April 13th, 2010

Review: The Town That Food Saved by Ben Hewitt

The Town That Food Saved

by Ben Hewitt

 

From the back cover: For nearly a century, the blue-collar community of Hardwick, Vermont, has known hard times.  The town’s median income runs 25 percent below the state average; its unemployment rate, 40 percent higher.  But over the past three years – amid an economic crisis that threatens to cripple small businesses and privately owned farms across the nation – Hardwick has jump-started its economy with a stunning number of food-based businesses built by a group of young, innovative entrepreneurs who support each other by sharing advice, equipment and capital.  The Town That Food Saved is rich with appealing, colorful characters: from the optimistic agripreneurs creating a new agricultural model to the long-established farmers wary of the rapid change in the region.

Lively, funny and candid, Ben Hewitt tells the fascinating story of an unassuming community and its extraordinary determination to build a vibrant local food system unlike anything else in America.  His thoughtful examination of the future of our food system is grounded in ideas that will revolutionize the way we eat – and quite possibly the way we live.

 

I thought this book would be an interesting read.  Books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma have helped to expose many of the flaws with our food systems and diet here in the United States (problems rapidly spreading to other parts of the world) and have left readers wondering, “Well, what can we do?”  The Town That Food Saved seemed like a natural book to follow-up, showcasing how a community had successfully reinvented itself and how their techniques might be promoted on a wider scale.

 

But there’s a problem, and it is this: to say that Hardwick has been ‘saved’ is a bit of a stretch.  Right now, the area is flushed with new companies promoting organic/healthy/local foods…but many of them, according to author Ben Hewitt, aren’t yet profitable.  New jobs have been created by these companies for the people living in Hardwick, but too many of the foods created are expensive specialty items like organic tofu and fine cheeses.  The town’s residents can’t afford the pricey food, so many continue to shop at Wal-Mart or national chains, and the food ships off to classier shops in urban centers.  It’s not a self-sustaining, local food system, and until that happens I don’t think you can claim a savior has arrived.

 

Hewitt spends much of the book profiling and interviewing the local farmers who are participating in the movement.  One of the best chapters is about Ralph and Cindy Persons, who make a living slaughtering other peoples’ animals.  It seems that many of the people living in Hardwick want to get “back to the land” by planting their own crops and raising their own livestock, but they just don’t have it in them to kill the cows and chickens…so they hire someone else to do it.  This strikes me as just slightly ridiculous – how American to hire someone else to do the dirty business - but hey, Ralph and Cindy make good money.  Other chapters look into the lives of single-family farms, composters, agribusiness (apparently, you can slap the ‘agri’ in front of anything and boom! you have a new buzz word) entrepreneurs and the chefs that rely on these high-quality ingredients for their menus.

 

I appreciate that Hewitt wants to bring attention to the developments happening in Hardwick, but it’s just too soon.  Five years, ten years down the line he’d have some data to work with, but right now all he can do is take a stab in the dark and guess at where Hardwick is headed.  I want to believe in the rosy picture he paints, but I don’t think he has provided the proof needed to back his vision up.

 

 

To read more about The Town That Food Saved, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.