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Quality Over Quantity: Local Food & the Obesity Epidemic

When we sacrifice good food to have lots of food, it's a double loss. Can we use this time of thinner wallets to examine the volume of food we run through our bodies?

When Tricia Beckner asked me to eat only what she can produce on her CSA farm-ette for a month, just to see what happens, I was game. As you’ll see, we’ve widened the circle a little to include food produced 10 miles from my home on Whidbey Island, Wa., with exceptions made for 4 essentials: oil, salt (+5 other spices), caffeine, and lemons (until I can find local apple cider vinegar).

Grocery shelves, photo by Anthony AlbrightTwo news stories this morning, seemingly unrelated, mated in my mind and made a baby thought.

Story one: Because of the stalled economy and tight personal finances, people are grocery shopping at Walmart instead of Whole Foods. They just can’t afford organics.

Story two: 70 percent of people in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Far fewer think they are.

Okay. Is this 2+2=4 or what? We assume we have to keep up the volume of food so are willing to cheat on quality—never even questioning whether we might be eating too much.

We are overweight, in part, because we super-size ourselves. We eat when we are happy, sad, lonely, angry, bored, tired… and oh yes, hungry. As I’ve said in this blog, we eat for taste, for volume, for therapy, out of habit. Our food system and food supplies are so skewed by government policies and inequality of wealth that we get few signals from the stores, or even from prices, that there are food shortages elsewhere. There is always plenty at the grocery store—neatly lined up, inviting us to buy and eat. And to be honest, don’t we all love that?

We luxuriate in food in the U.S. (at least most of us do). It is so second nature that when money is tight, we don't eat less. Instead, we seek the experience of endless food at Walmart, that genius of distributing mountains of products for “everyday low prices.”

We luxuriate in food in the U.S. (at least most of us do). It is so second nature that when money is tight, we don't eat less.

This isn’t a screed against merchandisers. God bless the distributors. God bless the accountants who make sure the business end of food delivery works. God bless the produce people at all the markets on South Whidbey where I shop.

God bless us all. But still, why do we eat like there is no tomorrow, weighing ourselves down but keeping on going?

My experience with relational eating is showing me some things:

Despite my cravings and habits, food is nourishment brought to me not by a long supply chain but by my neighbors. It is personal. So I eat slowly and enjoy the camaraderie of it.

Food is also precious. I go out every morning to my small garden to toss slugs across the fence and pick a few green beans or zucchini or a carrot to supplement what Tricia gives me. If I stuff myself with green beans, I have blown off all that went into growing them.

Food is also really, really good. And local food—and this isn’t just locavore jive—tastes better. It is fresher, and the grassfed beef is tastier, and the corn is beyond belief good.

And food is bountiful but not endless. I especially realize that about five days after my last batch from Tricia.

My kingdom for a cracker, photo by Vicki RobinMy Kingdom for a Cracker!

After 10 days of eating within 10 miles, I was ready to do just about anything for food made from grains.

By today, I was getting a little thin of supply, but it was raining and Tricia asked if we could wait until tomorrow for her to pick. Sure, I said, mentally surveying my provisions with a slight panic rising, the old “Will I have enough?” anxiety.

I still had 5 small beets she gave me a week ago. A potato. Some positively lewd carrots. One onion. Plenty of garlic. Basil. Rosemary. I roasted them all tossed with some olive oil and salt, and it was a gourmet dinner. And I still have one egg and half an onion for breakfast. With kale the size of a baseball glove right out my door, puleeze, I am not going to starve.

Can we rewrite those news stories this way?

“As the recession deepens, Americans are realizing that belt tightening is accomplishing what they have been trying to do for years by dieting."

"‘We never even realized it was all that food that was making us fat,’ one woman said as she shopped the farmer’s market. ‘I’m spending the same for food, we’re just eating less. Henry and I just had our photo taken in our wedding clothes. Imagine that!’"

(Note: As someone who has packed on more pounds than I want to for years, I'm not dissing myself or others who struggle with weight. I am just wondering if we could use this time of thinner wallets to examine the volume of food we run through our bodies, and to wonder about it a bit.)


Vicki Robin is blogging for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, about her experiment with a 10-mile diet on Whidbey Island, Wa. The coauthor of Your Money or Your Life, Vicki teaches classes about frugal, creative, and self-sufficient living (see www.yourmoneyoryourlife.org). 

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