Cover Story continued

The gas-saving, all-organic 100-mile Hawaiian diet

‘The iron law of competitive advantage dictates that if another country can grow something more efficiently–whether because land is cheaper or labor is cheaper or its environmental laws more lax–we will no longer grow it here. What’s more, under the global economic dispensation, this is an outcome to be wished for, since it will free our land for more productive uses–more houses, say.’ — Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Friday, March 11 – I just wiped away a of blob of Haagen Daz Vanilla ice cream off my keyboard, which dripped out the bottom of its Oreo Cookie Cone, practically knocking over the small sushi dish of dark chocolate chips in the process. Obviously, I am about to embark on a diet. Although a weight-loss plan is a good idea, this diet is in the name of sustainability.

In its premise, the diet remains simple. Draw a circle 100 miles from where you live. Now you may eat only what is grown within that circle.

I am no back-to-the-earth vegan when it comes to food. I am an omnivore. I eat everything and tend to do so with hedonistic zeal. A year ago, I bought an avocado from a big box store. It sat on the counter in my hot, humid apartment for three weeks and nothing happened. Nothing. It remained a pristine forest green and hard as a rock, as if it were frozen in time. Where were the fuzzies? The black spots? The colonies of nature’s grand order? Why wasn’t it rotten?

Like much of our ‘fresh’ island produce, my avocado was a product of our traveling global economy. According to a 2002 report by the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization, modern production methods have dramatically increased our dependence on cheap fossil fuels, and not just for importing and exporting goods.

The 4,000 mile avocado

Modern factory farming relies on centralized distribution centers and centralized food inspection stations. So, if a grower in Georgia sells his lettuce to a supermarket chain with a central distribution center in Maryland, the lettuce will travel to Maryland, be inspected and wrapped, then sent back to produce bins in Georgia. It’s economical for the market. Fossil fuels are that cheap.

In the typical North American diet, fruits and vegetables traveled between 1,553 and 2,485 miles from farm to table, up 20 percent since 1980, according to the report. From West Coast to Hawai’i, add 2,400 miles. To keep my avocado ‘fresh’ for 4,000 miles, it’s treated for long-distance travel. My avocado responded admirably–a modern scientific achievement–but one that troubled me.

In mid-March, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its annual report on carbon dioxide levels, which recorded a significant rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere worldwide. At its Mauna Loa station, carbon dioxide levels rose 2.53 parts per million (ppm), to roughly 380 ppm, a much higher level than anticipated and double the rate of increase from only 30 years ago. Fuel combustion is the largest human-made source of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide leads to global warming. My inexpensive, globe-trotting avocado transpired into a haunting symbol of havoc.

And then I read Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s 100-Mile Diet blog ([]). The two Canadians decided to eat only locally grown, organic foods for one year–spawning a so-called ‘locavore’ movement. The 100-mile diet is based on sustainability and community food security, two phrases that translate into real issues for Hawai’i. In its premise, the diet remains simple. Draw a circle 100 miles from where you live. Now you may eat only what is grown within that circle. Simple. I told my friend about the premise and he said, ‘Sue, you know how much things grow here? That’s easy.’ Imagining the bountiful fish in the ocean and the easy access to year-round fruits like papayas, I said, ‘Yeah, but do you plan to have rice with that?’

A hundred years ago, there were 5,000 rice farmers in Hawai’i, a good percentage of them on O’ahu. Now there are none on O’ahu. Agriculture was once Hawai’i’s primary source of income, and according to the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism (DBET), it still plays a significant role. There are no hard statistics reflecting the total percentage of food and food products imported from the mainland, according to DBET. But check your cupboard and you’ll get an idea. Although Hawai’i’s crops have diversified in recent years, the percentage of agricultural imports remains unchanged, according to Larry Yamamoto, economic development specialist at the Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Ag, in their guide This is Hawai’i: Big Island Agriculture, states that Hawai’i farmers grow about 25 percent of what we need to feed 1.2 million people. In 2003, 51 percent of fruits and 40 percent of vegetables available in the market are grown in Hawai’i. But is that reflected on your plate? Do we really spend 25 percent of our food budget on locally grown items? I don’t.

What about ice cream?

I decide to eat only what is organically grown in Hawai’i. That strict rule allows me to see the limitations of our food supply–what can be grown here without chemicals and GMOs? What kind of protein will be available? How easy will those items be to find? What about pepper? What about ice cream?

An organic whole-wheat vegan burrito can include ingredients from all over the country, making it nearly as dependent on fossil fuels as a conventional burrito.

Originally, I limit myself to O’ahu, but only eight certified organic farms exist. Too limited. McKinnon and Smith ate practically vegan. I don’t. I would like a variety of fruits, vegetables and protein. The Hawai’i Organic Farm Association lists more than 100 members, the majority of which live on the Big Island. I am hopeful. And I am not.

Despite the larger circle, I still can’t consume soy sauce, milk, bread, rice and other staples of modern day life. (I discovered this week I am allergic to eggs, which eliminates my go-to protein source). A caveat to the diet: if a producer needs to import goods from the mainland to remain organic–such as organic soy for tofu –they move out of the circle. Everything I eat must be within the circle, or in this case, the large state.

How much is this going to cost?

When I tell people about my plan, many say, ‘How can you afford that?’ Because in Hawai’i, paying for organic is akin to drilling to a hole in your wallet and watching the money fall out. The cost of a half-gallon of two percent organic milk costs about $6, compared to non-organic food, which runs about $4. The cost of organic Kona coffee costs about $35 a pound. To eat well–here and now–isn’t cheap.

