Part I: Ocean Robbins
In 1990, at age 16, Ocean Robbins was co-founder of YES!, which he directed for 20 years. He is co-host and CEO of the 75,000 member Food Revolution Network. Ocean has spoken in person to more than 200,000 people and facilitated more than 50 week-long gatherings for leaders from 65+ nations. He serves as an adjunct professor in the Peace Studies department at Chapman University. Ocean is author of Choices for Our Future and of The Power of Partnership, and has served as a board member for Friends of the Earth, EarthSave International, and many other organizations. He is a founding member of The Turning Tide Coalition, co-founder of the Leveraging Privilege for Social Change program, and founding co-convener of Leverage Alliance. Ocean is a recipient of the Freedom’s Flame Award, the national Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service by an Individual 35 Years Or Younger, and the Harman Wilkinson Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Social Sciences.
Ocean lives in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, with his beloved wife Michele, and their identical twin boys, River and Bodhi (born in 2001 with autism). Ocean, Michele, River and Bodhi live 100 yards from Ocean’s parents, Deo and John Robbins (author of the international bestseller Diet for a New America and founder of EarthSave). For more information about Ocean’s life and work, go to www.oceanrobbins.com.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. And guess what we’re going to be talking about today? That’s right; food, my favorite subject. And there are so many things, of course, that are connected to our food, our food choices, health, environment, and animals. We have a very, very, super special gust today who’s going to really, I think, bring it all into focus and give us some great inspiration to move forward.
Ocean Robbins is my guest. In 1990, at age 16, he was the co-founder of YES!, Youth For Environmental Sanity, which he directed for 20 years. He’s the co-host and CEO of the 75,000-member Food Revolution Network, which we will be talking about in a moment. Ocean has spoken in person to more than 200,000 people and facilitated more than 50 weeklong gatherings for leaders from more than 65 nations. He serves as an adjunct professor in the Peace Studies at Chapman University. He’s the author of Choices For Our Future and The Power of Partnership and has served as a board member for Friends of the Earth, Earth Save International, and many other organizations. He’s a founding member of the Turning Tide Coalition, co-founder of the Leveraging Privilege for Social Change Program, and founding co-convener of Leverage Alliance, and he’s the recipient of the Freedom Flame award, the National Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service by an Individual 35 years or younger, and the Harmon Wilkinson Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Social Sciences. Wow!
Thank you for joining me, Ocean. You are one amazing individual.
Ocean Robbins: Well, it’s my pleasure for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. Your story is pretty incredible and I just want people to understand how it all began because, to me, it’s a part obviously of what made you, but most people cannot grasp your beginnings in a simple log cabin.
Ocean Robbins: Well, I’ll even go back another generation to give you a little context. My grandfather founded Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Co., 31 flavors. And my dad, John Robbins, was groomed to one day join in the family company. He grew up with an ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool in the backyard and 31 flavors of ice cream in the freezer at all times. But he felt called in a different direction and he ended up walking away from any access to the family wealth and the chance to join in the family company to follow his own rocky road. So he moved with my mom to a little island off the coast of Canada, where they built a one-room log cabin, grew most of their own food, and lived on less that $500 a year, which was kind of a pendulum swing from a class perspective. So I was born in the middle of the woods to parents that were doing yoga and meditating for several hours a day and living very simply and calling their son Ocean; that’s me. And I grew up kind of far away from a lot of the world’s problems. I had clean air, clean water, and beautiful forest and time with my parents. But I grew up feeling rich because, even though I was monetarily poor, and that’s because of the love of my family. And when they got a little bit older we moved to California and my dad began work on a bestselling book called Diet for A new America. It came out in 1987 and it inspired millions of people to look at their food choices, to look at food as a chance to, not just look at our own health but actually impact the world around us. So I want to reach out and mobilize my generation around this important issue. When I was 16 I founded Youth Environmental Sanity, or YES! to help mobilize a new generation of young environmental leaders, with food as the central part of our environmental message. And then over the years that has evolved and today I’m the CEO of the Food Revolution Network, which I direct with my dad and our focus is on healthy, sustainable, humane, and delicious food for everybody.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m very glad that you took the path that you did because we need you; we need a million of you. Your father chose to walk away from what his father had to offer and fortunately, you’re pretty much in line with what your dad offered for you, in terms of philosophy and ethics.
