READ IT by Bruce Mason
• “Relational eating,” you read it here first. Destined for buzz word status and “Aha!” moments on Oprah, fundamentally re-examining the role of food in our lives is at the heart and soul of best-selling author Vicki Robin’s new book Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community and Our Place on Earth.
The title is a mouthful, but the contents are easily digested, jam-packed with highly nutritious, delicious, bite-sized pieces of wisdom, tips, anecdotes and recipes for a humanity hungry, if not starving, for a profound change on the planet. We all eat. We are what we eat. And focusing on food can be a unifying force in realizing sustainability and returning to sanity.
Robin invites readers to re-visit and renew their place in the web of eating. “Relational eating encompasses the whole shift from eating as a private affair from a vast, continuous smorgasbord heaped high by the industrial food system, to eating in a living system where food is precious because we know the farmers, the farms, the farm animals, the fruits and foraging spots, the vicissitudes of the seasons and that we live somewhere, not just anywhere,” she explained to Common Ground in her first interview about the book.
After the death of her partner Joe Dominguez and her own seven-year battle with cancer, in 2010, Robin took up the challenge from a market gardener near her home on Whidbey Island (in Washington State’s Puget Sound) to live for a month on food produced within 10 miles.
Thus began a personal journey, peopled with farmers living out their dream of self-sufficiency – such as a corporate executive turned milk producer – and a parade of characters, charming adventures and insights. This kind of personal transformation is available to us all, in one form or another, including awareness of why a free-range, farm-gate chicken really is worth five dollars a pound.
“For me, relocalization – revitalizing regional economies and ways of life – has become our one sane choice, given our crisis of exponential growth, despite limits and the inevitable overshoot and collapse. When I see truth, I want to test if I can actually live it: sustainability as an extreme sport,” Robin says.
“I’d been a dieting, binging, weight-obsessed American woman over six decades and was the perfect subject for a 10-mile, hyper-local eating experiment. With no axe to grind – I didn’t plan to even write about it – I was curious and convinced that I was testing a limit we were all facing – unaware.
“On semi-rural Whidbey, we have a three-day supply of food in grocery stores and less than a month from our fields. And that’s just during August. I understand the economics and practices of industrial food and honestly like a lot of what I call ‘anywhere food.’ But I’m aware that I’m eating the injustice, toxicity, economic distortion, soil depletion of that food – and the health consequences, as well.
“I shifted away from food as a commodity. Stores are like vending machines. All the hands that produced food – from human hands of farm-workers, processors, distributors and 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 – connected to place and complementary food systems – pulls these beings out of the shadows and restores a sense of belonging.”
In the days leading up to her test in September and during the weeks that followed, she not only learned how to satisfy her appetite, but also whet her curiosity about where food comes from, how it arrives at our table, the costs involved, food policies, sovereignty, justice, customs, security, the sheer beauty and blessing of food itself and how we can once again live well, within regions, without so much of our food circling the planet in container ships and cargo planes.
“I began to wonder how food became such an antisocial, solitary act – in the car, grazing at the fridge, starving ourselves in public and gorging in private – and like many people, longed for the return of food as a shared celebration of nourishment and life,” Robin says. “As well, I wanted to help clear away the fog and confusion that disempower us in relation to the simple act of lifting a fork, savouring food on our tongues and letting what slides down our gullets actually transform itself into us and a life we love.”
The following February, she tested a 50% local diet within 50 miles – just to prove it can be done in every season.
Dubbed the “prophet of consumption downsizers” by the New York Times, Robin has helped launch myriad sustainability initiatives. She also co-authored (along with Dominguez) the international bestseller Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence.
“For years, I’ve worked on issues of over-consumption, over-spending and over-working, helping people extricate themselves from the thrall of the consumer culture, and the unexamined ‘keeping up with (imaginary) Joneses’ drive for ‘more.’ Your Money or Your Life reached a million people directly worldwide and through the media, spread the message to easily a hundred million. Somehow, that wasn’t enough to turn the tide, to have our culture turn its back on excess and embrace that exquisite space of ‘enough,’” Robin notes.
Blessing the Hands That Feed Us isn’t preachy. Part personal narrative and part global manifesto, it’s a call-to-action to take back our power as eaters and citizens, with consumer ‘purposes’ as well as ‘purchases,’ to wean ourselves from an unhealthy dependency on mass-produced, prepackaged foods and reconnect with our bodies and our environment. “Resistance begins at the dinner table,” First Nations advise.
Robin describes her journey as “putting my money where my mouth is.” Above all, it’s a journey rooted in community, an inspirational guide and testimonial to the locavore movement and a healthy food future. Like complementary medicine, complementary regional systems could increasingly supplement industrial food by 10% or 25% or even 50%, supporting security, sovereignty and creating meaningful work. In the meantime, be more grateful, become more engaged and vote with your food dollars.
“Vicki Robin has helped millions of Americans reshape their lives in sound and beautiful ways, but this may be her most important project yet – and a crucial one for our tired planet too,” says Bill McKibben.
“It will challenge, as it did me,” says Robin who suggests starting with one local meal a week or one recipe. “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 eventually happen of necessity, not just preference.”
Vicki Robin gives a talk and booksigning, 6:30PM, Banyen Books, 3608 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver. For more information browse her TedTalk.