One year ago, Carla Crownover kissed grocery stores goodbye.
She had just seen Food, Inc., Participant Media's documentary on the seedy underbelly of the food industry, and she wanted nothing to do with the conventional food system that feeds the majority of Americans.
She pledged to abstain from grocery stores for 365 days and to go on a quest to find out where all the food she eats comes from. The end result? "I’ve learned a lot," she told readers on her blog, Austin Urban Gardens.
TakePart caught up with Crownover recently, fresh after her one-year mark, to learn more about what it's like to live off the food grid.
Prior to seeing Food, Inc., Crownover was already a conscientious eater. "I shopped the perimeter of the grocery store and didn't buy many products in boxes or cans. I didn't want to eat anything that had been manipulated to cook faster, or be 'instant,'" she explains. "I had dropped diet sodas from my diet a couple years ago, and was leery of foods manipulated to have a long shelf life."
When she sought out more information from Food, Inc., the film shocked her.
"Everything about factory farming [in the film] disgusted me. The feedlots packed full of animals standing in their own waste bothered me on several levels. I like to eat beef, but I don't want the animal to have to live a horrible and unhealthy life so that I can have a steak."
She saw genetically engineered chickens in the film that were too big to stand and never saw the light of day. "The chickens I get now from a local farm are free range up until their last moment," she says. "The farmer once told me, 'We like to believe they only have one bad day.' And I loved that."
At first, she says, giving up the convenience of stopping by the store whenever she needed something was a huge adjustment. One challenge was to stretch her food from Saturday's farmers market to Wednesday's farmers market. So she learned to plan ahead. "I also learned to preserve things in their season, so that I could have them available when they no longer were in season." Also tough? "I did miss avocados," Crownover says.
Armed with experience and information, Crownover now lives a very different life. The year without grocery stores opened her eyes to even more effects the food industry was having on her life. For instance, in the past year, she greatly reduced the amount of waste her food created. "Nothing I get from a farm or farmers market has a box or other packaging. The produce goes directly in my cloth bag, and everything else is shrink wrapped or wrapped in paper," she says. Another unexpected consequence: "I've become friends with most of the folks who grow my food, which is wonderful."
She also skipped the Thanksgiving and Christmas grocery-store craze that her friends muddled through, and had nothing to fear during the salmonella scare of 2010. "My bottom line: I don't want to eat genetically modified anything. I don't want to eat hormones and antibiotics fed to animals. When the salmonella scare happened recently, I just kept eating eggs, not having to check the date and factory they came from because I bought them directly from the farmer. None of my food has a SKU [stock keeping unit] number, and I like that."
What's next for the woman who's gone without grocery stores? "As of this interview [January 5, 2011], I have not returned to the grocery store and have no plans to. I might like some avocados, which don't grow here, and perhaps some dried black beans, but for the most part, I'll continue trying to become a better gardener, and keep shopping at the farmers markets and local farms."
For anyone starting the new year hoping to follow in Crownover's steps, she recommends, "Plan several meals in advance before you shop so that you can get everything you might need between shopping times. And get to know your farmers and purveyors. They are some of the most solid and down-to-Earth people around."