The art of eating close to home

We sit down with plates on our laps, on the couch or cross-legged on the floor. Claire Emery looks up from her stuffed squash, sautéed greens and potato rolls.

"All my life I've seen flames," she says, "but I never knew what fire was until I saw a house burn down. With water it's the same way. You can't know water by drinking from a glass. You won't know water 'til you've swam in it, run naked in the rain, sat in a waterfall. The same goes for food."

A jar of pickled cauliflower is cracked and passed around the room.

"When you put away enough food to make it through the winter," Claire continues, "you experience food in profusion. Buckets of plums, wheelbarrows of pears, baskets of tomatoes. There's an overwhelming beauty in all that bounty."

The others murmur their agreement as they chew.

When I arrive at dinner that night, Mark and Brigid Wilson, the hosts, offer me a drink. Specifically, they offer me "apple cider that Jim and Claire pressed with apples from their tree."

For dinner we eat Lifeline sausage from the Bitterroot Valley mixed with apples from Jim and Claire's tree, onions and sweet peppers from a garden on River Road in Missoula and quinoa grown on the slopes of Mt. Hood and purchased from Oregon's Azure Standard buying cooperative, all stuffed into delicata squash grown at the River Road garden.

I know so much about my dinner because I'm dining with Grubshedders.

"Grubshed" can mean many things. As a noun, it describes the geographical area whence your food originates, and the trail it follows to your table, much the same way "watershed" describes the paths of a river, from headwaters to mouth.

As an adjective, Grubshed modifies certain nouns to indicate that the item in question is "of the Grubshed." Consider the "semi-Grubshed nectarines" filling the cobbler Mark and Brigid serve for dessert. Grown in northeastern Oregon-the outer-reaches of our local Grubshed-these nectarines are from the closest area to home where nectarines are grown. They might also be considered Grubshed nectarines by virtue of having been found and brought home by a Grubshedder.

The verb "Grubshed" describes the act of devoting time and energy to keeping your personal or family Grubshed as local as possible. It conveys caring, almost to the point of obsession, about where your food comes from.

A "Grubshedder," of course, is one who Grubsheds.


"This is not about suffering," Mark claims. "I'm not about to give up coffee." (He drinks locally purchased fair trade shade-grown brew.)

"We like to trade with people from other Grubsheds," says Jim Berkey, husband of Claire. "When we travel we buy or trade for things that are local elsewhere and bring them home."

The stuffed delicata is seasoned with baharat, a spice imported from Morocco. It was, however, shipped dry and un-refrigerated. Compared to a banana-which is heavier, requires refrigeration, and needs to arrive in a hurry-shipping spice uses relatively less petroleum. The antithesis of Grubshedding would be to ship a staple to Montana that's already grown here, like wheat.

"The first step is to get whatever you can get local," says Brigid. "Then figure out how much you need the other stuff, and what the closest supply is."

Brigid, aka "the sleuth," is the keeper and chief researcher of the Grubshed database. From apple-cider syrup to ziti, filberts to flax, steel-cut oats to sunflower seeds, Brigid's database contains the nearest source of virtually every fruit, vegetable, pasta, grain, legume, condiment, nut, wine, meat and fish. Some sources are producers, others are retailers.

"We figured," says Claire, "since so many sugar beets are grown in eastern Montana, there must be a way to get local sugar, rather than sugar from tropical sugarcane plants. It turns out that the closest refined white beet sugar-leave it to Brigid to figure this out-is from Idaho beets and is available at Albertsons."

"Actually," Brigid corrects, "the closest beet sugar is refined in Billings, but this sugar isn't distributed in-state."

A week later I run into Brigid at the Good Food Store. She's taking notes on food origin and price, deciding what to buy here, what to buy from the nascent Missoula Food Co-op's buying club, and what to buy elsewhere.

"You know that quinoa I said was from Mt. Hood?" she asks. "I just found out it's from Bolivia. So now we're trying to decide if we should support Bolivian farmers or find a more local source, like Colorado."

As the Grubshedders piece together their diets, the discussion often returns to a deceptively complex question: what are the boundaries of the Grubshed?

"It's a good discussion to have," says Jim, who coined the term. "But it's not worth pinning down exactly. We played around with pins and maps, drew a perimeter around Missoula that we wanted our food to come from, but ultimately we decided that our Grubshed is more of an amoeba than a circle, with an arm going up to Sandpoint [blueberries], northeastern Oregon [nectarines], down into Idaho [blackberries, wild plums, salmon from the Nez Perce reservation]."

Ultimately, Grubshedding is not about where you draw the line, it's about the process of deciding to draw it at all, and maintaining the flexibility, if necessary, to redraw it. It's about paying attention to the boundaries of your Grubshed, however you choose to delineate them, but always with a bias toward home.


