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Relational Foodsheds?

January 7 my new book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us, will be released and I will start a travel and speaking marathon.To paraphrase, Samuel Johnson, the prospect of a 20-city book tour focuses the mind wonderfully. Amidst the clutter of 100,000 words in this new book, what really am I saying? That I can say in a half an hour at 20 bookstores West of the Rockes. I’ve boiled it down to 3 things: relational eating, complementary food systems and resilience, finding sources of hope in times of trouble.

Relational eating is the personal, spiritual, embodied, earthy self-as-eater part.

Community food systems, or as I say in my new book, complementary food systems, is the social change part (with resilience the necessary capacity to engage). Restoring the abundance, prosperity and sufficiency of our regional foodsheds.

The foundation of my book was a 10-mile diet experiment in September 2010. It shifted me from an anywhere eater in an industrial system to a relational eater in a living system. I discovered belonging and community as well as many ways to cook a turnip or kale. It also showed me the fragility of that industrial system.

When you do a 10 or 100 or locavore diet, you realize how our current food system is like a stage set for the Okay Corral. Behind those false fronts is a machinery of illusion. Seeing this vividly during my 10-mile month I began to ask why, and what we could do about our utter vulnerability to the Matrix, how we could restore regional food and farming to the point that perhaps even 50% of our nutrition would come from within a few hundred miles of our homes.

For my book tour and beyond I want to invite people into relational eating fully. Belonging through eating. Yet for me now this is just the vestibule of a mansion of relational food with many rooms. I am now riveted by the challenged of restoring our regional food systems. I want to have the security, the sovereignty, the soul-food-ity of knowing I can rely on my local suppliers – and I want the same for them: that they can make a living producing food. Somehow. I know that conversation will only light up a few food geeks like me. Now. But I’m asking myself….

How can I make restoring our foodsheds as yummy as a morning at the farmer’s market? How can I invite the same wow of a local tomato when I pull back the curtain and reveal the challenges our farmers face because of a system far out of balance?

Sustainability is an extreme sport. It is meant to be lived, not just discussed. Step one of answering the thriving community food system question is to run a personal experiment. At least, that’s how I dig in. Literally. Steps two and beyond are the research and writing that reveal to others that being food system change makers is ripe-tomato yummy.

In May of 2011 I co-hosted a Whidbey Island multi-stakeholder visioning and backcasting day, Food 2020, with over 50 farmers, non-profit leaders, grocers, distributors and purchasing agents in the room. I document that in my new book.

In May of 2013, Thais Corral of SINAL, a center for resilience outside of Rio, and I hosted the first Local Food Lab in Brazil. For 3 days entrepreneurs, government officials, social creatives ate 30-mile food (lots of jack fruit plus tropical fruits and vegetables and even coffee). We learned the elements of a food system, how the system was working – or not – currently, what innovations were already running and then engaged in a collaborative coaching day where people refined their own innovations. It being Brazil, we also laughed, danced, sang and played in a nearby waterfall.

Inspired by this I'm now cooking... so to speak... on some cool projects on my island. Local investing in various community food system businesses. Doing a Local Food Lab here. Yet it occurred to me that maybe I don't just need guts and chutzpah to do this step. I can’t just run a personal “extreme sport.” I need to know more to do community foodshed restoration well – perhaps a masters? And I need a team.

Exploring a masters (even as I inwardly protest that I have neither the time nor money for that) I stumbled on a book, Rebuilding the Foodshed by Philip Ackerman-Leist. And voilà! He teaches at Green Mountain College that offers one of the few specific, precise masters in food systems.

Next step: read Philip's book. (Yes, Vicki, you need to dig in to what people already know and learn, learn, learn – not just do, do, do).

So perhaps the next book after I’ve “sold” people hungry for change on relational eating, is one on regional eating as an entry point to building together the thriving community food systems we urgently need for community resilience.

Call it the 500-mile diet for fun (and because the USDA defines “local” as 400 miles), but it's more about foodshed than miles. Could I live - with a few exotics - within the bounty provided by my region? The tribes here were largely hunter-gatherer - until the westerners arrived - because they didn't need much agriculture to survive. It’s not like I’m trying to do this in the desert, though Gary Nabhan, author of Coming Home to Eat, did just that in the Southwest. I'm doing in a land of milk and honey - and meat, veggies, fruits, legumes, grains and more.

To paraphrase another homily, “It takes a foodshed to feed a community – and a community to rebuild a foodshed.” This is not an experiment to run alone.

This, then, Is the other part of the work. I want to do it together with 50 people. Perhaps we commit to 50% within 500 miles. We would develop a shared asset map of farms, foods, farmstands, markets, ranchers, agencies, ngos and more – the elements of our regional food system. We would have a shared blog where we all post stories as I did with my 10-mile diet. We would engage in quarterly Local Food Labs to eat, map, identify gaps and opportunities, co-coach. We’d research and share our findings so that everyone shares the knowledge base. We’d debate. Individuals would run personal projects as well – businesses, organizations, dinner clubs. And who knows, some institution might give us all masters. Why not? Five hundred miles is a BIG territory. Massage it a bit and it would be the Cascadia Bioregion, the complete watershed of the Columbia River. Maybe it would be the Washington diet (about 200 miles). As collaborators, we’d draw our boundaries and live within them.

Yes, I need to put my mouth where my mouth is – one more time!. I need action as well as research to stand on firm "foodshed restoration" ground. Yes, 50 people. 50%. 500 miles. 4 seasons. Already I'm balking. No no no, I don't want to be that conscious for that long! You know the whine. But it has a ring. And besides a Masters, this might be my next book.

Relational eating 202. Relational regional foodsheds. And this is indeed the theme of all my work. Living well, together, within the means of the earth. You heard it here first, folks. Stay tuned.

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