The story of our food comes alive when we eat closer to the source. Author Vicki Robin shares her experience of eating food grown within 10 miles of her home on Whidbey Island, Washington.
What inspired you to undertake the 10-mile diet project?
Vicki Robin: I lived with the Ecological Footprint graphs (what we have and what we spend as a human community on a finite planet) and knew we were in overshoot, far out of balance. I knew we’d shot past 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere with no brakes on the runaway climate train. When I learned the data about Peak Oil/Gas/Coal/Uranium/You-name-it and paired that with Climate Change, the picture was even starker.
For me, relocalization – revitalizing regional economies and ways of life – became the one sane choice.
Working locally on Whidbey Island with the Transition model brought another stark fact in view. Even here, a semi-rural community, we cannot feed ourselves for even a few weeks on what we produce. As author of Your Money or Your Life, I’d challenged American’s relationship with money and stuff – but our food addiction was “off the table” so to speak . . . because my own hand was in the cookie jar. I’d been a dieting, binging, weight-obsessed American woman for 6+ decades – and considered it none of anybody’s business.
But when I see the truth of something, I want to test whether I can actually live it. Sustainability as an extreme sport. So you can see, I’m a perfect subject for a 10-mile diet hyper-local eating experiment – I had no axe to grind about dietary correctness. I was curious and I was convinced that I was testing a limit we were all facing – unaware.
In September 2010, I took up the challenge. For a month. With relish (local of course).
How did your shopping and cooking practices change?
Vicki Robin: I actually bought very little food during the 10-mile experiment. This was a partnership with a farmer. She was curious whether she could actually feed someone, I was curious about this value called “local.” Before I’d shopped the Farmers Markets as a pastime, buying a few squash or lettuce and chatting with neighbors. I bought most of my food, though, at grocery stores – and Trader Joe’s – and never wondered how those shelves were always perfectly stocked.
Now I try to have the highest quality relationship with everything I eat. My best foods are local because they come from people I know and like, and I understand that I am actually vitalizing my local food system as I buy from these farmers. This gives my eating – and life – greater meaning as well as better food.
My grains, beans, greens, roots, squash, meats, eggs, honey and milk are from the island. Even when the flour is from elsewhere, I like buying from local bakeries. This comes from a profound sense of belonging that arose as I ate the food of my place on earth. I’d never felt so at “home.” I call this “relational eating.”
I also understand the economics and practices of industrial food and even though I honestly like a lot of anywhere food, I am aware that I am eating the injustice, toxicity, economic distortion, soil depletion of that food – and the health consequences as well. I’m not a purist at all. I’m just awake.
As for cooking, the diet taught me to use what’s at hand and fresh rather than from cupboards or the store. I cooked from scratch, concocting soups and stews. I did allow myself a couple of “exotics” – foods from afar – because I didn’t want to live without oil, salt or caffeine, so my dishes were very tasty.
Describe a particularly memorable meal you prepared from local ingredients.
Vicki Robin: As you know by now, I’m by long habit a value and bargain shopper. So when it came to buying a couple of chickens for my diet, I had a big struggle. Five dollars a pound! You’ve got to be kidding. But when I calculated what it actually costs for real people – my neighbors – to grow those birds, I realized that the price ($5) was the actual cost in labor, feed, materials and losses to raccoons and hawks. Industrial food is abnormally cheap – which is why it was so easy for me – and many others – to abuse it.
The last night of my experiment I invited Tricia – my farmer – and her husband over for dinner. I roasted one of the chickens. In the old days I would have cut the bird in quarters and we would have chowed down, leaving only bones. This chicken I sliced like a turkey. We savored every bite and were not deprived and there were leftovers. I was sure it tasted better. I roasted vegetables and served salad and we talked long into the night.
What were key insights you gained from the experience?