Ocean Robbins: Well, in many ways, that’s true. And if people ask me, “Do you feel like you’re standing in your dad’s shadow?” I say, “You know what, I actually feel like I’m standing in his light” because my dad has really blazed a trail, not just the trail of a certain way of eating or even a certain a way of thinking, but a trail of integrity. He chose the path that most people wouldn’t take in the modern world, which is he walked away from a life of sure financial riches because his integrity called him in a different direction and he felt like inventing a 32nd flavor wasn’t why he was put on this Earth. He wanted to contribute to building a more ethical, compassionate, healthy, beautiful world and so that is the model that I follow more than any particular philosophy. I think he’s always been interested in truth, more than any particular ideology. He wants to know how do we really be healthy? How do we really thrive? How do we create a more beautiful world? We let the fact dictate our philosophies and the world is constantly evolving and we’re always learning new things. But the core purpose to contribute in some meaningful way to making a more beautiful and vibrant world has guided his life almost from the beginning. I’m so grateful that I’m able to build on that legacy and carry it forth in my life.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, you’re definitely doing that. And you started very, very young. Even before you founded YES! you were quite active and an activist in your school and really ahead of your time.
Ocean Robbins: It’s true. I led my first peace rally when I was 8-years old. What’s really funny, Caryn, I feel like, from my early childhood I had people telling me I was going to save the world someday and that creates its own kind of challenge because I have this sense of pressure inwardly that I should accomplish huge things and be huge things, and there’s a kind of perfectionism that can come with that. The greatest teacher to me in this journey more recently has been my own children because my dad used to tell me, when I was growing up, that he was proud of all my accomplishments but he’d love me just as much if I was autistic.
Caryn Hartglass: Did he tell you that?
Ocean Robbins: And I always thought that was really sweet and I also didn’t have to put his theory to the test because I wasn’t autistic. But now I have twins; they’re 12-years old and they do have autism. So we’re learning about unconditional love. We’re learning about what it means to love somebody just because, because everybody deserves love, not for necessarily all the things that anybody accomplishes and does. And that’s changing the way I feel about myself in a really profound way because I’m learning “If I can love my kids just as they are then maybe I can love me just as I am.” And I’m realizing that everybody kids, whether they’re precocious and brilliant peace rally organizers or they’re struggling to make it through they day, deserves love. So the work that I do has taken on a whole new meaning actually because it’s not just about the elite. Few is about everybody.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we love you as you are. With all of the wonderful things that you’ve done and even if you didn’t do any more wonderful things, you’re a wonderful person.
Ocean Robbins: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: But I can imagine that is a little bit of a burden to carry, thinking you should save the world. There are a number of people that are inflicted with some of that or a piece of that and I guess it’s all a part of growing up. We have to live with integrity, do what we believe in, and leave the rest behind because we can’t, as individuals, affect 7 billion people.
Ocean Robbins: Right. Or we can, in some way. But we certainly can’t manage them and control them.
Caryn Hartglass: Right.
Ocean Robbins: I think, ultimately, all of us just got to do the best we can with what we’ve got.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right.
Ocean Robbins: And that’s all that any of us can ever be expected to do, is the best we can we’ve what we’ve got and no matter what we’ve got there’s always the best we can do. If happiness is a product of some combination of what happens to us and the choices we make then I always say most of us spend more of our time bitching and complaining and groaning and grumbling about all of the things that happen to us, and that actually robs us of our capacity to do the best we can before we actually have power, which is in the choices we make and how we respond to life.
Caryn Hartglass: You hit it on the head. That’s mostly everyone’s issue or problem today. They’re complaining; they don’t realize what their potential is or what they have. Okay. So one of the things … You talked about feeling like you were rich when you were young where you really didn’t have any financial assets or means. And yet today most kids, at least in the United States, grow up with so much stuff even if they’re middle-class or even considered poor. I’ve seen some people that are considered not very well to do and they still have a lot of stuff. I know that that’s affected you profoundly to live in that richness and what saddens me today is how many people are void of that, empty. And we need everyone to make a difference. We need everyone to be acting to make this world a better place and to work with integrity but so many people are really living in this superficial place of collecting more stuff that isn’t really filling them up at all.
