means doing without what Barbara Kingsolver called the “botanically outrageous” foods mentioned earlier, but it is easier in September, when the garden and hedgerows are abundant with food.

 

The ground rules

As with most challenges I avoided it until the last minute. I found myself waking up on September 1st having done no forward planning and, more importantly, no shopping. For breakfast we had some Irish porridge and milk, and I munched on some peas on the way to my first meeting.

I realised I needed to set some guidelines. I decided that the challenge would include food only, so I could drink what I wanted. I would eat only food that was 100 per cent grown and produced on the island of Ireland (with a 5 per cent margin in the event of hunger). If someone offered me food on the basis that is was Irish, I would accept it.

Technically it should have been easy on the days I worked from home, as we had a garden full of food. I made soups, omelettes and lots of regular Irish dinners with potatoes, meat and two veg.

Avoiding sugar proved to be the biggest challenge. I didn’t realise I was so addicted to sugar until I tried to come off it. I was used to having something sweet to nibble on every time I had a cup of tea or coffee. Thankfully a friend of mine, Liz, came to the rescue and made me a tray of honey and oat flapjacks, which helped to quell the sugar cravings. The following week she ground flour from oats and turned up with a box of delicious oat scones.

I had a lot of fun as friends and strangers around me started engaging in the challenge. One day Jean opened her door as I passed the house and invited me in to her polytunnel to share her Ballybunion grapes. Frank brought my partner and me on a boat trip to Clare and gave us the gift of lobster and crab. I started most days with a fresh carrot juice from the Maharees peninsula, courtesy of Aidan.

Isabella and Evan bartered eggs for vegetables. I visited their yard for the first time and have never seen such happy hens, nor such elaborate henhouses. The highlight was the pink and blue Barbie-style palace, perched on the side of the hill overlooking the sea, complete with pink trays to collect the eggs.

I visited organic community gardens all over north Kerry and was met with such generosity of spirit. Willie dug up Colleen potatoes in the lashing rain, smiling all the while in his luminous yellow jacket. Joan invited me to her home to surprise me with a pizza made from all-Irish ingredients and her own yeast, which she keeps in the fridge. She also showed me how to extract honey from her beehives and sent me home with a gift of a precious jar. Dave and Rebecca invited us for an all-Irish barbecue and a night beneath the stars in their magical pod by the sea.

The most challenging times were days on the road when I didn’t properly prepare my food in advance. One night I drove from Waterford to Kerry after the annual Grow Fest conference and I couldn’t find anything to eat in so-called convenience shops along the way. All of the fruit was imported, and even the quick-cook porridge had sugar in it.

People started asking me for a list of Irish products, so I wrote to all the supermarket chains to ask them for their lists, but I only received one response, which went: “I would have to advise that we don’t carry the list that you are asking us for.” I also realised over the month that I couldn’t eat most “local” artisan food products as they import the raw ingredients, and it is only their “added value” that brands them Irish.

 

The lessons learned

Over the month I realised that there is a growing disparity between what we are eating and growing, and that we need to take action if we want to bring about change.

So what can we do? Communities can come together to create community gardens and allotments. As individuals we can dig up our lawns and plant vegetables. We can link up with local growers or GIY (grow it yourself) groups for support. If you don’t have a lawn or are attached to the one you have, you can buy from growers directly, shop at farmers’ markets or join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) scheme. A CSA scheme means you get a regular box of vegetables and the grower gets a regular income.

Also, try adding Irish products to your shopping trolley each week and check the labels carefully. If I’ve learned anything during my 30-day challenge, it’s that if we want tasty, healthy, local food we need to directly support the people who grow it.

  • Lisa Fingleton is an artist, film-maker and grower based in north Kerry. Her 30-day local food challenge is documented through drawings, photography and film in her current solo show, Holding True Ground, which runs until December 4th at Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, Co Kerry

 

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