Blessing the Hands That Feed Us – Part 2

Vicki Robin

I went to see Vicki Robin at Copperfield’s Bookstore in San Rafael. There were 12-15 people there who braved the mid-January near 70 degree temperature and clear skies – actually she was surprised there were so many people there, why weren’t we at the beach?

She didn’t have time to read from the book, Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us about Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth. She spent the hour talking about her experience and how it woke her up to the issues related to our modern industrial food system.

Her book chronicles her 10-mile diet challenge. Starting September 1, 2010 she spent a month eating only what she could get (with some minor exceptions – caffeine (tea), oil, salt and lemon) within a 10 mile radius of her home on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. That meant a month without, among other things, grains, beans and nuts.

Robin talked about the inventions that started us on the path to an industrial food system – the railroads, refrigeration, fertilizer made from nitrates. She talked a bit about the dark side of industrial food, like food-related illnesses and chronic diseases, and how it has changed us as a society. So many people have lost the skill of cooking for themselves and once they get hooked on fast food and take-out they have no reason to relearn to cook. She talked to a family in New York City where the children know it’s dinner time when the doorbell rings. Or cities where they are building apartments w/out kitchens.

The industrialization of food didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be replaced quickly. In fact, it may not be able to be replaced, totally, by a local food system. She does believe that local food will continue to become more popular and accepted, the way alternative medicine and organic food did over time.

Before industrialization, people depended on the vitality of their place for their “diet” – what and how they ate. Everything was local and you made do with what you had. Can we go back to that? Can we challenge communities to keep local businesses? See local food as a growth industry? Challenge our personal notions of how we spend our time, money?

In the book she makes the case that eating fresh is usually cheaper that buying fast food or a box of Hamburger Helper or other “prepared foods.” A box of rice pilaf mix is nothing more than rice and some spices that you then have to cook. Making your own rice and adding your own spices and vegetables will cost less and be a healthier meal.

Skimming through the book, I found this quote. Robin was looking at the bounty in the box of food left for her by the farmer who would supply the majority of her vegetables during her 10-mile diet month.

The bond of love and vulnerability between feeder and eater began with that box of food. Later I came to realize how this experiment was as much about the love as about the food, the knitting together of producer and consumer into the fabric of community. Indeed, one of the oddities, once you think of it, of our modern industrial system is this lack of relationship. I was headed, unknowingly, into relational eating.

Relational eating meant getting to know her community and the abundance that was there. It also meant paying $25 for a chicken. When the person who sold it to her described the process of getting that chicken raised, fed, and prepared to sell she understood that it was worth the money. Her other question was, how does the industrial food system sell the same chicken for so little?

Finally, Robin believes that we need to “De-school our thoughts about food, cooking, local vs industrial” and work to make local food a viable alternative to the industrial food system.

Personally, I want to thank Copperfield’s and our other independent bookstore Book Passage for bringing wonderful authors and speakers to our area. These local stores are treasures.