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Know the West

Locavorism seems harder in the desert West


It's been a few years now since I read Barbara Kingsolver's popular book Animal Vegetable Miracle, which chronicles her family's yearlong experiment with locavorism (spouse Steven Hopp and daughter Camille Kingsolver contributed sidebars and are listed as co-authors). I've been thinking about it again recently, though. While not the first or the last to discuss the benefits of eating regionally and seasonally, Kingsolver imbues her narrative with her own unique warmth and candor.

The high-minded earnestness of the opening section, which describes the grim consequences of such practices as long-distance shipping, is tempered in later chapters with humor and frankness about the inconveniences and surprises of local eating and drinking. Understandably, coffee is an issue.

A notable concession in the book is Kingsolver's admission that eating locally is far easier in lush, rural Virginia than it would have been in Tucson, her former home (the setting for her beloved novel The Bean Trees). I remember thinking "no kidding." As a resident of the Phoenix area, I would need to either radically change my diet or generously extend my range ("local" or even "regional" being relative terms, after all) in order to pursue locavorism with the strictness and consistency that Kingsolver achieved.

Still, desert-dwellers, like others across the U.S., who wish to support local agriculture and food-craft have seen an up-tick in opportunities to do so. Farmers' markets have begun to appear and thrive beyond the trendy, exclusive neighborhoods that first welcomed them. Arizona wines are sold now in ordinary markets, and the delicious olive oil from the East Valley's Queen Creek Olive Mill is popping up in restaurants both fancy and casual.

Availability is the good news. The rest of the story is that eating locally, especially in the arid West, is still mostly a luxury. Kingsolver herself, though no longer a Westerner, is a case in point; she is a successful author and her spouse is an academic. Both have sufficient incomes and flexible enough schedules to allow for serious gardening and extensive shopping, food preparation and preservation (all of which was, conveniently, "research" for both during the writing of Animal Vegetable Mineral).

My own nearby weekly farmer's market in downtown Mesa, Arizona, is delightful, but expensive. Everyone understands that costs and risks are high for small producers, but even with all the goodwill and earnest intention in the world it's hard to justify paying two dollars for an onion, delicious and organic though it might be. Most of the vendors can now take food stamps, a positive development, but so does the WalMart down the street, where, like it or not, recipients  can get more onion bang for their sparse monthly bucks.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Local food image courtesy Flickr user Iris Shreve Garrott