A Radical Experiment in Local Eating: Making a Grilled Cheese From Scratch

A group of artists takes the concept of 'locavore' perhaps a bit too far.

(Photo: Sean Murphey/Getty Images)

Nov 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Just when you thought shopping your local farmers market and signing up for a CSA made you a pretty committed locavore, along come the Dutch.

For anyone who’s ever had romantic fantasies of “urban homesteading,” the quest by a group of artists from Amsterdam to make a basic grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich from scratch—and I mean, from scratch—will no doubt prove something of an eye-opener.

First, they planted wheat. Yeah, I’m not kidding—they planted wheat in a small field in the middle of Amsterdam. Then they built a barn big enough to house two pigs and two cows. For the next seven months, a rotating cast of volunteers cared for the animals and tended the wheat crop until August, when the group was ready to reap the grain and mill it. The hogs had to be butchered for the ham; the milk from the cows was made into cheese.

You can’t get much more local than that—but at what cost?

All in all, it took nine months, 20 volunteers, and the equivalent of almost $44,000 to produce 350 sandwiches—or about $20 a pop. Put a price tag on all that free labor, and you might easily be looking at a triple-digit tosti, as the sandwich is called in the Netherlands, a simple snack that's more expensive than a meal in all but the toniest five-star European restaurants.

“To be honest, business-wise, we were the worst project that ever existed,” Sascha Landshoff, the venture’s founder, tells Fast Company.

Of course, the group’s experiment—an art project—was never about turning a profit. Still, Landshoff’s view of what the project was really about also feels a little off the mark.

“It’s not only about the most ecological, local food,” she tells Fast Company, “you also need a certain amount of efficiency to feed everyone on the planet.”

Maybe. But if you follow that line of argument too far, what you get is an apologia for the status quo in which the technological feats of industrial agriculture and big food—from GMO crops designed to withstand ever more potent chemical herbicides to ginormous factory farms—are seen as the most “efficient” way to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

Don’t get me wrong: Eating local is not the cure-all for the food-related ills that ail us. The locavore mania tries to boil down what is a complex issue—the environmental, social, and health impacts of what we eat—to a single magic bullet, as we humans are wont to do, much the same way serial dieters will glom on to the latest best-selling diet fad.

Take greenhouse gas emissions. You’d think that eating local would dramatically cut the amount of carbon pollution your groceries contribute to the environment. But as this chart from the Environmental Working Group attests, the lion’s share of the global-warming impact for most food comes from how it’s produced, not from transportation. A 2007 study from Carnegie Mellon found that although most food typically travels upwards of a thousands miles to reach your plate, transportation only accounts for about 11 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions.

“Changing what we eat can have a bigger effect than changing where it’s from,” Gary Adamkiewicz, senior research scientist in environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, has pointed out. Thus, if you’re worried about the environmental impact of the food you’re eating, a vegetarian burrito made with beans shipped across the country may very well be better than a burger made from locally raised beef.

But while buying local may not be the environmental panacea it’s sometimes been cracked up to be, the case of the Dutch Sandwich Factory, as the project was called, takes the issue well nigh to the point of absurdity. After all, few—if any—sustainability experts would argue that we should all start raising every scrap of food we eat in our own backyards, a sure recipe for environmental and social disaster.

There’s a whole world of agriculture that exists between that radical approach, however, and the kind of chemical-laden, increasingly GMO-reliant, government-subsidized corporate farming that forms the basis of our current food chain.

We'd also be wise to turn these questions on their head, so to speak, and look for answers in unconventional place. Sure, we need to be more conscious about what we eat, but what about what we don’t eat? As food-waste activist Tristram Stuart has pointed out, we could feed an extra 3 billion people not by inventing some newfangled crop system but by reducing the amount of edible food that gets pitched in the garbage.