A fifth and arguably most accurate definition of Grubshed would be food grown at the River Road Community Garden, where Missoula's Garden City Harvest Project has its own Grubshed program.

The seeds of the Grubshed program were sown one fall afternoon when Claire and Brigid sat on the grass in front of Claire and Jim's Blaine Street home. Claire, a graduate student at the time, was a grader for UM's Wilderness and Civilization Wilderness Lecture Series course. She told Brigid about a recent guest lecture by Gary Paul Nabhan, who presented from his book Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. Claire was inspired by Nabhan's quest to eat only food that was grown, hunted, gathered, or otherwise acquired within a 250-mile radius of home.

Nabhan wrote, "...this ritual is simple in its intent: to make me a direct participant, as fully and as frequently as possible, in the making of the bread and wine that sustain not only my life but the lives surrounding me as well. At last I want fully to bear the brunt of what my own eating of the living world entails. I want to escape the trap that I, like most Americans, have fallen into the last four decades: obtaining nine-tenths of our food from nonlocal sources, with shippers, processors, packagers, retailers, and advertisers gaining three times more income from each dollar of food purchased than do farmers, fishermen, and ranchers."

Mark came across the street from the house he shares with Brigid and Jim came out onto the lawn and all decided to try a version of Nabhan's experiment, and make a conscious effort to eat close to home. "There was this synergy, this teamwork," says Claire. "We fed on each other. Soon our neighbors wanted to join us."

They began to research where to get what they needed to survive, year-round. Eating locally in winter proved especially challenging. During summer, farmers' markets, home gardens and local farms provide plenty of opportunities to find local food. But in winter, local food becomes scarce.

They had meetings disguised as potluck dinners, sharing information, discussing Grubshed strategy, and testing local dishes on one another. To one such potluck, Josh Slotnick paid a call.

Slotnick directs the University of Montana PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake Valley, and is a founder of Garden City Harvest, a Missoula nonprofit dedicated to putting the garden back in the Garden City.

Slotnick showed up characteristically abuzz with ideas just realistic enough not to be dismissed as dreams. He announced that Garden City Harvest had been offered a free lease on some farmland on River Road, but he didn't have the time or resources to farm it. If he could find a farmer to grow winter storage crops on that land, Slotnick asked, would the Grubshedders buy them?

"Heck yeah!"

Enter Greg Price, a longtime subsistence gardener who hasn't purchased a vegetable, by his accounting, in years. Price was ready to make the jump to small farming, and he took on the River Road garden. The Garden City Harvest Grubshed project was born.

The program was to be a winter version of the increasingly popular practice of community supported agriculture (CSA), in which members of the public purchase memberships at a farm and receive in return a percentage of the harvest. The Grubshed program would focus on food that can be stored through the winter.

"When we first started this thing in 2003," says Mark, "I looked online for models of similar projects and found nothing. Today, there is a lot of information, but we had to make it up as we went along."

"The most terrifying thing," says Brigid, "was when Greg asked us 'how many pounds of potatoes do you want?'"


Farmer, teacher, local-food advocate and philosopher Josh Slotnick contemplates local food systems with the obsession of a baseball statistician. He is often asked why Missoula has such an active local food scene.

"I've come to the conclusion that the popularity of local food comes from local-ism," he says, "which is the act of loving and investing in your community. When people find a place they think is worthy of them, like Missoula, they want to become local. They don't want to be from Columbus or Chico anymore. So they ride their bikes down the Kim Williams trail and they drink Scapegoat Ale and they shop at the farmers' market."

It's at the farmers' market, of course, that most locals come into closest contact with the their Grubshed.

"What better way to become a local," he asks. "What better way to become intimately involved with a place than to put that place in your body."

Neva Hassanein, a professor in UM's Environmental Studies Program, believes that in

a true "food democracy," people would take an active role in shaping their food system, beyond the purchases they make.

"The choices we make [as consumers] have a huge impact," she says. "It's an important form of activism. But we also need to be thinking systemically about the food system. The increasing value of land sometimes makes it attractive for farmers to sell to developers, because the returns from agriculture are so low...Beginning farmers can't afford to buy the land on a farming income. We're losing ground fast. As a community we have said repeatedly that we value open space. Well, farm and ranch land, working land, is an important form of open space."

In collaboration with Bonnie Buckingham of the Missoula Food Bank, Hassanein started the Community Food Assessment Coalition (CFAC), which advises local government on matters of food and agriculture. With the support of Missoula City Council and the Missoula County Commissioners, CFAC works to promote sustainable agriculture, encourage regional self-reliance, and assure all citizens equal access to healthy and affordable food.

