Like most people shopping for their Thanksgiving day feast, UVA graduate student Allison Spain (Arch ’13) decided to grab her turkey nearby. But it wasn’t the meat section of the local Kroger where she and two friends picked it out.

It was out in a field at a farm in Staunton.

“It’s a little bit different when you actually see what it is that you’re eating,” says Spain, an urban and environmental planning graduate student. “You have a lot of respect for the amount of work that goes into it and for what you’re getting out of it, and I think that’s really important when it comes to local food.”

Spain’s shopping excursion was just one of many made to local food producers by UVA students and faculty in preparation for last Thursday’s “100-Mile Thanksgiving,” an annual potluck meal held at Westminster Presbyterian Church that challenges contributors to cook dishes with ingredients prepared or grown within a 100-mile radius of Charlottesville.

Gail Hobbs-Page, cheesemaker and owner of Caromont Farms, with the farm's goats.
Coordinated by students in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning of UVA’s School of Architecture, the dinner was launched six years ago and now draws as many as 100 people.

The tradition began as a challenge posed by Professor Timothy Beatley (Arch ’79), a professor of sustainable communities, to his urban and environmental planning students. Beatley was inspired by a Vancouver couple who, in 2005, drew a large online following as they blogged their attempt to eat for a year only food from within a 100-mile radius of their home.

“There was some apprehension in holding a 100-mile meal in mid-to-late November, when they’re might not be that much available in the way of locally grown food, but we did (it),” Beatley says. “It’s meant to foster a kind of awareness about where things come from and that there are tradeoffs and choices that we make when we buy food.”

Owners of local, community-supported agriculture efforts say consumer appreciation for local food production has grown in recent years, though skeptics question whether local foods could adequately feed the nation.

“There’s a healthy debate going on about that,” Beatley says. “I would argue that some of what we think of as economies of scale—a large, corn-producing mega-farm in Iowa, for example—aren’t very efficient. I think there is a certain mythology that you can’t grow intensively on smaller amounts of land in organic ways, and you actually can.”

In the long run, Beatley argues supporting local food efforts is a way of reconnecting communities to the landscape and helping to secure the food production chain.

Most of the main ingredients in the 100-mile dishes are locally sourced. Staples such as turkey, root vegetables and squash are easy to come by, and participants say it isn’t hard to buy local artisanal cheeses, jams, jellies and honey.

“It’s amazing how much you can get here,” says Margot Elton (Arch ’13), a graduate student in the architecture school who helped coordinate the event.

Zach Miller, farmer and owner of Timbercreek Organics
Early on, students discovered a water-powered mill in Raphine, Va., about 50 miles southwest of Charlottesville, which produces flour and cornmeal. Those ingredients were used for a pie sweetened with local honey.

The Charlottesville City Market, the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello and other festivals, as well as local agricultural co-ops such as Horse and Buggy Produce also have become shopping targets for 100-Mile Thanksgiving cooks.

Diners say that the dishes that emerge from these local products each year are often simple but flavorful, like a roasted beet salad with goat cheese, or root vegetables grown in a student’s backyard garden. This year’s buffet included collards and ham, mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetable casseroles, fried apples, pumpkin pies and locally produced cider.

But very few of the meal’s recipes end up being prepared completely with ingredients from within 100 miles. Salt, spices and sugar are almost impossible to find near Charlottesville, participants say.

Although they are found in various forms on almost every Thanksgiving Day table, cranberries are the dinner’s most elusive ingredient. The closest known commercial bogs are in New Jersey.

Beatley says he once tried to grow his own on a shady patch of his yard, but they wouldn’t take. So he’s made do with what he says is the next best thing.

“If you try raspberries with turkey,” he said, “it’s really good.”