Here's a good table-quiz question: How many ingredients are in a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich? Three, plus the bread, spread and condiments? Think again.
Kerry artist and filmmaker Lisa Fingleton asked herself the same question when she bought a BLT sandwich in a petrol station but came up with this staggering answer.
There were some 45 listed ingredients in her on-the-run lunch, including diglycerides of fatty acids, xanthan gum, emulsifiers, and other unpronounceables that you wouldn’t be able to pick out of a cupboard-staple line-up.
She started to think about the journey that sandwich made, and the energy expended — in electricity, fuel, water — to bring it to her. “It felt like this sandwich connected me to so many places, people, plants, and animals from all over the planet. It makes me sad that food, which lands on our plate, has travelled thousands of miles just to be eaten by us,” she says.
Fingleton wasn’t entirely surprised, though, as on a visit to Borneo she had seen how palm oil plantations had devastated the rainforests. “And here was palm oil in my sandwich,” she says.
When she tried to trace the journey made by each ingredient, she found it almost impossible to get reliable information — indeed any information — on the process. It was as if there was an internet blackout on assembly lines and food processes, she says.
Her BLT moment did, however, have one very positive effect. It prompted her to write a book which, she hopes, will make people sit up and take notice of where their food is coming from.
The result, the beautifully illustrated The Local Food Project, is a thought-provoking look at what we are actually eating and the toll it is taking on our health and on the planet.
It’s a subject that has been close to Fingleton’s heart for some time. She and her partner Rena Blake grow a lot of their own food at their home outside Ballybunion, Co Kerry. After reading how Barbara Kingsolver and her family lived on locally grown food for a year inFingleton decided to do the same — but for 30 days.
It was an immense challenge as it meant cutting out some of her favourite imported foods — chocolate, rice, ginger, oranges, and avocados, to name a few — and trying, sometimes without success, to buy local. On one road trip, for instance, she couldn’t find anything local to eat at a “so-called convenience shop”. She says: “All the fruit was imported, and even the quick-cook porridge had sugar in it.”
But there were wonderful surprises too.
One neighbour, Jean, invited Fingleton into her polytunnel to share her Ballybunion grapes. Another, Frank, brought her on a boat trip to Clare where she had lobster and crab. Her days began with fresh carrot juice made from produce grown by Aidan on the Maharees peninsula.
She visited organic community gardens all over north Kerry and became convinced that Ireland could become a world leader in organic food production. “We have the rain. We have the water and the soil. We just need the vision and commitment,” she says.
Irish vegetable growers, however, face many obstacles.
Lisa Fingleton lists some of them:
Farmers are subject to the whims of international quotas, trade agreements, and supermarket chains that flood the market with vegetables at prices below cost.
Fingleton hopes, at least, that The Local Food Project, launched at the Listowel Food Fair last month, will help people who think global to act local. Local food was very much a theme at this year’s festival. Lizzy Lyons, founder of Lizzy’s Little Kitchen in Listowel, was named Local Food Hero for her additive-free food which is cooked from scratch using local produce where possible.
What can we do to ensure we are eating better food? Growing your own is the best solution, of course, but if you can’t, then support local growers or try foraging.
Failing that, adopt Fingleton’s health-giving acronym LOAF, which means buy local, organic, animal-friendly, and fair trade.