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Convinced that food can save America

Student drinking yogurt

Local yogurt: Good for you, good for the economy. Photo: Sterling College/Flickr.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of food. Yet, sometimes it appears just as hard for food writers to avoid hype.

It’s all too easy for people who love food enough to write about food to lose themselves in breathless raptures over the deliciousness of forest foraged mushrooms or the power of artisanal pork to cure diabetes, resurrect rural economies and provide meaningful careers to former baristas from Philadelphia to Portland.

It makes even a sympathetic reader wonder: is all this fuss about food, particularly its local-organic variety, just a way to overcompensate for the sad fact that most Americans don’t care that much about the subject?

A harvest of hype and hope

The Town That Food Saved

The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, Rodale, 234pp, $15.99.

Ben Hewitt wrestles with the hype while he embraces it at the same time in The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food. Hardwick, Vermont, population 3,200, never fully recovered after its granite quarry shut down in the 1930s, taking the local economy down with it. So you would think that residents of the hardscrabble town would be grateful for the new food industry that somehow sprouted up locally in the last couple decades.

But the truth is pretty much the opposite. Aside from a few upscale Manhattan transplants, Hardwick residents couldn’t care less about food.

Food may not have saved the town, but it does bring in good money. Scores of jobs are provided by nearly a dozen significant businesses located in and around the town that export food and related products outside the area, from a marketer of organic seeds to an artisanal cheese maker to a producer of tofu and soy milk. There’s even a non-profit to wrap it all up in a shiny ribbon of theory, the Center for an Agricultural Economy.

Yet, the town’s largely working-class population shrugs off all the attention given to the hippie entrepreneurs in their midst. Just like small town folk everywhere, the real Hardwick resident continues to wash down his Lay’s potato chips with an ice-cold Coke. And until the majority of non-yuppies can be convinced to eat like the foodies, then Hewitt rightly concludes that local food’s work isn’t done in Hardwick or anywhere else.

Grow your own

Rebuilding the Foodshed

Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems, A Community Resilience Guide, Chelsea Green, 308pp, $19.95.

For its snob-appeal, I used to dismiss food-talk as a self-indulgence too precious for an era of permanent economic distress and the end of jobs, not to mention climate change and peak oil. But after seeing Food, Inc. and meeting its star, the sustainable farmer Joel Salatin and then discovering the essays of Wendell Berry and the nutrition theories of Weston A. Price (the unofficial grandfather of today’s Paleo diet craze), I started to care about what I ate. In short, I became a foodie.

Simultaneously, after getting into the Transition movement, I became a convert to the gospel of local resilience. That’s the theory that, when things get tough in the future as the economy continues to decline, you’ll be better off if you live in a community that relies as little as possible on the outside world for the necessities of life, especially food.

And then I had no choice but to become a food activist.

Last spring, I ran for the city council of Staunton, Virginia (pop. 24,000). With the help of lots of people who care about food, I got elected. After taking office, I convened a Food Policy Task Force. The group, composed of a dozen local leaders from education, retail, churches and of course, the food business, is charged with developing a package of good ideas by the fall to help the city promote good food for all citizens, regardless of income.

If you find yourself in the same boat and if you want to help your city put in policies that encourage people to grow food nearby, then you’ll want your own copy of Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems.

This wonkish book may not be as easy a read as The Town That Food Saved, but if you’re looking for ammunition for that next city council meeting on why local food matters to the local economy and civic life, then you’ll find it here.

After a nuanced discussion to clarify what qualifies as “local” food — sometimes imported food really is better than the local stuff — author Philip Ackerman-Leist goes through the main reasons to promote a strong local food system, from peak oil and climate change to food justice and creating jobs.

After making the case for food that is locally produced or at least locally managed, Ackerman-Leist then offers dozens of policy ideas to bring local food, and the local farmers necessary to grow it, to a neighborhood near you. These range from the eminently practical (e.g., establishing a food policy council that reports directly to the mayor) to the satisfyingly visionary (e.g., subsidizing urban agriculture as a public service like transportation).

Raw milk and small government

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat, Chelsea Green, 257 pp, $19.95.

Yes, City Hall can be an ally in promoting a vibrant local food scene. But sometimes government can stand in the way of citizens getting the food they want. Nobody knows this better than David Gumpert, who blogs about the health benefits of natural food and the battles that people must fight with food safety regulators to obtain food outside of the industrial food system at his website The Complete Patient.

Gumpert already wrote a whole book about the political battles around raw milk. Now, in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat, Gumpert expands his focus to the growing movement of people who want to drink raw milk and eat raw cheese so much that they don’t care if they have to fight the law to do so.

As well heeled urban consumers form buying clubs and join cowshares to get food directly from farms, regulators from federal and state health and agriculture agencies respond with enhanced enforcement of food safety regulations. But investigations, intimidation, civil and criminal charges and even jail time are targeted not at those consumers, but at the farmers and entrepreneurs trying to meet the growing demand for unprocessed “private” food.

Maddening stories follow. A long-time Amish farmer supplying a Washington, DC buying club was forced to abandon his farm and take up carpentry. The manager of a raw food club near L.A. spent nearly a year in jail. Countless other farmers and distributors racked up tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills.

Food safety regulators are the jack-booted thugs of the book, driven by a paranoia based in an outdated fear of all microbes in food (hasn’t the FDA heard of “probiotics”?). Not surprisingly, regulators know that mounting drug war-style raids on Amish farms whose food has made nobody sick just because those farms lack permits and inspections, won’t be play well with the voting public. So, the most draconian enforcement happens in secret.

Breaking that secrecy is the goal of Gumpert’s book as it is of the “food freedom” movement he chronicles. That movement has long been seeking its own “Rosa Parks moment,” when food choice activists can engage the public in sympathy with the plight of a farmer persecuted for trying to give people the food they want.

Gumpert thinks that the acquittal in September 2012 of a Minnesota egg farmer charged with violating food safety regulations may have provided that Civil Rights-esque moment. But for all his grit, Alvin Schlangen is still no Rosa Parks. And until the food freedom movement can generate at least a small part of the public sympathy and media attention that 1960s Freedom Riders did, then it’s clear that people who want to get food outside of the official system will be sitting at the back of the bus for a long time to come.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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