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What it Means to Eat Locally in a Place Where 95% of Food is Imported

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When I wrote about my experiences food shopping on the U.S. Territory of Guam, I felt that I had done my homework: I had visited at least a dozen food markets and farm stands throughout the island, toured the University of Guam’s Center for Island Sustainability, spoken to a handful of local chefs, and dined at half a dozen restaurants that are cited for their commitment to local food products.

I stand by what I wrote in that article, and continue to believe that Guam struggles to supply residents affordable and easily available fresh foods due to the island’s heavy reliance on shipping. (This isn’t due to a lack of interest or effort, by the way. Guam simply isn’t very large, and when you also consider the huge uptick in population since the end of World War II—23,400 in 1941; 165,000 today—and the fact the island was rebuilding itself post-war at the exact moment in history when both processed, shelf-stable foods and the mass shipping of fresh grocery items became economically viable, the current state actually makes a lot of sense.)

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Cooking on Guam: When a Tropical Paradise is a Food Desert
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Cooking on Guam: When a Tropical Paradise is a Food Desert

But after reading the passionate comments that the article generated (and meeting two of the early commenters for lunch), I had to admit that I had left a pretty glaring “something” out—namely, I had never truly attempted to eat locally for more than a single meal at a time.

First, some background. Despite the considerable progress made by farmers and advocacy groups such as Farm to Table Guam (a wonderful resource, both for their support of island farmers and the information they provide to connect consumers with local food sources), the island continues to ship in approximately 95% of its food. It’s probably safe to say that if shipping suddenly ceased, local food producers could not keep pace with demand. When one ship failed to make its delivery last spring, the entire island felt the impact, and if ships stopped bringing in supplies altogether, there would quickly be no dairy, little meat, no rice or flour, and few eggs.

But it’s also true that foods like meat and dairy and eggs don’t represent a traditional pre-colonial local diet, which several commenters pointed out. Certainly a person can enjoy a long and happy life without a meatball or real Parmesan cheese! It was clearly time for me to try my hand at feeding my family with only local foods.

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Photo by Kim Soltero

After a lot of back and forth with friends, a Farm to Table Guam employee, and my family, I decided on my parameters: only local produce and proteins and food products that are themselves made with indigenous ingredients (with a few small exceptions—I didn’t track down native coconut oil and milk or sea salt, but one could reasonably expect to cook with those items here). To be clear, I knew going in that I was drawing a distinction between local food products and local cuisine, and consciously chose to focus on the former. With that settled, I started shopping.

Farm to Table Guam kindly agreed to sell me one of their weekly CSA boxes, which contained a very generous quantity of various lettuces, cucumbers, upo gourds, eggplant, microgreens, mint, green onions, and kangkong greens, as well as fruits such as bananas (both cooking and eating), honey tangerines, star apples, and pomelo.

Next, a friend who teaches at the local college culinary program directed me to a farm stand that I’d never noticed before, where the friendly proprietor helped me purchase a local pumpkin, purple sweet potatoes, chiles, cherry tomatoes, green papaya, and fresh turmeric. But at the farm stand, I also discovered the importance of asking if each item was truly native in origin—eggs in a carton emblazoned with the local greeting "Hafa adai" turned out to be from the mainland, for example, as did several fruits and vegetables on offer.

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Onto the proteins and “other” food products. Unfortunately, Guam’s thriving wild chicken and pork populations aren’t commercially available as meat and fresh venison is rare, so I made my way down the road to the ever-reliable Fishermen’s Co-op to pick up about 2 pounds each of fresh marlin and bonito. Then another brief stop to buy a dozen eggs (sold, somewhat incongruously, at a Japanese market that otherwise stocks mainly packaged items from that country) just as they were being replenished by the vendor. I also purchased corn, canned coconut milk, two small jars of condiments (mango pepper jelly and a hot pepper paste called dinanche) from a local grocery store before making one final stop to buy fresh corn tortillas as I headed home.

