… the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds. ― Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Since the day we landed on the East Coast of the U.S. and started our trek to the West Coast, we have been talking about food. We are not experts on food systems and industrial versus local food supplies but we have physically experienced a change after living abroad for two years.
In Italy in particular, we saw our food every day. We were very connected to those that grew it, caught it, raised it, and killed it. We knew the cheese cows from the dairy cows because of how the herders moved them. We knew that the sound of Luigi’s Vespa coming up the lane meant there were fresh clams for the linguine. We knew that in every town, we would have access to an outdoor market almost every day. Neighbors taught us how to make pancetta and scamorza cheese, and hunting and gathering made for eventful walks in the woods during wild boar and truffle season. We stopped reading labels and scrutinizing ingredients and we started to trust the food because of how it made us feel.
We lost weight eating many of the things we believed were unhealthy when we left such as grains, gelato, and pasta. We felt nourished and cleansed. We gave up a lot of variety for a few mouthwatering, in-season ingredients and that was quite an adjustment for us. Additives were virtually non-existent. Once we figured out how to negotiate with the butcher and the baker, we were eating better than we have in our lives for less money. It took more time but the rewards were indescribable. If I had not experienced the benefits, I probably wouldn’t believe in the possibility. Everyone talked about food with passion, especially the lunch lady at the public school my children attended in Italy. She would rattle off recipes as she tossed her fresh dough, stirred her risotto, and de-boned the fish of the day.
In our experience, fresh, local food was cheaper and more accessible in the places we lived in Europe than it is in the United States. The flip side is that if you want to buy packaged or fast food in many parts of Europe, it is much more expensive than it is in the USA. There were winter months when the entire produce section of Italian supermarkets consisted of greens – unidentifiable greens. It was a family project to photograph the greens, identify, research, prepare, and finally taste what local and seasonal really means.
During our life in the U.S., we made endless lists of exotic ingredients and practiced new recipes. It never dawned on us that we would not be able to find an ingredient we needed. In Italy, the seasonal ingredients drove the meals we prepared. It was not the most efficient way to get dinner on the table. It took time and intention and some days it was tiring but it never failed to fuel our bodies.
Shortly after our arrival back in the States, we noticed our systems were experiencing culture shock. We felt bloated, lethargic, and significantly different. We tried finding local, fresh food and had to work at getting it for a price that was sustainable with three children. We drove over 6,000 miles across the heart of this country and saw how industrial farming is shaping our modern landscape. We know Europe is much smaller geographically and we know many of the arguments for the direction the food system is going in the USA, but we simply wanted to feel better. Once we recognized and accepted the difference in price and accessibility between the U.S. and various places we lived in Europe, we knew we had to go looking for it. We were certain there were many committed individuals making a difference around every corner in this country but we didn’t know where they were located outside of the towns we grew up.
We decided to seek out people that were leaders in local, “relational” eating – something that didn’t seem to even need a label or a movement in our hometowns overseas.
Vicki Robin is one of those leaders and she has a challenge for all of us. My favorite quote from her Ted Talk was when she was speaking about her experiment eating within a 10-mile radius of her home. She said, “I felt vulnerable and eating became an act of belonging.” I don’t think there is a better way to capture in words how we shifted our perspective about food while living in Italy.
One of the most valuable things I learned from listening to Vicki and other leaders is that I need to stop comparing farm prices with big box store prices because they are not the same product. The differences are systemic, complex, and hard to see sometimes. According to the USDA, Americans spend less of their disposable income on food than most other countries in the world.
We once looked at food as a necessary intake. Now we see it as a passionate gathering together of things that take time and nurturing but sustain us for generations. It is teachers like Vicki that have inspired our family not to rail against the differences OR accept the current reality. We are all “eaters” and therefore we all have a role.
As we wander the globe we hope to learn more and more about how different foods nourish various cultures. We know how important it is we stay connected to our food and the people that grow it because real food builds trust and brings people together in meaningful ways. What we eat is a window into the very root of our connection to each other and a reflection of the power of our communities.