Ocean Robbins: Sure. And we see that with food too. A lot of times we feel this emptiness in our soul and often we try to fill it with more stuff, more things, more food, more short-term pleasure and we are missing out on what maybe the real source of our happiness and health, which are more nourishing. A lot of time, in the food world, for example, you can choose foods that will provide short-term high-level stimulation and high-level caloric intake like highly salted, highly sugared, highly fatty foods and we can actually train our taste buds to think that those are delicious and most of us have because that’s what’s so heavily marketed and it does provide a kind of short-term pleasure. But I believe that long-term you have way more pleasure in your life when you nourish your body with healthy, natural, wholesome foods that support you and affirm you. It’s like I don’t want to just have friends that are always sugary and sweet and nice to me and never tell me the truth and I don’t want to have foods that are always sweet and sugary and nice to me and don’t give me real nutrients. So when we can adjust our lives and our taste buds and actually be drawn to people toward the foods that are really good for us then we’re going to find a much more quality of life and suddenly our taste buds would change. When you choose to live your life around healthy, natural foods, you’re actually not drawn to stuff that might have tasted good before earlier in your life. I was raised in a family where we ate a lot of kale and broccoli and fresh fruits and vegetables so I thought that was tasty. And raising my own kids, growing up, that’s the one thing I’m really grateful for: they love healthy food. Literally one day River, our son, was crying because we ran out of broccoli in the house. So I don’t think that’s too common in American households today. But really, we are very much a product of our conditioning and our habits. If they becomes a habit, they become normal and becomes easier and easier to do the right thing.
Caryn Hartglass: I do want to get to the Food Revolution Network but you mention your children and I do know that a lot of people with autistic children really have challenges with food and how the kids really don’t want to eat healthfully. So how did you manage to have success in that area?
Ocean Robbins: Well, here’s the key with kids and food is that you just have to not buy the stuff you don’t want them eating. If they’re not exposed to it then it’s going to reduce the issue tremendously. If you have your cupboard that includes potato chips, and French fries, and junk food, whatever that might be, lots of cookies, then you’re always going to be fighting to keep them away it. So you just have to, especially with autistic kids, just not expose them to that stuff, which sometimes it might even mean that you can’t take them shopping if you’re having a lot of issues. Don’t put them in front of that stuff. Autistic kids are very impulsive so they tend to be drawn to what’s in front of them and they’re not usually going to form a heavy attachment to foods they’ve never tasted in their lives before. It’s similar with television; if you want the kids to not watch TV the best easiest solution, for everybody, is to not have a TV then you’re really not going to have an issue unless they’re at a friend’s house and it’s still greatly mitigated. So I think the bottom line is to take responsibility for what you put on the shopping list and what they’re exposed to. The less mature somebody is, whether developmentally or for other reasons, the more important it is that a parent exercises that responsibility. Don’t take them into McDonald’s if you don’t want them to eat the food that McDonald’s serves.
Caryn Hartglass: it sounds pretty straightforward. I think it applies to all children and all adults, not just autistic children. Okay, let’s go to the Food revolution Network. What is it?
Ocean Robbins: Okay, the Food Revolution Network is an online education and advocacy program that’s working for healthy, sustainable, humane and delicious food for everybody; we have about 90,000 members. People can sign up at foodrevolution.org to join in our network and become a part of this community and gain access to our pre-food revolutionary action guide and ongoing resources and tools to help you be a food revolutionary. We also sponsor the Food Revolution Summit, which mobilizes people worldwide to bringing out the voices of some of the world’s top revolutionary leaders. My dad, John Robbins, and I are personally interviewing 24 incredible leaders who are really transforming the lives of millions and we’re bringing forth their insights and exploring what to they have to bring now in, this day and age, that will really help us to learn from the latest learning of medical science, the latest learning of the sustainability movements, and the transforming dynamics of our food systems: how can you protect your family from big agro businesses; how can you protect your community; how can you contribute meaningfully to, not just the personal choices we want to make but the systemic ones; how can we make it so that it stops being so much cheaper to buy Snickers than spinach; how can we make it so that healthy food is an option for a lot of people who, right now, frankly, can’t afford the kind of yuppie lifestyle and are just struggling to survive. We need to change food policies. We’re paying a terrible price for the current system. Two-thirds of disease in the U. S. today is chronic disease that could be prevented with a change in diet. We’re spending 18-19% of our U. S. GDP on health care costs and frankly, that’s should be called health care; it should be called disease care.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup.
