The Premise of Local Eating with Author Vicki Robin

March 24, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good and we’re so excited to have with us today Vicki Robin. She’s the author of the upcoming book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us. She’s been called the prophet of consumption downsizers. Welcome to Green is Good, Vicki Robin. VICKI ROBIN: It’s nice to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Vicki, before we get into talking about your upcoming book and everything you’re doing, can you talk a little bit about how did you get that title from The New York Times, ‘prophet of consumption downsizers’? VICKI ROBIN: Yeah, well I want to say that it’s not just an upcoming book. It’s actually a book that’s now for sale. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay. VICKI ROBIN: It came out last month and it’s called Blessing the Hands that Feed Us and how I got that title was that I’m the co-author of a book called Your Money or Your Life, which was and still is an international bestseller, even 22 years later. It’s amazing and so I worked for a decade in the ’90s believing that we could stop the runaway train of overconsumption in North America, that we could actually gird our loins and pull in our consumption because I could see that overconsumption in North America was the major driver of spreading this ethic of consumerism around the world and driving us into overshoot so I did everything in my power to communicate a message that there is such a thing as an enough point. There is having enough and then you have more than enough. More than enough means the things that you have invested money and time in that you don’t use that clog your garage and your closets that actually cost you money because you bought them on credit, that is stuff that’s clutter in your life and it is not the reward of you working hard. It is the driver of you going back to work and working hard for the rest of your life so I really try to communicate to people that there is such a thing as sufficiency and, you know, it was a New York Times bestseller. It was a Businessweek bestseller for more than five years and that’s what made me a prophet and now in a way, I’ve shifted my attention. I’m still into sustainable consumption but I’ve shifted my attention from money to food. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And Blessing the Hands that Feed Us, is that natural evolution then from the money to the food issue? VICKI ROBIN: Yes, it is and because money is more impersonal and what we say in Your Money, Your Life is that money is an abstraction that gets its value only because people are willing to take in exchange. We deify it. We think it’s like eternal, that it actually has value. It’s pieces of paper and metal so we invest ourselves in making money worth something because we invest something that’s real, which is our lives, in something that’s unreal, which is money, which weaves us into a corporate industrial system that really does not have, our bottom line is not their bottom line, really. But food is primary consumption. Food comes, not from some abstraction. It comes from the earth so this work is really talking about our relationship with food and the hands that feed us, our relationship with the system that feeds us so that we can actually wean ourselves from the corporate industrial food system. Food is a commodity that is traded on the stock exchange, which means that it’s out of our control and you can do the whole narrative about Monsanto and vertical integration and concentration of ownership. You can do all that narrative but where I’m paying attention is how can we the eaters, in our own lives, start to reclaim our right and power to feed ourselves intelligently, which means knowing where our food comes from, knowing where it’s grown, being able to grow some of our own, being able to work with natural ingredients and not just have to have packaged food, how do we do all of that? So that is where my attention has gone, from secondary consumption to primary consumption. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we have Vicki Robin on with us today. She just wrote the book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us and to learn more about Vicki and also to buy her books, both books, you can go to www.vickirobin.com. You recently did a TED Talk on relational eating. Can you share a little bit about what’s the premise of relational eating? VICKI ROBIN: Yeah. Really, we are largely disconnected eaters and even people who have tried every diet in the world, from ethical diets, whether it’s vegetarianism to veganism, it’s a little bit like money. We’re believing experts on what we should put in our body and the latest and greatest thing that Doctor Oz says is sort of what zips through the culture and so you read somebody who says you should be a vegan, you should never eat meat. It’s unethically produced and it’s bad for you every which way from Sunday and then you read the Weston A. Price people and they say no, you should eat meat and butter and animal fat, that’s the natural diet for the human and so what does the eater do? The eater is completely out of touch with the natural capacity of their body to know what it needs. I was just thinking this morning that there’s this phrase, ‘eat like a horse’. We don’t eat like a horse because a horse will go to a salt lick and get salt when the body needs salt and will stop eating salt when the body doesn’t need salt