"Overeating is as American as apple pie."I recently wrote a short essay on how I feel like I have no culture as an American. The main point I was trying to make was that as Americans, read mutts, we don't have very many culturally inherited traditions; this seems especially true regarding food traditions. (There are a few food traditions though, as Vicki Robin pointed out in Blessing the Hand That Feeds Us.) America is such a materialistic/capitalistic place that all of our traditions seem to be based on the idea that we need more. Our citizens want bigger portions, more calories for their dollar, more healthy foods (stemming from our incessant need to follow the most up-to-date theory on nutrition), more exotic foods shipped from around the world. In the past two centuries our eating practices have changed completely from our ancestors, which I would argue is not necessarily a good development. (After all, there is something to be said for the food traditions of other cultures that have been passed down through the centuries and kept their populations healthy; i.e. Mediterranean's diet, high-fat French cuisine, etc.)
Recently, there has been a shift back towards the eating practices of our ancestors. A new generation of eaters is developing; those who look at what we eat, where it comes from, and how it impacts our lives and the health of the Earth. We've found that eating locally is more sustainable, more nutritious than succumbing to the global marketplace. Organic food is becoming more and more popular because we are finding the detrimental effects on the environment are greatly decreased. People are flocking to farmer's markets and re-creating the lost relationships between what goes on their plate and the person who produced that food for them.
In Blessing the Hand That Feeds Us, Vicki Robin takes us along her journey of eating only local food for an entire month, an experiment she calls the 10-mile diet. For this one-month period, She was challenged to prepare all of her food from her friend Tricia Beckner's farm; going "meatless, fatless, and sugarless for thirty days". Deciding this was too much to ask, Ms. Robin changes the challenge to eating food grown, raised, and produced within ten miles of her home "as the crow flies". Throughout the book, she takes us through her preparations the months leading up to this one-month challenge and the surprising sources of food she finds in the area.
She discovers the many challenges that local producers face which cause local food to be more expensive, or illegal to sell to the public. For example, raw milk was illegal to sell for human consumption at the time the book was written. (I cannot wait to pick up some raw milk from CLG on Friday to make some fresh mozzarella!) She learned about the governmental subsidies that industrial farms receive to keep the prices of their products low. About the unfair pricing farms have to pay, no matter their size, in order to sell cheese or milk, or to be certified organic. She gets around these challenges by illegally purchasing raw milk and fresh goat cheese from locals in a "black market" for local food; it's all about who you know and how much trust develops between you and the producer. She laments our loss of confidence in "our own capacity as both animals and as citizens to make our own choices about something so basic as food". There is something disturbing about having to rely on FDA regulations to tell us what is or is not healthy (purple carrots are just as tasty as orange!).
Ms. Robin successfully completes her month of eating only locally, with four small exceptions: oil, limes, a handful of Indian spices and salt, and caffeine. She later found that these "exotics" correspond with the elements used by Rebecca Kate, former cook for the Commonwealth Cancer Help Program, to balance the taste of food for people who have trouble keeping food down. These elements, known as FASS (fat, acid, salty and sweet), seem to be needs in a human diet.
"A growing sense of not just being in but belonging to my community brought me warm, fuzzy comfort."
The most beautiful revelations came out of her month of eating only local. Ms. Robin becomes an integrated part of the community that she has lived in for years. She develops a relationship with the farmer's who produce her meat, milk, cheese, and vegetables. She learns what goes into the raising of a local organic chicken; why it costs $5/pound versus the industrial chickens she's used to. She gains a deeper appreciation of the animal itself and learns to reduce the amount of protein she has in a meal so that paying more per pound doesn't raise her grocery budget.
Relational eating, is the term she uses throughout the book: eating local ingredients, cooked with love, and eaten with awareness in the company of friends. Ms. Robin examines her independent lifestyle, one that many Americans have adopted, and finds that she is more content with a relational lifestyle. One where her connections to the people who grow her food make that food better before it even touches her plate. One where sharing a meal cooked in one's own home becomes a symbol of the connectedness that exists, albeit behind a smokescreen, between you, the consumer, and the hands that touched the food you will consume (growers, pickers, transporters, marketers, etc.).
