Author Vicki Robin at Powells in Portland Oregon Author and activist Vicki Robin has helped people around the world change their relationships with money, and now she wants to do the same for food. Robin spoke about her new book, Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth last Friday, January 10 at Powell’s City of Books in Portland.

Robin is well known for co-authoring, with the late Joe Dominguez, Your Money or Your Life. First published in 1992, the book became a New York Times bestseller and was translated into 11 languages. Your Money or Your Life advocated for a more conscious and more frugal lifestyle that valued time and relationships above accumulation of objects and the trap of a high income, high consumption lifestyle. I’ve read that book at least five times and have lived my life by it for most of my adult life.

I’ve not read the new book yet, but I wanted to share some of Robin’s story.

Another book about local foods?

The local food movement has gained a lot of traction in the last 10 years, and I’ve read titles by Michael Pollan and Gary Nabhan on food related topics, so I’m pretty familiar with the concept (and I’d venture to say Portland is a hub of local foods, with CSAs, farmers markets and local foods and drinks offered at seemingly every turn). What I found most interesting and relate-able about Robin’s story was the local foods tie-in to her personal transformation and identity.

Transformation of an activist

While Your Money or Your Life was hugely successful, it did not have the impact Robins wanted to see. At the turn of the millennium, all data on consumption showed things had gotten worse, not better. People were still buying too much and wasting too much. As an activist who had invested deeply in the messages of the book, and she found the direction disheartening.

“I really believed that in 10 years time, we were going to change the world,” Robin said. “When the result that I hoped for did not come, my hope flattened.”

On top of that, Robin was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. She used her illness and recovery as a time of reflection and re-evaluation. “I could feel my tiredness, my cynicism and despair,” she said. The situation caused her to take a step back and fostered a sense of humility and introspection. The result was “surrender” and letting go of undone work associated with Your Money or Your Life.

“I had developed such a persona as an activist that to care for my body I had to resign from that persona,” Robin said. “I had to allow another life that hadn’t been allowed to live in my body to grow.”

“The way I approach changes is I run experiments. I try to stretch enough that I learn something, but not so much that I despair,” Robin said. In this new state of mind, Robin started to develop a new view. A personal look at sustainable food seemed a natural fit.

Trying out the 10 mile diet

So she set out to write a new book based on her one-month experiment in eating primarily from a 10 mile radius from her home on Whidbey Island in Washington state. She made exceptions (caffeine, olive oil, salt and seasoning) but otherwise ate the local produce and meat grown around her. It was a learning process, and over the course of the month Robin had to confront and make peace with herself on topics such as the cost of eating local:

“Five pounds of chicken for $25. Anybody who knows my work knows I’m very frugal. I like to figure out how to get things cheap. But I was standing there facing the person who had bought the chicks, housed them, fenced them in, protected them from predators, fed them, watered them, argued with a teenage daughter that she had to go out and do the chores. All of that and then come eight weeks, slaughter them, pluck them, gut them, wash them and package them, and that was what I was receiving in my hands from the person who was raising that animal,” Robin said. “And I realized that chicken is worth $35. The problem is not that local food is expensive, and that’s one of the critiques of it, the problem is that industrial food is unnaturally cheap.”

Robin went on:

“We spend the smallest percent of our budget of any country on our food. We spend on average 8 to 10 percent of our budgets on food. When I was a girl, I was taught that 25 percent of our budget would be food. That’s what the Europeans spend. Frugal girl figured out that when I eat half as much, I spend half as much. Funny thing is, it tastes better, and it would fill me up, so I could eat less.”

Relational eating

Through the 10 mile diet process, Robin learned about the many relationships between food production and consumption, and the value of the human and natural communities that bring us sustenance.

“I became a relational eater in a living system, where my friends were growing my food and eating became an act of belonging. I made myself part of a place because I was in exchange with the farmers and I actually started caring a lot more about things that were visible to me, like soil.

“I didn’t mean to go through transformation; it was just doing an experiment,” she said. “But it changed, me this process of investing myself in my community.”

Not revolutionary, but valuable

I love to read and hear stories of personal transformation. It’s core to human experience, and someone with Robin’s gift of storytelling is right to get it out before the masses. Based on what I heard, and acknowledging I haven’t read the book yet, I’d say that I’d expect it to be a good read, even if it won’t start a revolution. It’s just one more element adding weight to a movement that seems to be gaining momentum among at least a certain subset of the US population.

What remains to be seen is whether local, non-industrialized food sources, which Robin tells us amounts to only 5 percent of current production, can go mainstream. Certainly US food policy, large business concerns and consumer price expectations will influence the direction of food production in the future. Awareness is key to making change, and Blessing the Hands that Feed You will make waves.