Justin Cascio wants to be a local hero.
There are two ways that I live my life differently from most Americans. One of those is that I use a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation, year-round. And despite living in a place with four seasons, I eat locally year-round, too. I’m not a purist in either case: my husband has a car and I drive it, on occasion. I drink coffee and eat bananas and sugar, and sometimes eat other foods that are out of season or don’t grow here. But basically, I’m a cyclist and a locavore.
Most of us live at odds with our values in some way: the same people who want to use less fossil fuel, eat better, and keep our farmland green also drive cars, eat packaged food, and want a big house in the suburbs. It’s hard to go against the flow and do things very differently from your neighbors. I’m not the lone cyclist or locavore in my town, which is what made it possible for me to consider doing these things.
Choosing to buy your lettuce a different way—by contracting in advance with a farmer to grow all of your lettuce for the season, or by getting up early to shop at farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, instead of rolling up on a supermarket or fast food restaurant when you want a salad—has far-reaching implications. It makes you appreciate your food more.
Eating locally has an image problem: it looks like it’s for rich snobs and health purists. People think that it costs more to eat locally, or that it is more difficult. Fresh food is mysterious to those who don’t know how to cook it, but it is also ubiquitous: this is a farming valley. We’re known for our asparagus, butternut squash, and dairy. We ride past the tractors in their fields, every day, on our ways to work and school.
I support local farmers by putting their food on my table, and encouraging others to do likewise. I write about how to cook, and why it’s better. I buy locally grown, and not just tomatoes in the summer. I also buy winter shares of less glamorous fare: cabbages, parsnips, rutabagas. I buy pork and beef by the quarter and half from farmers I know by name. There are three freezers in my apartment, so that when one of my farmer’s animals returns from the slaughterhouse, and he calls me to pick up my purchase, I have someplace to put it.
There’s a movement here in western Massachusetts to get people to eat more locally produced food. Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture’s “Be a Local Hero” campaign connects the everyday practice of eating, to the broader consequences of our choices, not only for the health of the individual, but for the whole community. The farmers are the real local heroes, of course, not me, who can barely make it to the market by noon. I’m just trying to be a good citizen. My local heroes are not the super-consumers: they are the ones who produce and provide important services, and do it in ways that are healthy, sustainable, and even inspirational. I don’t think I deserve a comic book or a medal for being a locavore who rides his bike. What I get for my trouble are yet more ethical questions to consider. Is it right to drive twenty miles for raw milk? Is my commitment to these lifestyle choices heroic, or self-involved? What results do I hope to achieve from living the way I do?
From May through November, I bike every week to the farm where we buy a summer share of produce. I see the seedlings being set in the fields, and week by week, their progress. I can see how many squash or tomatoes a square yard of soil will yield. I know how long in advance I have to order a turkey for Thanksgiving, and so how long it takes to raise one. When I visit the small family farm where my eggs, poultry, and pork are raised, I get a sense of how much space each animal needs. I can see the amount of energy, space, and time my food costs, but I don’t live with them like my farmers do. I’m invested in the causes of green transportation and food security, but my heroes are committed.
A collective based in my town picks up trash and recycling using only bicycles. Even on the most brutal winter days, I can see Pedal People go by my house on their rounds. When I moved here, they were my proof that it was possible to be a daily bicycle commuter in New England. If the Pedal People were picking up trash, how could I not make it to work? Most of my co-workers thought my dedication was foolish, but a few of them took it for granted: they were year-round cyclists, too.
I don’t think I’m qualified for hero status because I can point to the ones who are my heroes: the committed ones whose livelihoods rely on the continuing investment of ethical consumers. It starts with the heroes like my farmers and the Pedal People, who lead by example, allowing the rest of us to begin edging our way toward making similar changes in our lives. They show us how to live with different expectations and comfort zones.
I’m in the next line, those of us who are willing to change our lives, having been led by the truly innovative. Eventually, I imagine, we will influence the mainstream with our presence. Part of what drives me against the tide, besides knowing that I am doing the only thing I can, is knowing that enough of us moving in this direction will create a countercurrent. The effects will ripple throughout the mainstream. First New York City has bike lanes, then your town. Jamie Oliver is out there, leading a revolution of people by teaching them how to cook just one meal. I dream of an America in which people normally ride their bicycles to work and carry home packed lunches. My daily act of faith is to live as if that were already the case.
I’m a fussy eater who likes his own cooking, so I don’t imagine I’ll collapse into activist burnout and start eating industrial food again. I’m more concerned that I might have to do what I’ve put off doing for six years, and get that car I don’t want. I might have to take a job that’s farther than I can manage on a bike. I hope to work it out so I can continue to be a bicycle commuter: it’s a source of pride, and I feel I would be letting more than myself down if I stopped living up to my values. I know that a hero would not settle for less.
—Photo: Justin Cascio