Q&A: What We Learned Skipping Supermarkets and Restaurants For a Year

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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.

(MORE: Q&A: How to Eat on a Dollar a Day)

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.

(LIST: 12 Things You Should Stop Buying Right Now)

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