Growing and making food is hard work. The story of the second half of the Twentieth Century is how the developed world essentially outsourced the production of food from the farm to the fork. We ceded control to a variety of interests including, but not limited to, industrial farms, mega corporations, ubiquitous restaurant chains, etc.
Fewer farmers feed an increasingly larger number of people, but the food being produced is increasingly suspect as it is designed to survive the rigors of industrial production. This means that tomatoes are picked green and rock hard only to be gassed with a chemical in order to turn red and sell. Animals are raised in horrific conditions in order to meet the exacting production schedules of slaughterhouses that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a race to the bottom in terms of health for both our bodies and communities so that corporations can profit from homogeneity and economies of scale.
However, a kernel of the “old ways” survived in place throughout the United States waiting for an environment which was more hospitable. As the Twenty First Century began ever growing numbers of people began to question the insanity of a food system that can produce a hamburger and a soda the size of a small barrel of oil for a buck.
Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food Hardwick, Vermont provides a lens through which to document the emergent viewpoint that the future of food in America is local, sustainable, and on a scale that is easy to comprehend.
Hardwick is not the first place you would suspect to be a flashpoint for the growth of an alternative to the dominant foodways of the United States at the beginning of the new century. It’s best days are considered behind it as the granite industry withered in the face of competition from poured concrete and the rugged terrain of Vermont was never regarded as the best place to farm. However, these same characteristics make it ideal.
It’s hard to rebuild the food system in Iowa because every acre that can be farmed is slowly being aggregated into massive monocultures of corn and soybeans as farmers chase the elusive goal of scale. You are not going to find storefronts and buildings with reasonable rents or list prices in communities where tech companies flourish and yoga studios pop up like Palmer’s pigweed. Places like Hardwick offer a chance to fail without bankrupting your future and that of your children.
The interesting component of the story of Hardwick is that there is a central tension between the new practitioners of local food, the established community members who have been practicing these tenets for the better part of forty years, and the larger community. You’ve got people who came to the area in the 1970s, opened a co-op, and fostered the ideas for years only to be usurped in some ways by newcomers talking about scale and monetization and markets. On the sidelines you have locals wondering just what the hell everyone is making such a big deal about.
Maybe Rodney King was asking the right question years ago, “Can we all get along?”
There are two sides to the story of new businesses dedicated to ostensibly local food. In many rural communities local food has always been something enjoyed by the community and the bonds of community were not severed for various reasons. Shared poverty or hardship has a way of bringing people together into circles of friendship that serve as an insurance policy against the next bump in the road. When you receive help one day it is your duty to “pay it forward” when someone else you know might need a helping hand another day.
Local food can also become something that is elitist. In Hardwick the median income is estimated at $15,000 per year. That is one half of the population earns more than $15K while the other half earns less than $15K. It’s hard to see $20 per pound cheese being something enjoyed by the vast majority of the local community when that would comprise a good chunk of a monthly budget before other expenses were accounted for.
That is not to say the effort is wasted or misguided. If there are more producers of a greater variety of foodstuffs than the system is bound to be more resilient. If one farmer or cheese maker or brewer fails it does not mean empty larders, but only that a small percentage of the total production capacity has been removed from the market. It may mean higher prices—that damned supply and demand law—but the market should sort it out quickly. Producing food is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
The Town that Food Saved is not a blueprint for the revival of more localized and sustainable foodways, but it does provide insight into how one community is trying.
As a note, Claire’s—the restaurant that serves as a location through much of the book—closed in early 2014. In its place is another restaurant, the Vermont Supper Club.