At a recent planning session-potluck at Mike and Andrea Heidinger's Holladay home, delicious dishes abound, and they all look lifted fresh from the garden. That's because the two dozen participants have two goals in mind: issue a challenge to their fellow Utahns to spend a month eating nothing but locally grown and prepared foods - and make that challenge as painless as possible.
The Heidingers proposed the Eat Local Challenge to galvanize support for local food producers, make locals aware of all the resources available in their backyards, and help people reduce their "carbon footprint," or the amount of energy they take up just by living. The less distance food has to be shipped, the less fuel it causes to be expended.
The idea of the challenge was inspired by May/June 2007 Orion Magazine letter to the editor titled "Grown in Vermont," in which a Vermont woman described a similar challenge posed in her community.
Participants' reasons for interest vary.
"It's about comparing the produce I can get in my garden to what I can get in the grocery store," says Salt Lake City resident Leigh Mangum. "While it's very convenient to be able to buy an avocado in December, I started making connections between what I'm eating, who's producing it and how it's being grown."
What is local?
At the potluck, Melissa Helquist and fiancé Will Nesse huddle around one of several maps of Utah and outlying areas. They discuss the resources available inside a red ring on the map, representing a 250-mile radius from Salt Lake City, and a tighter green ring for those who wanted to keep their consumption within 100 miles.
"I think there's something good about having a community feed itself," Helquist said. "If you have to be responsible for your own food production, you have to make better choices about how you use land. There's more consciousness about sustainability if you have to rely on local sources, versus assuming you're always going to have food from elsewhere."
Of course, no one said turning the clock back from a global market would be easy. And the arbitrariness of a one-month change of pace wasn't lost on attendees.
"I'm going to think about it just in terms of if you take on the challenge, it forces you to be more aware because when you want product X you have to be creative about where you'll be able to find it," said Helquist.
David Compton and his wife, Patty Shreve, of Millcreek, read the Orion letter as well and worked with the Heidingers in coming up with the rules for the challenge. The couple plan to help each other keep eating habits within the 250-mile radius.
"The best part of the challenge is to force you to find that stuff out," Compton says. "You always want to. I'd rather eat something this guy made down the street, but we just don't work hard enough to go find it."
As ambitious as the proposition sounds, it gets even dicier in the details: Coffee, olive oil and many common spices and condiments are off the table. That means coming up with creative alternatives.
With some brainstorming, participants built the foundations of a project that, they hope, will flower into a vast menu of resources by the time Aug. 18, the kickoff date for the challenge, rolls around.
People volunteer to research local sources of or alternatives to grains, oils, coffee, wine, candy. The list goes on - in fact, it's been codified into blog form and is growing daily. There is even a recipe bulletin board to help people cope with their kitchens' impending changes of ingredients.
It also helps that a handful of year-round groups with similar mission statements are already in place.
Susan Finlayson and Kaytee Smith from Wasatch Community Gardens, a network of public-use organic gardens and community resources, are on hand for the meeting. Their whole staff is jumping on board for the challenge. Smith applauds the idea and its potential to provide a "stronger sense of community, supporting the people who grow it and having a better relationship with your food."
"Plus it's healthier and tastes better," Finlayson chimes in.
A representative of Slow Food Utah, a local branch of a movement opposing fast-food culture, attended the meeting to give suggestions and lend support. The organization hosts a Web site listing resources for locally grown foods.
Those accepting the challenge remain realistic. Carbon footprints can shrink, but they won't go away.
How do you live off the land in winter? Freezers are great for preservation, but where does that electricity come from to safeguard the hoard? Do flour mills, butter churns and winery equipment come from Utah? Unlikely, and that's just not the point.
"We quickly start getting into some complex ethical food issues," says Andrea Heidinger, "but that's part of the fun."
In the end, the devil is in the details, and participants plan to be an educational resource and support group - not Big Brother.
"There are some people who have felt that that giving up coffee or sugar for one week is too much of a challenge for them," says Andrea, "and that admission in itself is something to consider."
* To read the fruits of volunteers' research on locally grown and prepared foods, contribute your own knowledge, or find out about the Aug. 18 kickoff party and other events related to the challenge, visit localfoodchallenge .blogspot.com.
* Orion Magazine : http://www.orionmagazine.org
* Slow Food Utah: http://www.slowfoodutah.com
* Local First Utah: http://www.localfirst.org
* Wasatch Community Gardens: http://www.wasatchgardens.org