anymore but we’re out of touch. We’re out of touch, we’re out of relationship with our own body intelligence about what kinds of food our body needs at different times of the day, different times of the year, different health conditions. You might find yourself craving bananas. You might think that’s a tropic fruit and I shouldn’t eat it, that’s fattening but your body is asking for potassium so you don’t even have to know this if you have a relationship with your own capacity to taste food, your own appetite. And relational eating is your capacity to cook, your household food system. It’s your herbs on your windowsill or kale on your deck, your capacity to understand herbs, spices, sugar, salt, and fat, acid, and lemons and all that does in transforming whole foods that sit on your counter into delicious meals. We really have lost that one. Recipes are great but eventually, food intelligence is your capacity to have a direct relationship with these things that you can eat and also, to understand that there are thousands of varieties of edibles in this world and we’re down to about 60 different foods that show up in our supermarket so we can’t go out into nature, not just foraging, but we don’t really even remember our patronage as a species is like food all around. We live in food. We are food. We have a capacity to find food. All of this is missing now for us and then the relational part is if you’re not going to dig in the dirt, if you’re not going to cook, then it’s your relationship with the hands that feed you, which are the chefs that use the whole foods and local ingredients and it’s the farmers who grow your food and once you’re out at that level of relational eating, relational eating actually does become being an activist because you start to understand how far our food system is from that wholesome midscale possibility of relational eating and you start to want to make change at that level so all of these are what I include in the term relational eating versus disconnected, anywhere, any way, anytime eating in the vast food courts of the world, whether it’s healthy food courts or junk food courts. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If relational eating is the macro, then let’s look at the micro, your premise of local eating and local food. Can you share what you believe is now the evolution of local food and eating not just being a market for hippies and yuppies anymore but we should all be engaging in local foods and local eating. VICKI ROBIN: Yeah, we all can do that. We can adopt just one vegetable that grows in our region. We can seek out locally produced food in our supermarkets, and there’s not much but we can start to ask for it, so we can be intelligent local shoppers even a little bit growers so everyone can do that and we can also realize that pricing distorts our perspective. First of all, we spend the lowest percentage of our budget on food of any country in the world. In other words, we have an expectation of food as being plentiful and cheap and so when food is a little bit more expensive, we don’t read that as maybe better food for us. We read that as too expensive, I’m going to go buy the other stuff. I do the whole analysis in Blessing the Hands that Feed Us of the fast food burger and the cost of a fast food burger versus a local food burger and when you factor in the time to drive to the fast food joint and you factor in the actual amount of meat on the burger and you factor in that if you bought at a higher price well grown, grass fed, grass finished or green finished, locally grown, you could see the cow that you’re going to eat burger, you could actually make yourself a quarter pounder at home and pay yourself for the driving time and the waiting time and the long line and actually come out equal and right now, in my town, we have a baker who’s moved into the town and she’s bought a grain mill so she is actually grinding local grain and making a totally local loaf of bread. You frequent the restaurants that feature local food. You go to the stores that feature local food and you start to learn how to work with ingredients so that fast food no longer appeals to you even though they’ve figured out our taste buds, so that you no longer have a taste for it, either financially or physiologically. JOHN SHEGERIAN: One of your premises is about reconnecting with ourselves and our own vitality and our place of belonging here on this planet. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by active belonging in perspective to both local food and Blessing the Hands that Feed Us? VICKI ROBIN: Yeah. Thanks for that question. The way I got into this was I became aware of the unsustainability of our food system and I live on an island so that was particularly poignant for me because if the ferries don’t run, we don’t eat and we were a food producing island 100 years ago. There was plentiful food. A hundred years ago, we won the prize of growing the most tonnage of wheat per acre so it’s a fertile place and we have outsourced our eating so I decided to do an experiment. I called it a ten mile diet and I ate within ten miles of my home for a month just to see what would happen and to test the sturdiness of our food system and that really taught me everything I know. It opened the door to everything I’m interested in now about food. What was the exact question? JOHN SHEGERIAN: About active belonging with regards to local food. VICKI ROBIN: What happened was, my search for the sources of food, meat