The Town That Food Saved, How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food by Ben Hewitt (Rodale, 2009)
I won (amazing. Haven’t won anything in years and years.) a copy of this book in a give-away on Zester Daily, the culture of food and wine. It has great articles on wide-ranging topics by widely respected authorities. It’s good reading and, who knows, maybe you could win a book in their next drawing.
You would think, with the happy-sounding title this book has, that it would have a happy ending, everyone in town, all 3200 of them sitting at a pot luck dinner together in a field. But Ben Hewitt’s book is about real life and that’s what’s most impressive: he allows the local food producers of the town of Hardwick, VT and its surrounding region to be people. Peope tend to be messy, at least in our relationships and politics. And in Hardwick, this is also the case. But these farmers, butchers, cheesemakers, restaurateurs, and shopkeepers are also, seen through Hewitt’s eyes, good-hearted, generous, and honestly seeking ways to achieve common goals.
Hewitt lives on a small diverse farm in Vermont where he and his family grow much of their produce, meat, and poultry. His book explores the tensions between the local food producers—those who have long had their ways of doing things and the newer residents who—through the lens of this book—are more clearly focussed on managing agricultural businesses that actually make them a good living.
Instead of providing answers, Hewitt asks questions, big ones such as ‘What does it mean to have a local, sustainable food system?’ Even by the end of the book, he does not provide definitive answers. Instead, he sees the glimmerings of a process for how the various parties involved in local agriculture—the newcomers, old-timers, small-scale producers and larger-scale producers—can come together and work toward achieving a healthy food system for localized, sustainable agriculture that would “offer economic viability to small-scale producers, [that is] based on sunshine, feeds the locals, and must be circular.”
By circular, Hewitt means that things created in one part of the system are used by another. Farmers would plant seed produced by the local seed company. The food processor uses up the experimental vegetables grown by the seed company or the vegetable grower. Everyone contributes to the compost piles managed by the local composter. Farmers in turn use that compost to build their soil. The restaurants serve local food to local people.
The industrial food system is more linear and anonymous—harvested food is shipped thousands of miles to processing plants after which it may be shipped thousands more miles to a distribution warehouse. The fertilizer that makes huge crops possible comes from mostly nonrenewable sources and is the product of yet another huge industrial operation. Hewitt does have a point of view. He asks, “Could Hardwick’s developing food system. . .really hold the potential to launch a groundswell of democracy?. . .I’d thought of food politics as something that happened on a large stage. . .I thought of the cozy relationship between the food corporations and our political leadership and how the vast majority of those regulations [negotiated between them] erected roadblocks to the creation of citizen-led, decentralized food systems. It’s not just that we’ve let our food freedom slip away from us, it’s that it’s been taken.” [emphasis his]
For an example of just such a fight, the San Francisco Chronicle featured a front page story headlined: “Farm Feud. Slow food stirs up battle in heartland. Agricultural establishment fighting back at movement.” Hewitt puts a human face on the fight and sheds light on the issues that all of us who care at all about what we eat need to think about.