Vicki Robin shares her adventure into the “extreme sport” of local food in Blessing the Hands That Feed Us (Viking, 2014), a personal narrative of the experiment that began when a market farmer friend challenged her to eat only food produced within a 10-mile-radius of her home. Through local eating she finds not only delicious, sustainable options, but also a vibrant community of growers and consumers connected by the food they eat. This excerpt is from the introduction, in which Robin summarizes her discoveries and the global implications of being a locavore.
The Extreme Sport of Local Food
In September 2010, I undertook an experiment that turned out to be one of the greatest adventures of my life. It was so small at the start, but it eventually grew—and blew me wide open. A farmer friend wanted a guinea pig to test whether she could actually feed another human being for a full month from what she could grow on her half acre. I wanted to test, from a sustainability perspective, if we here on Whidbey Island could survive without access to that cornucopia called the grocery store. We called the experiment a 10-mile diet.
I’ve done other “sustainability as an extreme sport” experiments many times. I’ve fasted—from food for ten days, from talking for a month, from air travel for a year—anything that would bring me closer to a life of integrity. I think sustainability is meant to be put into practice, not just debated. The 10-mile diet was simply the next in the series. I did this experiment in hyperlocal eating wholeheartedly in September 2010, on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. Whidbey is a gentle place. The island connects to the mainland via a twice-hourly ferry to the south and a bridge to the north, so our culture here is rural with an urban flair. Our climate is moderate. Driving up the long midisland highway, you might think—and tourists do—that it’s a bucolic and bountiful land with a few cities strung like precious pearls on a long chain. True, but there is much more to the story.
Sustainability and Food Sufficiency
Almost all of our daily fare comes in on semitrucks on those ferries. Our grocery stores, apparently stocked to the gills, have only a three-day supply of food. If energy prices double again—as they have in the past decade—our transport-dependent pantry might get pretty bare. But what about all that rolling farmland? Some of those crops are for export off island. Some are to feed our animals. Not everyone who owns a farm, farms. What the owners do with their land is up to them, and many who can afford big spreads don’t need farming income. Then there is the wild card called climate change. Will the crops that grow well on Whidbey now grow well in the future? This year we had a late blooming summer and then months without rain. At the moment that’s a pity for the farmers but not for consumers. Our “local” suppliers are not from here. Grocers buy from whoever has a reliable supply—which could be Thailand or Chile or New Zealand. Only some Charles Addams ghoulish character would contemplate these uncertainties with delight. Most of us simply don’t want to contemplate these conditions at all. After all, what can we do about it? This for me is where the “extreme sport” comes in, the real life game of skillfully reshaping assumptions and choices in light of the most likely scenarios. I know that change can be rapid, unpredictable, thrilling, but not always pleasant. I like to get ahead of the curve and surf. And, knowing my destiny is inextricably linked to my community, I like to build arks, not just surfboards. Call the 10-mile diet prototyping arks.
Local Eating as a Way of Life
There is no special virtue in a 10-mile diet. Or a 50-mile or 100-mile diet. The miles are simply markers for something else: bringing our eating closer to home. Why? We have lost touch with “the hands that feed us” to our detriment, and this story is meant to show you what’s at the other end of the industrial food scale, to help you see that there are reasonable and heartening alternatives. Blessing the Hands That Feed Us, then, is not about pious restraint. It is not about sucking it up and making do. It’s a banquet of good stories and possible skillful interventions that can tilt us toward food sufficiency. I describe the hows and whys of my 10-mile diet experiment, what I discovered, what I loved, what I hated, what I missed, what I learned, and a level of body and soul satisfaction as a locavore I barely knew existed. It was only a month of that extreme, but they say new habits take twenty-one days to anchor, and so it was for me.
The 10-mile diet changed me. I blogged every day, diving into food issues, awakening sleeping-beauty skills of cooking and gardening and reengaging with an old passion for social change, sidelined while I recovered from cancer. Best of all, I finally landed somewhere on earth, in a real place with real soil and forests, a real community where I belong the way my skin belongs to me. I am part of life; not at a remove in self-sufficiency but connected in reciprocity, mutuality, and care.
Whidbey was a perfect place to run this experiment. In fact, if I lived across Puget Sound in Seattle, a 10-mile diet would have been far harder. Even with all the backyard gardens there, it’s mostly paved and built up. When I lived there, I always had a patch of lettuce and kale in the yard, but little about Seattle says, “Eat here,” so a 10-mile diet might not even have occurred to me. The point, though, isn’t for you to replicate what I did. I scouted out a possibility and documented it here because it points at a way out of our dependency on the centralized, industrial scale food system. As you will see, when you look at a broader definition of local food, we can all provision ourselves regionally—if we commit to personal and political change.
I begin Blessing the Hands That Feed Us by telling the story of who I was when I took up the 10-mile diet challenge, including the worldview that primed me to want to do it and the scramble to find the hands that grew the food that would feed me that month. You will meet Tricia, the market gardener who grew most of the food I ate, as well as other gardeners, farmers, and ranchers. Then you will follow, week by week, the ups and downs of my 10-mile month. After it’s over, I’ll evaluate the experiment, mine the gold. You will also join me on a hunt for answers to the question How dependent are we and do we need to be on the industrial food system to feed ourselves and the world? My tale ends with some key ideas about what weights we can put on the local side of the scale to give regional food systems a larger role in nourishing us all. I refer to these flourishing local food landscapes as “complementary food systems,” not supplanting the global supply chains but expanding consumer food choice. The goal, of course, is fair, affordable, accessible, healthy, delicious, and nourishing food for all. Who could disagree?
You will develop a new sense about feeding yourself, which I call “relational eating.” It is the shift from being a lone eater in the endless food courts of the industrial system, treating the hands that feed you like vending machines, to standing in the middle of your food system, with nourishment all around in the gardens, fields, farms, forests, and waters of your region. You are in relationship with these ever-widening circles of food, from daily habits to windowsill sprouts to backyard vegetable plots to neighborhood farm stands and gardens to the stores, CSA (community supported agriculture) membership farms, farmers’ markets, and more in your community, your regional food sheds, and beyond. I make no effort to be definitive, exhaustive, or authoritative. If I waited for that, I’d never give you my mostly baked notions for your investigation. Also, local food is a passion and practice in rapid cultural ascendancy. A book cannot contain all there is to know as the field is changing daily. I’m sure that people in the know will challenge or correct me and that many of my readers have their own stories to tell and expertise to share. Being part of a rising tide of knowledge in the making is part of what makes local food so delicious.
We’re in this together.
Reprinted with permission from Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth by Vicki Robin and published by Viking, 2014.