Ocean Robbins: And if we change our diet, collectively, we can save so much money. We can save so much misery and we can help create a brighter future for future generations. So we’re sharing those stories and those insights. And the Food Revolution Summit is available also from foodrevolution.org or go directly there at foodrevolution.org/summit to join us to find out all about how you can get involved in this vital movement.
Caryn Hartglass: So when is the next summit?
Ocean Robbins: April 27 to May 5.
Caryn Hartglass: And can you give us an idea of who’s going to be participating or speaking?
Ocean Robbins: Absolutely. Well, some of the people … We’re expecting over 50,000 people to be participating in the summit. We’re going to be interviewing some really fabulous people including Dr. Dean Ornish, Vandana Shiva, Rip Esselstyn, Michael Beckwith, Dr. Neal Barnard, Ken Cook from the Environmental Working Group. Also looking at food in consciousness, with speakers like Byron Katy, and Kathy Freston. We have Mark Hyman. We have Mayor Cory Booker, that superstar mayor from Newark, New Jersey. We have Mike Adams from naturalnews.com. and Mark Bittman, the writer from the New York Times. Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Jeffrey Smith and Andy Kimbrell, talking about GMOs and why you should be concerned about the fact that ¾ of the items in your typical supermarket or restaurant contains genetically modified organisms. We’ll be looking at food in compassion with Zoe Weil, founder of the Institute for Humane Education. So quite a collection of folks; that’s only the tip of the iceberg, to be honest. I’m so excited to bring forth these voices. My dad knows how to interview people like nobody else because this has been his life and work for more than 25 years. So this is more than your typical kind of column response interview; this is really a game-changing conversation.
Caryn Hartglass: Sounds pretty good. Now, you had your first summit last year. Are there any things that stood out or things that you learned from that event last year?
Ocean Robbins: What stood out to me was a lot of hope, actually. Dr. Martin Luther King said that, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” And sometimes, I think, it bends so slowly that some of us can get really impatient and start to wonder whether it’s even bending in the right direction at all. But when you look at the arc of history, you can see certain things. I mean, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony dedicated their lives to working for women’s right to vote many, many decades and they died without ever seeing it come to pass. It didn’t come to pass for 30 years after they died. But eventually, women did get the right to vote. It took an all-male legislature in every state in the country to be able to get that passed. So the arc of history not only had to change the general population; it actually had to reach the men in the country in order to make that happen. We also saw not too many years ago that African-Americans couldn’t vote in the United States in many states. And so we’re seeing these changes and I think that compassion and an ethic of compassion towards all beings is another thing that’s evolving right now. We’re seeing more and more Americans. Whether we eat meat or not, not liking the way that animals are being treated in factory farms and standing up and calling for a new way, a more humane way or humanity relating to other species. We’re seeing that the impact of industrialized agro-business is sending out ripples all over the planet: it’s impacting farmers in India; it’s impacting the tropical rainforests; it’s impacting our carbon output and our climate, and of course, it’s impacting our health.
So the beautiful thing that I really saw as we move forward to last year’s summit is that these things all fit together. And that the same food choices that are healthy for us personally are also a beautiful expression politically. If we want a healthy world for future generations, if we want a more compassionate world, if we want to be healthy and help our families be healthy, all of these impulses eventually point us, more or less, in the same direction. [ …] that’s a fabulous thing to realize.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup, absolutely. It’s like the same diet will cure most diseases or prevent them and are the gentlest on the environment and certainly the most compassionate to all living things. It’s a win, win, win.
Ocean Robbins: It’s true. And the other thing I was struck by at our last summit is that this is an opportunity that’s available to everybody. You don’t have to be an expert to make changes and to take advantage of what the experts have discovered. Although we have so many bad diets going around and so much controversy about what people should eat, there are certain things that are indisputably obvious. Eating a lot of sugar and highly processed foods and saturated, excuse me, hydrogenated fat is clearly bad for us. Eating a lot of factory farm animal products and basing our diets around that is clearly bad for us. So we’re learning. Basing your diet around whole, simple, natural foods, locally grown, as much as possible, organically grown, as much as possible, plant strong as much as possible; these are basic things that will radically change your life. We call our summit the Food Revolution Summit because I actually think it’s kind of revolutionary in a context where the norm is making us so sick and is so destructive to our environment and to our ethics as human beings. I think it’s a revolutionary act to stand up for something different. And it just so happens that doing so can also be delicious and fun and adds more pleasure and joy to our lives. So the nice thing about this revolution is you don’t have to go to war for it; you can actually celebrate it in a special way.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, it is a revolution but when we look in history, the history of food, there’s a lot of things that has happened, especially in the last 50 years, that have really turned things around and made things really out of control, environmentally and health-wise. And it’s amazing how it all just kind of snuck up on us and changed everything. But now we need a revolution to take it back and do what’s best for people and the planet.