But eating poorly isn’t cheap either. According to a 1998 survey by DBET, we spend roughly 20 percent of our budget on food. The current national average for food expense is about nine percent, which is down nearly 10 percent from 50 years ago.

‘For many of us, we can afford to spend more,’ says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals. ‘Nationally, we spend about 9 percent on our budgets on food. It’s much less than what other countries spend on food. It’s the lowest number in our history.’

Finding my way, or Maybe I will lose weight

Monday, March 14, 2006–I meticulously calculated a budget and promptly threw it in the trash at the first store. I started at Kokua Market–paying $14 for a half pound of Kona Organic Coffee. The small store carries many items and thankfully labels everything that is local and organic. So my choices were clear, but not tremendously compelling. I like greens, but how do you eat them without vinegar, oil, soy sauce, garlic, tahini or other natural pairings? I head over to ‘Umeke Market. I tell the well-informed staff of my intentions. They did not recoil, but instead boldly stated, ‘Wow! You are going to lose weight.’ Maybe this diet thing is a good idea after all.

In the afternoon, I made a ghastly lunch, but tried to feel good about it: steamed bok choy with salt. Yuck. I am sure some imaginative chef could come up with a way of pureeing or dicing or foaming bok choy to make it taste closer to fine, but I failed. My head aches. I want a hamburger.

And I could have one, if in my 18-cubic-foot refrigerator/freezer I could fit a quarter of a cow. There is one certified grower in the state, William Jacinto, who owns Beef and Blooms on Maui. Jacinto, a fourth-generation farmer, has only about 100 head. His pastures are spread around the island. He spends so much time driving to maintain his herds, he cheerfully calls himself ‘a highway rancher.’ He’s happy to sell me some organic grass-fed beef, but I’d have to purchase at least a quarter of the cow and figure out how to transport it to O’ahu.

At one time, Hawai’i’s John Parker laid claim to the largest privately held cattle ranch in the country with 5,000 head and 225,000 acres. Beef cattle still play a large part in the Big Island’s Ag economy, but not one ranch is certified organic.

Just to Confuse You

Organic is no panacea. An organic whole-wheat vegan burrito can include ingredients from all over the country, making it nearly as dependent on fossil fuels as a conventional burrito. As Pollan states in his book, the model for large organic doesn’t necessarily make it less dependent on fossil fuels.

‘It is an enormous accomplishment to be able to grow food without pesticides and pharmaceuticals, and we should be grateful for it because it means we are getting less pesticides in our diet,’ Pollan says. ‘It is not a trivial thing, but it is not what we picture.’

And ‘organic’ includes a myriad of classifications. So some truly sustainable producers, like the North Shore Cattle Company, opt out of the certification process. The eight-year-old North Shore Cattle Company, I gratefully discovered, raises grass-fed beef with no hormones, no antibiotics and no pesticides on its pastures. And they sell to Tamura’s.

‘To tell you the truth, I think people are often confused about what the term ‘organic’ actually means. So we like to describe ourselves as all-natural grass-fed beef or beyond organic,’ says Ryan Lum of the North Shore Cattle Company.

In the typical North American diet, fruits and vegetables traveled between 1,553 and 2,485 miles from farm to table.

And though the company does not slaughter its cattle, it retains ownership of the beef. Meaning they collect more of the profit, but they also take responsibility for their product.

‘I think it’s comforting [for people] to deal with the rancher themselves,’ Lum says.

Really Local

And after a week of pretty boring meals, that sense of responsibility meant a lot. Globalization, global warming, fossil fuel emissions can seem like distant concepts–policy-speak that makes your eyes glaze over–but meeting farmers and ranchers who take not just responsibility for what they grow, but the land on which it grows made those concepts real. In Hawai’i, not only do those organic growers contend with Mother Nature and our infamous bugs, but also absurd real estate pressures and competition from big box stores.

‘People brandish the term ‘local’ all the time,’ says Gary Maunakea-Forth when I tell him of my diet. Maunakea-Forth is a founder of Ma’o Organic Farm, which provides produce to Alan Wong’s and Town. ‘Our slippers have got local written on them, but they are made in China.’

The bottom-line cost of this weeklong experiment wasn’t significantly higher than a week of poor choices. There were times when I felt like a misanthrope. There were times when I felt just fine. By the end of the week, I knew I could incorporate many more sustainable, locally grown items into my eating regimen (though ‘regimen’ is a stretch).

It took some work, it was not convenient, but it did expand my sense of community. When it rained–and all it did was rain–I worried about our local crops. Sharing my experience resulted in a few great exchanges–I described the taste of a Ka’u orange to a grocery clerk who grew up in Honolulu and never tasted one. A co-worker said to me, ‘Everyday this week, I’ve been thinking about what you can eat.’ Nearly every person I told appeared to be at least intrigued. Random people I met would grow quiet–their faces frozen in concentration–at the thought of eating only what was grown organically or without pesticides in Hawai’i.

But to be trite, therein lies the problem for many. Food reflects. It can hold up a mirror. It can play into time, desire, memory, experience, culture–whether you are the gal eating plate lunch everyday or the guy who eats only raw foods–even if you are the person who says ‘whatevahs.’ What we eat can zero in on some our most fragile ideals about ourselves, making the desire to change and change itself, difficult.

‘People need to realize that we need to be more self-sufficient, self-sustaining, and we can be,’ Lum says. ‘It’s just it’s hard to change people’s ways.’

100-mile diet website