Last October, Rachel Hoff and Tom Ferguson embarked on an experiment in hyper-locavore healthy eating. For the next 12 months, the couple from Vallejo, Calif., wouldn’t set foot in a grocery store or restaurant. Their family’s diet would consist entirely of non-processed foods gathered from farmers markets, a local sustainable food-buying club, and their own quarter-acre backyard. During the experiment’s final three months, Hoff and Ferguson didn’t buy any food at all—relying strictly on the bounty produced from animals and gardens on their property, and what they could get bartering with neighbors and nearby farmers.
The couple chronicled the year-long challenge in their blog, A Year Without Groceries, and they answer my questions below.
How has your experiment evolved throughout the year—in terms of how you prepare meals and cook, and also the rules you abide by?
Rachel: Our start date was technically October 1st but we had actually stopped buying groceries two weeks prior to that kind of like a test, I suppose. By the time October 1st hit it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as it should have been. I mean, we’d already done two weeks. That’s basically the same as a year, right? As the weeks flew by we started to get into the groove of things and we realized that it wasn’t really as big of a challenge as we thought it would be. Being complete gluttons for punishment we decided after six months that for the last three months we wouldn’t buy any food at all and rely entirely on what we raised, grew, and already had on our shelves.
I enjoyed cooking when we started this, and for the first half of the year I was really into it. I loved making food from scratch that we would normally buy pre-made like cured meats, pasta, mayonnaise, crackers, and cheese. It was that whole “Hey Ma! Look what I can do!” mentality. But it eventually wore off and turned into the equivalent of going to the dentist. I had to do it, but completely dreaded it. The only bonus is that with so much practice I was able to make most of those foods really quickly, thus reducing the amount of pain I had to endure.
Did you ever get sick of eating certain foods again and again? What was that like, and how did you cope?
Tom: I could have a turkey sandwich every day of my life and still love it every time. Eating the same foods every day doesn’t really bother me that much, so eating that way is OK in my book.
Rachel: I have no idea how Tom can enjoy the same thing day in and day out. I get easily bored with foods. We were pretty varied in our foods until our final three months. I was completely freaking out the second half of June that when July 1st came around we wouldn’t have anything to eat, so it was a relief when everything started coming into season. We actually made our first big harvest on July 1st. But there was a very limited variety of food. We were stuck for weeks eating green beans, cucumbers, and zucchini. There was a smattering of onions, garlic and lettuce, but the first three were coming in droves and unbelievably we couldn’t eat them fast enough. There’s only so much you can do with green beans, cucumbers, and zucchini, and I couldn’t find any good main course recipes that were based on them. So I just had to make recipes up, which invariably ended up as a salad of some sort.
What were the most unexpected problems you encountered during the experiment? How do you go about getting simple things, like salt or oil?
Rachel: Before going into this we relied pretty heavily on cookbooks for our meals. Most recipes revolve around supermarkets where everything is available all year long. Now we were completely reliant on what was seasonal and also on what day it was. A perfect example would be salsa fresca, which we normally use limes and cilantro in—both of which aren’t in season here when tomatoes, onions, and peppers are.
For the first nine months we were ordering our staples like salt, vinegar, flour, and sugar from a local food-buying club once a month, so if I was out of something on the 15th I couldn’t replace it until the next order date. It required us to plan really well. I relied heavily on the Internet to find substitutions of ingredients that we were out of. The farmers market only occurred on Saturday mornings so it was a priority to get there or we wouldn’t have enough food for the rest of the week.
By the way, bacon grease works really well as an oil substitute for nearly everything.
Tom: Nature really screwed us. Late heavy rains kept the bees from pollinating our fruit trees. Then the small amount of fruit that we did get split due to more unseasonably late rains, and since most of it wasn’t ripe yet, it just rotted on the tree. We have over two dozen fruit trees in our backyard and got less than 30 lbs. of fruit off of them this year. We ended up having to barter for fruit, but most of our friends and neighbors suffered the same fate as we did. It really did a number on our dessert-making.
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What advice would you give to anyone hoping to follow your example, at least in terms of scaling back on groceries and restaurant meals?
Rachel: What it boils down to is that it’s a learning process. Always start small so you don’t burn yourself out. Replace one pre-made food item a week, or even just one a month, with something homemade. Get the right tools too. They make a world of difference when you’re trying to save time. Many “purists” sneer at the mere mention of using a bread machine, but if it can save you a few hours by setting the timer and having it bake bread while you’re sleeping, go for it. This isn’t about taking on so much you’re dizzy, but rather eating healthier. And the bread you make by hand isn’t any healthier than the bread out of the bread machine if the ingredients are the same.
Tom: Definitely do your research first. Don’t jump in with both feet right away. If you don’t know how to grow enough food or know where to source it, you’re kind of screwed and will get discouraged.
Got any super easy, convenient cooking tips you care to share? What ingredients and/or spices do you wind up using most often?
Rachel: The number one thing that helps make cooking easier is having a partner that helps you do it. But for a lot of people that isn’t really an option. Some might say batch cooking is your best option, and I suppose we do that to a certain extent when we can sauces, but for the most part I’ve never actually done batch cooking—the idea of creating a week’s worth of meals in one day. I think that would probably be the most convenient cooking tip, though, for people who are really busy during the week.
Practice is what makes a mediocre cook a great one. Don’t get discouraged. Start with cookbooks and recipes online or on TV if you need to, and of course experiment. The longer you cook the faster you’ll get at it, and the easier it will be. Eventually you won’t need recipes anymore and you just get the “feel” for how to combine flavors and textures.
We love a lot of flavor, and we love spicy foods. The spice merchant we bought our spices from has a Cajun spice mixture that we love to put on everything. It’s incredible as a simple dry rub on meat or used in soup.
Tom: If you’re in a pinch, frittatas always work. Just a few cut up vegetables and some eggs make for a tasty, filling meal. Homemade pizza, especially if you have that bread machine, is always tasty and easy. We make one every Friday even if we don’t have any cheese to put on it. It’s a way to get the kids on board too. Because we don’t go to restaurants, it’s a great treat for my son and helps keep him from complaining about all that healthy food we make him eat.
When the experiment is over, what foods will you buy first at a supermarket? And what restaurant meal would be your first pick?
Rachel: We’ve actually decided to continue on being grocery store free. The reasons we started doing this haven’t changed, and we’ve saved money while buying higher-quality local food that’s been raised and grown sustainably. I love meeting and supporting the farmers that grow our food. They are hardworking people that deserve a lot more respect than our society pays them. The food also tastes better, maybe because of all the blood, sweat and tears that go into making it.
Tom: We’ve decided after the year is up that we will allow ourselves to go to a restaurant once a month. My son’s 14th birthday happens to be October 1st, the day after our experiment ends. To celebrate we’re going to go to a restaurant I’ve been wanting to go to for years—the local Moroccan restaurant where you sit on the floor, eat with your hands and watch belly dancers.