Ocean Robbins: Well, I think you’re right. We’ve certainly seen the introduction of genetically engineered mass-produced pseudo-foods and food-like substances on a massive scale and we’re paying a terrible price: rates of diabetes are out of control; rates of obesity are completely out of control. They’re bankrupting governments and companies and families and school systems and we need magic change. The number of kids that are hyperactive or autistic or have some form of severe disability is skyrocketing. The number of food allergies is skyrocketing. These are all connected. We are exposing our bodies and our families to levels of toxins and chemicals that are completely unprecedented in human history. A few companies are making a whole lot of money by marketing this stuff to us but our land, and our family farmers and our own health are paying a terrible price for it. What I think is exciting is that we’re seeing a radical change unfolding. Organic foods have increased fourfold in the last decade. Interest in natural foods is skyrocketing. So I think it’s like an immune system in the time of illness and people are responding.
Caryn Hartglass: You made an important point before, which I have to continually remind myself to do and that is to look at the path and see how far we’ve come in such a short time because when I look at the short-term situation it’s really easy to be frustrated and think, “What’s the point of doing anything at all?” So I appreciate you bringing that up, when women got the right to vote and when we had Civil Rights Acts and all of those things are amazing.
You have worked with young people with Youth For Environmental Sanity all over the world. And have you found something that connected the dots for all of them? We have come from different cultures and different religions and different beliefs but I want to believe that we really have a lot of things that are the same.
Ocean Robbins: Well, I think we do. The beauty of it is we are all unique that actually each of us is the only one of us on this entire planet and I think that’s a wonderful thing, personally. At the same time, we have a lot in common. In my own experiences, two of the single most unifying forces on the Earth are tears and smiles. No matter what language you speak or what culture you come from, when you’re with somebody and they shed a tear you’re touched. The best way to make someone cry watching a movie, any filmmaker will know is to have people crying on the screen and have the audience feel emotionally identify with them. And at the same time, laughter is an incredible unifying force. Now, when we laugh it sends a signal through our body of comfort and peace and joy and connection. So I really look at the fact that our sadness is a bonding force and we all have a lot to be sad about. And our joy is a bonding force; we all have a lot to be happy about. So I think we need more celebrations as well as more mourning with people that we love and care about. I think that love is a unifying force. When you feel love you feel more open, more happy, more connected. So I’m really interested in how we can live love and live joy more fully in this world. And I think that as we do so, we become more happy or we actually become more healthy and we certainly become more connected and feel less lonesome.
Caryn Hartglass: Love heals everything.
Ocean Robbins: it does! And that’s just not some hippie talk, by the way. Gratitude also heals a lot. There have been some recent studies that have come out and it’s showed, conclusively, that the more we express our gratitude, the more healthy we’re going to be. People literally have longer marriages, better health outcome, more happiness, less need for anti-depressants, and just generally better off in just about every measure we can find if they just take 5 minutes a day to write down things they’re grateful for. And this has been proven out in a number of studies; it’s quite conclusive. So one of the top tips, if you want to have more joy in your life and feel more fulfilled, to think about what you’re grateful for and spending time everyday focusing there.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I think that’s the perfect way to end this program, Ocean, and say that I’m so grateful for you.
Ocean Robbins: Oh, thank you! I hope listeners will join us at foodrevolution.org and join us and we have much to be grateful for. Please join this this food revolution and find your own part, in working for healthy foods, sustainable foods, delicious food, foods that will nourish our bodies and our spirits and our world.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, we’re looking forward to it. foodrevolution.org. And if you want to learn more about Ocean, oceanrobbins.com.
Thank you again. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. And we’re going to take a quick break and be right back.
Transcribed by Dianna O’Reilly, 4/9/2013