Vicki Robin: My first key shift was from food as being a commodity in pretty packaging in the store to food being where I live and actually who I am. The store is like a vending machine – you put your money in and out comes food. All the hands that produced that food – from human hands of farm-workers, processors, distributors, grocers to the figurative hands of soil organisms and the vitality of the beings that sacrificed their fruits, leaves and lives – are invisible. Relational eating pulls all of these beings out of the shadows and restores a sense of belonging.
My second key insight was that it is actually possible to feed ourselves – and “the world” – closer to home. We now mostly rely on industrial food to meet our caloric, nutritional, and pleasure seeking needs. But draw a 500-mile circle around most places and you’ll find the necessary ingredients for growing food: soil, sunlight, water, manures, farm animals, seeds, hands to do the planting and harvesting. I call this our complementary food system.
Like complementary medicine is now part of standard practice for allopathic physicians, complementary food systems will increasingly supplement industrial ones so that we can get 10% or 25% or even 50% of our food from regional sources. This food will be real, whole and nutritious. Buying it will support prosperity, security, sovereignty and justice. Cooking it will acquaint us again with the unique textures and flavors of each food.
From this came a third key insight: Getting to thriving complementary food systems will not be easy. It will challenge property rights – how do we get new and young farmers onto farmable land? It will challenge priorities in farm policy and budgets and allocations. It will require leveling the economic playing field so industrial food reflects the real price, giving relational food a chance in the marketplace. It will challenge, as it did for me, our habits, preferences and peccadilloes. But it will be an inspiring shared project for our civilization, creating meaning and nourishment for ourselves by “blessing the hands that feed us”. And this shift to local will happen of necessity, not just preference.
As a result of your 10-mile diet, you developed your own “food rules.” What are a few of your favorite ones?
- Commit to a farmer; eat what she produces and learn about his challenges and care.
- Commit to at least one food (more if you can) grown closer to home (you set the boundaries: 10-, 50-, 100-miles) and you’ll be eating more whole and fresh foods, appreciating your place on earth and supporting local prosperity.
- Be grateful, be social. Remind yourself of the many hands that bring food to your table, and eat with others as often as possible. This binds you to the web of life.
You’ve said we need a G.I. Bill for new farmers. Why is that needed, and what would it look like?
Vicki Robin: As I say in my upcoming book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us (Viking/Penguin 2013), “among the benefits of the G.I. Bill were low-cost mortgages, loans to start a business or farm, financial support to attend high school, college, or vocational education plus unemployment compensation for a year.
Translate that to young farmers and you get: low cost mortgages to buy farms, loans for start up costs for a market garden or CSA, financial support for vocational training in sustainable farming, plus a year post training of living expenses to tide them over until the farm is closer to in the black. In fact, returning vets are also interested in farming so this would literally be a G.I. Bill all over again.
The effect would be to correct the devastation our policies have had on community-scale farms and the livelihoods of farmers – decimating the growing profession – and build the very capacity we need for thriving regional food systems.”
What does the food movement mean to you?
Vicki Robin: The food movement is already full steam ahead with heroes and heroines, rich stories, innovative practices, policy agendas, organizations galore. Call the goal real or just or healthy or whole or natural or organic or local food, it’s on many people’s radar. Parents want good food for their children. People are concerned about the health effects of manufactured foods. More people are aware of food injustice – food deserts with no nearby real food, and modern day farm-worker exploitation. Academics and activists and advocates, businesspeople and financiers, farmers and ranchers and foragers, educators and parents and chefs are part of it. In fact, all eaters are part of this tide, this migration to a more nourishing and meaningful way of eating for our bodies and communities and kids’ futures.
About Vicki Robin
Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer and speaker. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008). It was an instant New York Times best seller in 1992 and steadily appeared on the Business Week Best Seller list from 1992-1997. It is available now in eleven languages.
Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking/Penguin 2013) recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food and farming as well as belonging and hope.
Called by the New York Times as the “prophet of consumption downsizers,” Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition”; she has also been featured in well over 100 magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine and the New York Times.More: Agriculture, Changing the Menu, Creating Community, Environmental Issues, Farm to Fork, Food and Community, Food Culture, Local Food