Are you taking part in the 30-Day Local Food Challenge?

The 30-Day Local Food Challenge takes place every September. Ahead of the upcoming challenge, KATE RYAN asks ‘What is local food?’
Are you taking part in the 30-Day Local Food Challenge?

Artist Lisa Fingleton drawing on the wall of Crawford Art Gallery as part of the summer exhibition, 'Meat and Potatoes', running until November 6. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

ONE day, Lisa Fingleton bought a pre-packed BLT sandwich from a local service station and found it contained 40 ingredients – many from nowhere near Irish shores.

This ‘BLT moment’ sent Lisa on a journey, questioning where our food comes from, and asking how well does Ireland fair in feeding its own people from food grown, reared, fished, and produced from within its own borders.

The thinking went further still: how food secure is Ireland? How dependent are we on food produced elsewhere? Why are only 1% of Irish farms growing their own vegetables, and why are only 2% of those growing organically? What does that mean for our health and the health of our soil? And, when it comes to cheap food imports, what does our appetite for cheap food mean for those in countries producing it – how they live, eat, their health, the state of their environment?

These are big questions. Understanding food, nutrition, and food systems in the wider sense is enormously complex and wrangling it into easy-to-digest nuggets of information is a hard task.

Lisa’s ‘BLT moment’ is not a new realisation. In 2006, the American philosopher and food writer, Michael Pollan, published The Omnivores Dilemma. By asking the simple question of ‘what shall we have for dinner’, he ventured to understand what it took to get the all-American meal of hamburger and fries to the table.

What he discovered was of epic, Odysseus-like proportions. Of cattle feedlots miles long, of GMO grain and soya to feed them all with; the never-ending problem of waste when intensive farming is the norm; what it takes to get a certain brand of fries to look and taste the same way everywhere in the world.

A fellow food writer once said to me they thought we were living in a ‘post-Pollan’ world; everyone knows the environmental, health and ecological disasters intensive global food systems reek upon us and our plant. But I’m not so sure.

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban centres. Such a concentration means we will be further away from our sources of food than ever before. New Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) regulations are paving the way for more on-farm technology to improve efficiencies – from better application of agricultural chemicals, such as fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, to monitoring soil moisture, environmental conditions for pest and diseases; even when the time is right for harvest.

Most of this will be remote and data-led, meaning the number of people required to carry out farming, as we know it in the traditional sense, will be less too.

So: food further away from us and fewer people with lifelong knowledge to produce it. It has never been a more important time to question where our food comes from; never more important to support local food – particularly vegetables and fruits. So, no, we are not in a post-Pollan universe, and Lisa Fingleton is very much a person for our times.

Lisa Fingleton. Picture: Rena Blake.
Lisa Fingleton. Picture: Rena Blake.

30-Day Local Food Challenge

Fingleton’s response was to challenge herself to eat only food produced within Ireland for 30 days. She chose September as the month when doing so is most achievable, as the shoulder month bridging the Irish growing year’s two most abundant seasons: the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

In terms of fruits, vegetables and grains, we are spoilt for choice, and we have year-round access to eggs, dairy, meat and fish. On the face of it, this should be an easy challenge. Why wouldn’t it be?

Food from scratch

The only way to be sure the food on your plate is made from Irish products and ingredients is to make everything yourself from scratch. 

Eating in restaurants, cafes and takeaways is out because it’s hard to verify the origin of every ingredient in a meal.

Take the humble fish and chips – what could be more Irish than that? Look again, and maybe the fresh fish was landed in Iceland and air freighted into Ireland. The flour in the batter – where were those grains grown and milled? Maybe the potatoes for the chips are Irish, but what about the cooking oil – where were the raw ingredients grown, then pressed? Hold the lemon, but go nuts with vinegar (if it’s apple cider vinegar, made here from Irish apples), and the salt, if it’s Irish made.

Suddenly, even basic meals become tricky – everything from spaghetti Bolognese to fish fingers become problematic; and if you’re vegan, forget it. Which brings me on to the other logistical difficulty...

How local is local?

It’s not enough to just shop local for the food to be local – even foods that shout about being Irish are not strictly so.

Take a brand of Irish black pudding, for example. One look at the ingredients tells me there is dried blood from EU origin (which may or may not include Ireland), and spices. Spicing meat is a historical practice in Ireland for centuries because of the trade in edible commodities – Ireland traded salted and barreled beef and fish, and butter in exchange for spices, tea, chocolate, corn and turkeys.

While something is made in Ireland, if it’s been processed or mixed with other ingredients, do we also need to consider where those ingredients come from? What will be left to eat at all?

Choices are reduced further if adhering to a vegan diet. Often, veganism is held up as the sound alternative to a planet-friendly diet that doesn’t rely on the environmental and moral exploitation of animals to feed humans. But soy, nuts and seeds (not all, but most), coconuts, avocados, most pulses and legumes – foods that are sources of much needed protein, essential fatty acids and nutrients - are not grown in Ireland, but imported from countries far away. That means increased air miles and emissions, and potential for wilderness clearing to make way for intensive plantations. How planet-friendly is that; and what alternatives are there on a local level?

It's harvest time for apples. Picture: Stock
It's harvest time for apples. Picture: Stock

What’s in season?

Because of these things, Fingleton’s 30-Day Local Food Challenge has been diluted from every meal to trying to eat one meal per day made from only Irish-grown food.

