The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt (2010)

This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for a few years, so when I finally got around to reading it, I suppose I was expecting to be swept off my feet with new insights and a Disney-ish story about food literally saving a town.  But really, this is a story about a small town—Hardwick, Vermont—that has gradually grown, both economically and philosophically, through agrepreneurialism.  Essentially, a number of local residents have started food-based businesses that have pumped vitality into this economically challenged town that was once home to 300 granite companies.  Today it boasts High Mowing Organic Seeds, Jasper Hill Cheese, True Yogurt, Pete’s Greens, the Highfield Center for Composting, and a large CSA with 1,000 members for a community of 3,200.  All told, it’s probably added about 100 jobs, maybe more, so not exactly a renaissance.  It hasn’t been ‘saved’, but it’s a good start, and it could be a model for other areas.

Hewitt’s main argument is that a centralized food system is bad for our country.  And while I don’t disagree, I don’t buy his argument that the centralized industrial food system could collapse at any time.  I think he overstates that possibility.  Yet to understand how centralized our food system has become, he offers some statistics: in 1900 there were 76 million Americans and about 30 million farms.  Today there are 307 million Americans and 2 million farms.  A lot of food is being produced in a few places and trucked all over the country.  Local food, he argues, is better for our people, our environment, and the well-being of our communities.  I agree.  Perhaps the problem I had with this book is that I’ve read so much of this before.  Hewitt introduced me to the town of Hardwick and its residents and their personal stories, but not to the concept of local vs. industrial food.  Michael Pollen did that years ago.

Apparently Harwick has received a lot of national attention (especially since the author wrote an article for Gourmet Magazine about the town a few years ago), but some of the attention has not been well-received by residents.  Many of them are just doing what they’ve always done and don’t see the big deal in it.  Those residents who like the limelight would like to “sell” Hardwick’s model to other towns, and if it can work, it’s not a bad thing.  I’m just not sure Hewitt needed over 200 pages (much of it, unnecessary detail) to tell this town’s story.  (nonfiction)

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