"At the farmers' market," says Hassanein, "through community supported agriculture and local produce in grocery stores, we are reducing the distance-including the social distance-between production and consumption. Right now the food system is controlled by a handful of multinational corporations. This involves a tremendous reliance on fossil fuels, tremendous output of greenhouse gas. We are in a vulnerable position by giving the power to shape our food systems to these corporations. To be secure as a community in the future, we need to have at least some of our production here."

One program encouraging local production is called farm to school, bringing locally produced food into the cafeterias of local schools. While CFAC, Garden City Harvest, and interested citizens are working to get the Missoula Public Schools to create such a program, the University of Montana's Farm to College program will be three years old in May. According to Mark LoParco, director of UM's Dining Services, by the program's third birthday it will have spent over million on local food.

"Overall, our food costs have gone down since we started Farm to College," says Meredith Printz, of Dining Services. "Local food has a better shelf life, since it's fresher. It allows us to take advantage of local surpluses, like last year there was a great deal on raspberries at Common Ground farm in Arlee, so we bought a bunch and made them into sauce that we served all year. And there's the ground beef we buy from Montana Natural Beef [in Ronan]. It's more expensive per pound than the burger from Sysco, but when you cook the water off, the Montana Natural yields more beef."

Says LoParco, "I'm beginning to see farmers and ranchers developing an entrepreneurial spirit. They are focusing on adding value to their product. For instance, when Montana Natural Beef found out that we didn't have a source for local ground beef, they made a deal with Imperial Meats in Missoula to grind their beef and sell it to us. It's a great deal for them-we go through a lot of hamburger!"

"When you talk about the impact," says LoParco, "it's the potential for big business. We spend $16,000 a year on local fry oil from Montola, $20,000 a year on bread made from Montana wheat, $38,000 a year on ground beef."

In the delivery area behind the Dining Services kitchen, the Sysco truck dominates the loading dock. Parked across the lot is the relatively small delivery truck for the Western Montana Growers Cooperative (WMGC). While the Farm to College budget accounts for only 13.6 percent of Dining Services' total budget, the proportion is growing every year, and WMGC is a big reason why.

One obstacle preventing local small farmers from selling food to large institutions like UM is that small producers often can't guarantee the quantities required by Dining Services. But by pooling produce from many area producers, WMGC can reliably deliver quantities on an institutional scale.

This year, for the first time in its three-year history, WMGC will make weekly deliveries year-round, in a diesel van that will soon run on biodiesel fuel produced by Sustainable Systems-the same Montana company that produces Dining Services' Montola-brand fry oil.

After helping WMGC delivery driver Julie Pavlock deliver tomatoes and chopped romaine lettuce, I hop on the van.

The next stop is Pattee Creek Market, where we deliver onions and potatoes. Next we take chai concentrate to Tipu's Tiger. The roasted tea mix, made from imported spices, was prepared at the nonprofit Mission Mountain Market in Ronan. In addition to chai, Julie's van will be delivering salsa made at Mission Mountain all winter.

Our last stop is the parking lot of the Orange Street Food Farm. Although WMGC delivers to the Food Farm during the summer months, today's exchange requires only its lot.

Julie pulls her refrigerated "reefer" van alongside a larger reefer truck. A smaller van pulls in and parks on the other side of Julie's van. It has the feel of a reefer sort of deal as the three drivers scurry among the vehicles, moving beef, pork, milk, butter and cheese from the Victor-based Lifeline Farms truck onto Julie's van and the little Paws Up resort van. Produce is also moved from Julie's van onto the Paws Up van. End result: Julie saves a trip down the Bitterroot to pick up the animal products, Lifeline gets distributed to Flathead markets, and clients at the last, best dude ranch munch on gourmet Grubshed ingredients.

As we say goodbye, Julie gives me a hunk of fresh goat cheese from her farm. Her commercial kitchen is not yet up to code, so this cheese is for gift or barter only. I take a bite and my mouth is filled with the flavor of the farm, the goats, and what they ate.

I grab my bike from Julie's van and head for home, stopping at Le Petite Outre for a pastry baked with local wheat and a sinfully delicious cup of non-local coffee. Everyone in the bakery gets to hear about my new cheese, which I'm unable to fully describe, so I hand out chunks.

Behind the counter, Brock Gnose, former cheese purchaser at the Good Food Store, nods in reverence at the flavor.

"It's not legal cheese," I say.

"Saw-weet!" says Brock. "I'll take local over legal any day."


"Some people think we eat really well," says Steve Allison-Bunnell. "Some people think we're freaks."