In case you were wondering, she was able to create enough variety of dishes to not become bored with the same vegetables every week. Despite cutting down on the amount of meat she ate with a meal, she did not feel deprived (she says 3oz is just as satisfying as 6-8oz, maybe even more so). She went on to another experiment with local eating in February, gathering 50% of her food from within 50 miles "as the crow flies". She describes her preparations for this month throughout the winter: canning chicken, freezing local beef, and connecting with more local farmers. It was much easier to complete her second month of limited eating. (I have to say, I would miss chocolate every four weeks...)
Since this experiment, Ms. Robin, her friends and neighbors, and the farmers she connected with have worked towards making Whidbey Island able to support itself internally year-round. They have come a long way; multiplying CSAs, conducting meetings to discuss food goals and steps to reach them, connecting the food bank with local farmers, starting a micro-loan business (which helps out new farmers), and so much more. Perhaps in the near future they will be able to self-sustain Whidbey Island, even if there is not a dire need in the present.
Bringing this back to my own community, I can see so many parallels. Conway Locally Grown grows larger every year, with new customers and consequently new producers. (There is a correlation between customer growth percentage and the addition of farmers, growers, and producers to the market.) They have a micro-loan system, paid for by a portion of the membership fees customers pay every year. I do feel more connected to Conway because of my connection with the farmers at CLG. I often find myself asking one of the growers questions about regulations in Arkansas regarding Farmers' Markets, backyard chickens, problems with growing something in my own garden, etc. Looking at the huge selection of produce, meats, baked goods, and even coffee, I know that I could easily sustain myself on an all-local diet; especially if you add the variety of products offered at the Little Rock Farmers' Market to the mix. (I visited this market on Saturday and was pleased to see Carpenter's produce thriving as usual, especially since I've recently worked with Abraham Carpenter in my AmeriCorps position.)
For someone like myself, who has been connected with the local food market since 2011, it's so easy to see the connections between my food, it's producers, myself and the health of the earth. For many, who may be caught in the system of fast food, processed food, food without a face, it seems it would be more difficult to understand the connections that food can create; especially if you have never learned how to cook. I want to challenge you to set goals for yourself to eat completely local at least one meal a week. (There is a farmers' market in downtown Conway right next to The Patio Cafe on Front St. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays now: read about it here). Then, you can progress further to three meals or more per week.
Comment below and let me know how it goes! (If you need ideas for what to make out of your local foods, check out www.foodgawker.com).
I wanted to share some of my favorite quotes from the book:
"We all have a food history and food psychology and food values. We each have a relationship with food that isn't necessarily right or wrong, good or bad, but simply part of the narrative of our lives. This history steers our behavior no matter what high-minded course we set ourselves on."
"When you lose trust in yourself to know what is good for you and in your body as a self-healing, self-regulating miracle, you become the patsy for every quack cure and ersatz diet."
"One of the great wonders of the world is that our bodies can transform just about anything that isn't poison into food for us - day in and day out. "
"The creepy part is when you realize how deeply you depend on one another - be it a berry bush or a mate - you know your vulnerability to loss. You realize that control is ultimately an illusion. We can delay death but we have not conquered it. We can build levees but we cannot control the vehemence of storms. We can, as farmers know, plant and tend and water and watch, but we only work with nature, not command it. Especially now, as we watch the skies and wonder if the storms sweeping in again and again are harbingers of climate change or just - as we hope - El Niño or La Niña."
"When you have no relationship with food other than the megamart, you seem well supplied but are helpless without that store."
"What is relational eating - the local food movement - is a precursor of a new era of belonging, when once again homeland security will mean neighbors, not an increasing dependency on a militaristic state? What if turning our attention to "here-ing" through bringing our eating closer to home is not just a good way to eat but also a wise way to age? Perhaps a culture of permanence provides more true freedom than a culture of transience."