The Meaning of Living Sustainably: A Reflection on Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life”

By Maggie Rogers

I recognize that I usually begin to read a book with a bias. Books often come to me either recommended or complained about. The context in which I find a book can lead me to assumptions about it, too, so it’s very hard to read without prejudice. In the case of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” I was pleasantly surprised to have my preconceptions proven wrong. I wrongly assumed it fell into the category of farm-lit that describes an affluent city slicker’s transition to be a country farmer, without recognizing many of the harsh realities the majority of real farmers face, with an arrogant anyone can and everyone should do this tone. “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” is not that story at all. It’s a story about family, and a family trying their best to live a good life according to their values.

animal vegetable miracle
The Kingsolver-Hopp Family

“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” follows the Kingsolver-Hopp family as they attempt to eat entirely locally for one year. They grow most of their own produce and poultry on their small Virginia farm, and get meat, dairy, and grain from neighbors and farmers markets. Kingsolver chronicles how they manage and how different members of the family cope with the challenges of producing most of their own food. Her daughter Camille contributes recipes and teenage perspective.

Kingsolver acknowledges there are a lot of groceries that supplement a local diet that she can’t get locally so she buys the most sustainable and ethical choice she can. There is no point in shaming people for buying cinnamon from Africa to mix with their home grown pumpkin, or sugar from Brazil for cookies. I feel like Kingsolver recognizes that even in her family’s year of local food, there isn’t always a right answer. Sustainability is not about absolutes. There is no definitive checklist of things to do and not do. There are trade-offs and sliding scales, and a lot of personal choice about what you can and can’t live without. It’s a story about resilience and making due, not about self-discipline and doing without.

One of the themes I appreciated the most was Kingsolver’s gratitude and respect for her community. She says “The point of being dedicated locavores for some prescribed length of time, I now understand, is to internalize a trust in one’s own foodshed” (343). This trust is shown in her accounts of conversations with friends and neighbors, and her desire to not only eat locally, but do so in a way that supports and uplifts the food producers in her own community. I now understand that eating locally and sustainably requires a lot of social capital, and as I have learned in studying community health, social capital has many implications for better health and wellbeing on its own.

The Kingsolver-Hopp family approached producing most of their own food not as trying to be self-sufficient, but as an increased trust and reliance on their community. Personally, I very much in favor of this type of community based way of life than the self-reliant life off the grid stereotype of a sustainable life. People are meant to live in community, and strengthening community ties with sustainable food systems can only enhance the health and happiness of all the systems that relate to it.

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