It began with a chicken. Or to be more precise, dreams of a chicken. I wanted a plump red bird with a healthy sheen, a thick neck and green tail feathers. I would build it a coop, give it crushed corn and keep its water clean. And then, when the time was right, I would feed the bird to my family for Sunday supper.
The chicken was part of a larger plan: To see if I could eat food grown or raised within 100 miles of where I live for a week straight—consume only that and nothing else. This is called eating local, and those who abide by the practice are known as locavores. The movement has been gaining steam across the country for years, but in Dallas, it's just finding its legs. For some, eating local is a way to rebel against the methods used to grow industrialized food. For others, it's a way to save the environment by reducing fossil fuel consumption used to transport food. For those involved in the Slow Food Movement, it's the antithesis of fast food, a way to take time to appreciate healthy food. For me, well, I saw it as a way I might reconnect with what I had lost since leaving my family's farm 12 years ago.
I was the first in my family to leave the country for the big city—first to New York and then to Dallas—and somewhere along the way I forgot many of the basics about food and nutrition I had learned growing up. Eat meat sparingly. Honor the land for what it gives you. Share with your neighbors. Frankly, lessons about food and community, about the land and nature and the interdependence of living things seemed a bit old-fashioned back then.
Leaving the farm, I settled in to an on-the-go life, and my food choices adjusted accordingly. I felt liberated eating Cocoa Puffs (strictly forbidden by my mother) and drinking as much Dr Pepper (also banned from the family table) as I wanted. Big Macs became my go-to meal rather than a rare treat on family road trips.
My story, in a small way, is the story of the changes many Americans have made in the way they eat over the last 50-60 years, as we have moved from farms to cities. Nowadays, most of us don't know where our food comes from, and if we do, we try not to dwell on it too much. But it's hard not to think that some of the biggest health crises Americans now face—obesity, heart disease, diabetes–don't have at least something to do with the way we produce food and what we choose to eat.
My goal to eat local for a week was by no means original. Other writers have assembled meals from within 25 miles of their apartments or transformed their suburban backyards into full-fledged farms, complete with humping rabbits, squawking ducks and gardens of collard greens and turnips. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about living off locally produced food in rural Virginia. If she didn't raise it, grow it or buy it locally, she wouldn't eat it. Kingsolver did this for a year. My goal was less ambitious. City slicker that I now am, I hoped to hold out for a week.
There wasn't time to grow a garden, and my backyard is too small for most barnyard animals. But a chicken—a chicken I could do. The way I saw it, to understand the locavore, I needed to raise or grow something myself in an urban environment, or at least try. The rest would come from family farms in the area, local dairies (if there were any left), and the Dallas Farmers Market.
"You know you're doing this at the worst time of the year," a farmer named Robert Hutchins told me after I explained my plan over the phone in early September.
"Isn't this harvest time?" I asked.
"Not in Dallas. We're between harvest seasons. Now if you were doing this in say, May, or maybe in a month or two, there would be plenty. But right now, it's going to be tough."
I looked at my pantry. It was filled with Kraft Mac and Cheese, cans of pork and beans, and a half-empty bag of Tostitos. The farmer wished me luck as he hung up the phone. I was feeling hungry already.
Days before my project is set to begin, I find myself standing in front of the vending machine at work, choosing between a sack of powdered doughnuts and a bag of chips to keep me going for the rest of the day. The 7-Eleven hot dog that I ate for lunch is still digesting in my gut. Because of my harried schedule, I rarely eat a meal at the dinner table with my wife and two boys. I wonder how I've gotten to this point as I wander back to my cubicle, plop down in front of my computer and tear into the packaged doughnuts.