The best way to do this is by looking at what is in season for vegetables and fruits. Despite Ireland’s dismal record in growing vegetables, farms tend to be small scale, growing a wider variety of crops.

As such, in Ireland during September, the following Irish-grown vegetables and fruits are available: Aubergine, apple, beetroot, beans (long beans and podded), blueberries, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, courgette, celery, chili peppers, chard, celeriac, fennel, fig, herbs (of all kinds), kale, onions, pak choi, pears, potatoes, radish, spinach, sweetcorn, squash, spring onions, tomatoes.

If you’re into a spot of foraging, September also means blackberries, rosehips, elderberries, crab apples, hazelnuts.

That’s a staggering amount of fresh, locally grown produce to add to your larder of locally produced eggs, dairy, red and white meats, poultry, some early game meats, fish, shellfish and molluscs.

So, what’s missing?

Alternatives. There are many ingredients we use throughout a day that are so ubiquitous, we never think about where they come from. Lemon, oils, sugar, chocolate, tea, coffee, rice, cereals – even our bread.

When I open my larder with my 30-Day Local Food goggles on, 95% of what’s there becomes off-limits. Tinned tomatoes, chickpeas and beans. Pretty much every single condiment. Flour, pasta, rice, lentils. Spices, oils, flavourings... When so many of our larder ingredients become out of bounds, the challenge gets serious.

Fats: I use a lot of olive and sunflower oil. Swap for Irish grown, pressed and bottled Rapeseed Oil, a healthful oil that tastes great.

We are spoilt for butter, but it has a low smoke point and can burn at high temperatures. Get around this by clarifying butter, also known as ghee. Heat, remove solids, leaving behind a clear yellow liquid with a much higher smoke point for higher temperature cooking.

Acids: Where would we be without lemons? I know some adventurous GIY-types with a lemon tree growing in their greenhouse, but they aren’t grown commercially in Ireland.

What we lack in lemons, we make up for in apples! Irish-made Apple Cider Vinegar is a great substitute for lemons and has great flavour, not at all like white vinegar. Barrel-aged vinegars from Wildwood Vinegars or Burren Balsamics are the Irish equivalent of Italian balsamic vinegar, flavoured with native wild herbs and fruits.

Sugar: Ireland used to be a leader of manufactured sugar from beet (not cane). Beet is still grown but for use as winter cattle feed; I don’t know what it would take to return to producing Irish sugar again, so honey is our sweet alternative.

Bread, Pasta, Rice: The essential trio: but shop-bought pasta isn’t made in Ireland, rice doesn’t grow here, and flour for bread and pasta often isn’t from Irish grown grains.

If I want to eat pasta and bread during the 30-Day Local Food Challenge, I must make my own pasta and bread, and search out a small group of Irish farmers growing heritage grains suited to the Irish climate. One benefit is these farmers grow organically - great considering grains are the most sprayed of all agricultural crops. Ballymore Organics, based in Kildare, are doing just that: growing heritage wheat and oat varieties organically and selling online. Their business is booming, proving there is a market for these most basic yet important food stuffs: plain and wholemeal flour, porridge oats, semolina (important for pasta making).

Ballymore also sell wheat grains, the whole wheat kernel can be cooked into casseroles, soups, stews, added to breads, or used instead of rice in a pilaf. Pearl barley would be our native substitute for imported rice.

Chocolate and coffee are out - but tea grows well in Ireland. Picture: Stock
Chocolate and coffee are out - but tea grows well in Ireland. Picture: Stock

Chocolate and Coffee: Cocoa tress will never grow in Ireland – it’s ecologically impossible - but we can substitute chocolate for all-butter fudge for that sweet hit, using Irish honey instead of sugar.

Coffee is another casualty, but there is an alternative for flavour, albeit caffeine-free - dandelion root, in season this time of year. Pick the root, clean, dry and grind into a powder. Steep in boiling water for a few minutes until ready to drink.

Tea: Tea grows well in Ireland, and in west Limerick, producer and botanist Theresa Storey has been developing Ireland’s first tea farm since 2018, although Covid slowed plans. None of this helps you for September - how many Camelia sinensis plants would I need to grow to slake a years’ tea addiction? In the meantime, wean yourself off caffeine, swapping for herbal teas made with Irish grown herbs and wild plants.

Spice: Good news if you’re a fan of chillies, coriander, fennel, juniper and nigella seeds – all grow well in Ireland, although you’d do well to find a commercial supplier. In West Cork, Singing Frog Gardens is one of a very small number of Irish wasabi growers – the fiery hot Japanese horseradish usually served with sushi. Our native variety is horseradish root, grows like a weed in the wild, and when fresh it can blow your socks off!

Taking part in Fingleton’s challenge won’t mean going back to a gruel-based diet – our tastebuds, farmers and producers have found ways to make our daily food much more interesting.

But I find it odd that foods such as spices, which flavour many of our traditional foods, are out under the rules.

What we eat has always been influenced by what comes from elsewhere, so is that the problem? On its own, probably not. Perhaps it’s how it’s grown and how it gets here? Maybe we should ask why do we in Ireland deserve such a global way of eating if it’s at the expense of people, animals and environments elsewhere?

Where, and how, do we strike a good enough balance? This is what the 30-Day Local Food Challenge asks us to question.

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