and cheese and vegetables, all of that, took me out to my farmers and I had a little route. I have an electric bicycle and I had a little route where I went around and I got my eggs and I got my cheese and I got my meat and I got my vegetables and I got my fruit and every act was a conversation and I had a sense that I had never lived anywhere because I had never eaten from anywhere. I had never committed myself to a place on the planet and trying to eat in my community made me realize that I am a living creature in a living world and I utterly depend on the abundance, prosperity, plenty of the food system here if I commit to here and so it is my natural desire, if I am my food system, it’s my natural desire to have that be a healthy and plentiful system, which sort of got me into this, the way you act with your family, which is you would do anything for your family because your family is this source of belonging. Well, this became my source of belonging because I live here. It was such a simpler idea but it made me realize how disconnected we all are from our sources of nourishment so that’s when I came to realize that eating is an act of belonging. It expresses your relationship with your place and we’re the only animal that voluntarily eats from beyond what’s in front of them. Every animal is adapted to local eating but we have the privilege of not doing that and I’m not saying to be an extremist. Most people have access to maybe five or ten percent of their food produced within 100 miles. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s pause there and talk about food that’s available to us. Now you have the tremendous opportunity and foresight to have an electric bike and do your rounds and pick up all the local great food that’s close by to you. A lot of people have to rely on supermarkets. Why is part of your thesis on localness and a sense of belonging also partially related to your belief that we have an over-reliance on supermarkets? Can you explain why you feel we have an over-reliance on supermarkets? VICKI ROBIN: Nothing wrong with supermarkets. I love supermarkets. That’s where I get most of my food but supermarkets are currently constituted as the endpoint of an industrial system. It’s shelf space. It’s competitive for shelf space and large scale processors and producers gain shelf space and part of why they gain shelf space is they can guarantee the grocer an unlimited supply of whatever the product is that they- because you know, the grocery store has to have the appearance of everything is always full at all times or else you’ll go to another grocery store so our expectation is that the grocery store has everything at every hour and in order for the grocery store to accomplish that, their relationships are with the other distributors. Also, it’s very hard for them to have 50 accounts of 50 different growers so that’s what you have in a grocery store, which is why we are very lucky at this point to have the whole market of direct sales, which is the community supported agriculture, the food boxes delivered to your door. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Farmers markets now have come into vogue across America, right? VICKI ROBIN: Yeah and you know, where you are, in New York City, you have fantastic Union Square. You have farmers markets. These trucks are coming in. You have the Hudson Valley and New Jersey. You have Eastern Long Island. If you go out 100 miles and draw a circle, there is plentiful food, not enough for every New Yorker by a long shot but for people who want it, there’s plentiful food and I just want to point out again that as we learn to cook simple things like grains and beans and oatmeal, as we learn to cook simple whole foods in a way that’s delicious, we’re actually going to cut our food budget. For example, you could cook organic grains in your rice cooker for less time and money than you can cook a pilaf that’s in a box, where you cook the rice and there’s this little packet of seasoning, which is really just oregano and basil and some salt and pepper and maybe some turmeric to make it look yellow. You figure some of these things out and that pilaf takes you more time and attention than your rice cooker. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. You’re right. VICKI ROBIN: And so this is why you have to see it in a whole system way, where you start to understand that if you increase your competency as a cook, you locate wherever to are. Me, I’m on an island. Some people are in cities but you start to locate your 10 or 100 mile food and you start to commit yourself at least to one grower and buying at least one food from that grower. Then you start to integrate yourself into a very different system and that’s what I’m hoping people will do and for me, I’m a whole systems thinker and an activist so I go from discovering something for my own health and happiness and taking a look at how everybody could have it and so not everybody is going to follow the path that I have but if you want to, you can go to Blessing the Hands Facebook page and follow me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s perfect. Vicki, thank you for your time today. Our listeners out there can go to vickirobin.com. You can also go to Amazon’s website and buy her great book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us or on her website, watch her great TED Talk. Vicki Robin, your words are inspiring to all of us, which makes you truly living proof that green is good.