After half a day of shopping that encompassed 6 stops and cost about $150, I had collected enough food to feed my family of 5 dinner (and myself breakfast and lunch, as well—I purchased additional groceries outside of the experiment for my family) for about 3 nights, which seemed like a good start given that I had no particular meals or recipes in mind yet.

In all, the produce cost $85, more than twice what I had paid for a full week’s-worth of shipped-in fruits and vegetables the week before. The fish (which lasted us 3 days) was $40, about 30% more than I’d usually spend on meat and seafood for that period. At $8 a carton, island eggs cost about twice as much as the most expensive mainland dozen, and the coconut milk, jarred items, and tortillas added up to a little more than $20.

Back home, my youngest son and I had a good time cutting into the star apples for an exploratory taste (mild, creamy, and sweet), then combining them in the blender with the juice of a couple tangerines for a “tropical orangesicle” smoothie. I gave the blender a quick rinse and made a fish taco marinade out of a few chiles, a quarter of the pomelo, a handful green onions, salt, and coconut oil.

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How to Make a Great Smoothie Without a Recipe

Other menu items: a cucumber/tomato/mint salad seasoned with fresh turmeric and sea salt; wilted kangkong drizzled with tangerine juice; mashed purple sweet potatoes; bonito tacos with spicy papaya slaw, grilled corn, and charred tomato salsa; huge lettuce salads with tomatoes and cucumber; a roasted pumpkin soup with coconut milk, chiles, turmeric, and two cooking bananas. The upo gourds and eggplant went into a spicy vegetable stir-fry with dinanche, and the marlin was simply seasoned and grilled.

Everything was tasty, but I found myself relying on the same flavors for every meal: Chiles went into everything, as did grated turmeric; I rationed the citrus for “acid,” the mint for bright herbaceousness, and the green onions for piquancy. Pre-colonial islanders wouldn’t have missed ingredients like garlic, soy sauce, wine, or miso, but I frankly struggled at times to prepare meals without the crutch of my twenty-first century pantry.

I was particularly excited to try local eggs, and for the sake of comparison decided to cook a mainland egg in the same pan with a local one. I showed pictures of the cooking eggs to eight friends (one of whom raises chickens, and three others who buy local eggs stateside). All but one chose the mainland egg as looking “fresher”—reasons ranged from “the other one looks cloudy” to “the darker yolk looks better.” I always knew which was which, of course, but I gave the island eggs a slight but discernable edge in appearance, with firmer whites and more centered yolks. Happily, they tasted equally delicious on a corn tortilla.

Local egg (on the left) versus a shipped-in egg (on the right).
Local egg (on the left) versus a shipped-in egg (on the right). Photo by Kim Soltero

After three days, supplies were running low and it was time to evaluate the experiment. On the plus side, I was able to buy fresher (and less “shippable”) foods, support native farmers and fishermen, expose my family and myself to a couple of new foods, cook more creatively, and explore locavore eating in Guam.

There were definite cons, though; most crucially, the costs in both time and money to buy so much locally-sourced food were considerably higher than most families could sustain for day-to-day purposes. I’m fortunate to be able to afford eating this way—at least for a week—but with around two-thirds of local schoolchildren reliant on Guam DOE’s free and reduced lunch programs, it simply isn’t an option for most families. And because our normal dietary habits were so restricted (remember: no dairy, no meat, no grains beyond corn), after just three days of good meals, there were still definite grumbles of rebellion around the dinner table.

Looking forward, I can’t say that my personal food habits will change much. I was already buying Guam-grown lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and corn, and will continue to do so. I enjoyed the local pumpkin, chiles, green onions, and bananas, and can envision seeking those out in the future, as well. When I’m in the area, I make an effort to buy fresh fish at the Co-op. But whether it’s a failure of availability and economy or of effort and understanding, life as a Guam locavore—while certainly possible—simply isn’t practical for my family, or, I suspect, for many of us living here.

Do you live in a community where it's just not practical to eat locally? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Tags: guam, local eating, island, locavore, local food, local food movement