During September across Ireland consumers were invited to shop for food and eat locally: under the banner #30daylocalfoodchallenge on social media, the initiative aimed at inspiring to source Irish ingredients from Irish food producers each day during the entire month.
I discovered this initiative on LinkedIn thanks to Kate Ryan, editor at Flavour.ie, a website dedicated to Irish food from farm to fork, mentioning Lisa Fingleton’s food challenge aiming to support Irish farmers and restaurants connecting them with consumers.
Whether you are cooking meals from scratch or buying food from restaurants and take aways, the idea behind the 30 day challenge was to think local first. When we look into the origins of the food we eat, particularly when buying it at major supermarkets, we often discover that items have been flown from the far corners of the world. Typical examples are asparagus spears from Peru, French beans from Morocco and Egypt, mango from Brazil (or Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the list goes on) and the ever-popular avocado (from Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and more). Talking of French beans, in September they are in season in Ireland so it is quite puzzling that supermarkets import them from abroad. I was also surprised to see blueberries in supermarkets that were imported from South Africa but Irish blueberries are available throughout September.
During this challenge I had to steer myself away from operating on auto-pilot and really choose produce carefully: for example, I tend to scan the reduced items aisle for yellow stickers, i.e., heavily discounted items that have reached their sell by date. I reached for a mango priced at just a few cents and put it in my basket without even thinking, only because it was a bargain. I then took a hard look at my basket, picked up the mango, removed it from the basket and put it back on its shelf. That’s an example of unnecessary impulse buying that would have not benefited me in terms of nutrition nor would have helped support the local economy.
How Local Is Local?
We need to be realistic when sourcing local food: for example, if we buy bread or cakes, some of the ingredients may not be local. Do we really need to get stressed out and split hairs for the sake of a campaign? Of course the answer is no, but what we can aim to do as consumers on a daily basis is simply to be more aware of the provenance of the food we eat and to make more conscious choices to reduce our carbon footprint while also supporting local businesses.
Eating at Local Restaurants
We don’t need to be virtuous all the time and we can treat ourselves to a take-away or a meal at a restaurant when the budget allows it. When we do that, we support the local economy and a number of independent, small businesses that are part of the supply chain.
Some restaurants, typically the more high market ones, will display the origin of the foods they use in their kitchen.
In Athlone, where I live, there are many independent restaurants who use fresh Irish ingredients and proudly say so in their social media updates. Additionally, Athlone has some award-winning restaurants that stood the taste of time and ever-changing trends, sticking to what they know best: making the most of Irish food, presenting it beautifully and ensuring that the natural flavours shine through without masking them with excess seasoning and sauces.
The Best Way To Eat Local Is To Cook from Scratch
Even with all the best intentions, when you cook meals from scratch you can guarantee to have full control of the quality and provenance of the ingredients. It is an eye-opening exercise to check labels and see the origins of every day items.
In Ireland it’s easy to source local foods such as butter and yogurt, for example. Major supermarkets stock items produced in Irish farms such as Irish beef. Things get more complicated when we look at condiments such as oil: olive oil tends to be imported from Italy, Greece and Spain, however you can also find Irish produced vegetable oils that include rapeseed oil.
Common table salt can also be imported but places like Achill Island and West Cork have become famous salt manufacturers. Thankfully the Atlantic Ocean is a generous supplier of mineral-rich water.
When it comes to fruit and vegetables, seasonal is best, and yet, when you fill your shopping basket on auto-pilot, you may find yourself reaching for an avocado without thinking, as mentioned earlier. Even some innocuous-looking produce may have racked up more air miles in one trip that I have done in a lifetime! We have grown (pun intended) so used to seeing and eating tropical fruit and out of season vegetables that we may need to stop ourselves in our tracks and really have a think about what we are about to take home to eat.
Coming up with Meal Ideas
The true challenge when cooking at home is to come up with new ideas every day. Yes, re-heating leftovers is allowed! Still, through the month of September I personally discovered how difficult it is to create different meals and use up the contents of my fridge and pantry wisely, without wasting anything.
Some examples of meals I cooked included:
- yogurt cake,
- apple crumble using apples given to me by a friend,
- green tomato chutney using unripened tomatoes from my garden,
- breakfast bun with scrambled eggs,
- poached chicken with wilted greens from my garden,
- foraged elderberry and blackberry syrup,
- beef meatballs with potatoes and leek,
- potato gnocchi with butter and crispy sage from my garden.
I also found myself cooking similar meals through the month because I had plenty of apples and I used them in various guises, both raw in salads and as a snack, as well as cooked in cakes, of which I ate too much of!
In a nutshell (yes another food pun) I found the whole experience eye-opening and I felt I learned so much about local food, reducing unnecessary food miles and food waste.