Steve and Jodi Allison-Bunnell were among the first to begin Grubshedding alongside their neighbors Jim, Claire, Brigid and Mark. They think of themselves, in Steve's words, as "normal people, who like having money to buy things and go places-not hippies living a yurt."

"Then our relatives come over," he says, "and we lay out a spread and say 'everything on this table is local!' and they kind of nod their heads and say 'good for you' while they're thinking, 'Get a life! Pass the bananas!'"

"I haven't had a banana in months," says Steve, "and I'm okay with that."

"The people at church don't know what to make of us either," says Jodi. "We're freaks among freaks. One day I brought soup to the lunch after service. People were a little too impressed. 'Soup? Wow! Soup is so hard.' I'm like, 'What's so hard about soup?'"

I'm sitting at Tipu's Tiger with Steve, Jodi, and Camas Allison-Bunnell. One of the reasons they like Tipu's is that it serves local veggies, in season. They also like Two Sisters, Catalyst and Scotty's Table for the same reason.

While they do eat out, cooking, says Jodi, is a necessary part of the day-to-day reality of going Grubshed. "It doesn't need to be elaborate to be good. Just simple food with good ingredients."

"It's a different mindset," says Steve, "to open the fridge and say 'hmm, what can I do with this?' As opposed to 'hmm, what do I want to make? I'll go to the store and buy the ingredients.'"

"Sometimes we don't have time," he admits. "Last week we ordered pizza. We weren't proud."

Rather than creating strict rules to regulate what they can and cannot eat, the Allison-Bunnells have rules to ensure they'll stay free from slipping into a vortex of local-food fanaticism.

"The most important rule," says Jodi: "we have lives beyond procuring, storing, and cooking our food. And we're exempt when we travel or eat out, though we try to frequent places that use local ingredients."

Camas, almost 5 years old, sums it up. "We kind of do what we want to do. We don't eat things we don't like."

"For me," says Steve, "beyond all the social/political implications of local food that make me feel good about eating local, the bottom line is it tastes really good. It's not a hardship."

This is a sentiment shared by the community of Grubshedders.

"Seasonal eating is a form of self-inflicted amnesia," Steve says. "You allow yourself to forget what something tastes like for a year. That makes it special. To eat Dixon melon in August, when you haven't had one for a year, is heavenly."


November 5, 2005. Grubshedders have gathered for a potluck at Steve and Jodi Allison-Bunnell's house. Tonight's gathering is in honor of Greg Price, the farmer Slotnick roped into growing the winter Grubshed.

The table is laden with hot food and home-canned goods to be traded in the annual jar swap. Price reads from a sheet of paper scribbled with numbers. "Each of the 11 Grubshed members received 140 pounds of onions, 90 pounds of squash, 65 pounds of potatoes, 40 pounds of carrots, 30 pounds of tomatoes, 24 pounds of corn, 10 pounds of garlic, 10 pounds of greens, 5 pounds of green beans, plus basil and hot peppers."

"Out of 13,128 pounds of food harvested from just under an acre, 5,200 pounds went to the Grubshed people, 2,970 went to summer CSA members, 2,259 pounds went to volunteers who helped with farm work in exchange for food, and 2,699 pounds was donated to the Missoula Food Bank, Poverello Center, and special events."

The applause that follows, you can see from Price's face, is music to a farmer's ears.

"Without Garden City Harvest and Grubshed," Jodi tells me, "we'd be growing a little garden, buying things at the farmers' market, doing what we could. But we wouldn't have 140 pounds of onions in the basement."

Many fine jars of pickles, chutney and salsa were swapped at the canned good swap. Chrissie McMullan and Jeremy Smith brought a container of homemade tomato ice cream, intended for swap, but the curious Grubshedders devoured it on the spot.

Why would anyone make tomato ice cream? Because when a Grubshedder has tomatoes, a Grubshedder uses tomatoes. And because a Grubshedder would rather taste an experiment in local food with friends than down a pint of Cherry Garcia all alone.

Not only do the Grubshedders share camaraderie and a sense of culinary adventure, they also share the work.

"When you consider how much food you have to put up to eat local in the middle of the winter," says Jodi, "to be able to do it with other people is really nice."

Claire agrees.

"One of the things that's nice about having a community of Grubshedders," she says, "is the division of labor." Claire makes extra salsa, Mark and Brigid make extra chutney. And when Mark and Brigid went to Sandpoint last year, they sent out an e-mail alert. Based on the response, they brought back 42 gallons of blueberries, which were distributed among the ever-expanding circle.

"It takes a village to feed a village," says Jim.

A growing village at that. "I don't even know everyone who's in the Grubshed anymore," says Claire. "This thing has taken on a life of its own."

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