Book Review: The Town That Food Saved

the town that food saved book cover

The Daily Green 

A portrait of Hardwick, Vt., which may be unique in its efforts to develop a new kind of local food system.

I wanted to read The Town that Food Saved because I grew up and live in New York’s Hudson Valley, where small-scale farming has always been a part of the fabric of life…

The book tells the story of Hardwick, Vt., a small town that the modern U.S. economy basically forgot about after its days as a center of granite quarrying ended. An influx of Canadian farmers, followed by a wave of back-to-the-land countercultural types helped maintain a local farm economy while downtown decayed into a familiar rust belt shell of itself: a strip club, a liquor store, a supermarket and a lot of abandoned buildings. Then along comes, along with a wave of wealthy second-home owners seeking the bucolic country life, a fresh crop of farmers and “agripreneurs”: Young, educated and – in some key cases – as well-suited to the world of PR as to the world of farming. Buzz builds about how the town is redefining a local food system in opposition to the consolidated chemical-heavy, fertilizer-dependent industrialized system that feeds most Americans today. But is that trend real, what does it mean, and is it replicable? Those are the questions this book asks and tries to answer.

The first 50 pages or so were a bit wayward; too much throat-clearing. And I would have liked to have seen more justification that the central premise (ie, that Hardwick, Vt., is a unique experiment in redefining the local food chain) is true by exploring other places that might be on a similar path. (I, for one, kept thinking of my home turf and the CSA farms, farmers markets, the local seed bank, the farm-to-table restaurants and value-added farm success stories that mirrored Hardwick’s.) Instead, you’re left to accept that the situation in Hardwick may be unique, even as the author acknowledges that he doesn’t know for sure, and that there are a lot of other communities in the U.S. that could possibly be doing something similar.

But that said, the book picked up steam and, in the end, was well worth the read. Through a series of interviews with key figures in the local food movement, Hewitt ruminates – with a seriousness that is always good-humored and often humorous – on the definition of a sustainable local food system that provides both an economic living to small-scale farmers and affordable and nutritious food for neighbors, that is “based on the sun” (not chemical fertilizers) and that is “circular” (uses its waste as fertilizer). He explores the impact of media hype and hypers on small town life, the generational changes and continuity in the back-to-the-land trend, the fate of decaying mill towns (or quarry towns, in this case), the impact of second-home ownership on local communities, the disconnects between local food advocates and local residents who often can’t afford local food (or prefer mass-market processed food), and the diversity of characters and the niches they fill in the effort to build a local food system. But most of all, he explores the tensions (sometimes, but not always the right word) among those characters, most of whom share the same basic goal: to develop a local food system that rivals the international industrial food system that’s dominated for 50 years or more.

Even defining the goal is difficult, the author finds, and that’s ultimately what makes the book so worth the read. This is a movement that is alive and changing, and still finding its legs. Hewitt describes some early steps in one small, possibly emblematic, community. In that, there is nourishment for people living in communities across the U.S.