“In 1930, the average American family spent 24.2 percent of its income on food…By 2007, that number had fallen to 9.8 percent…The average European spends nearly 20 percent of his income on food…Of course, it’s almost fashionable to discuss the hidden costs of our “cheap” food diet. They’re real, and they matter, but the truth is most Americans simply don’t have the luxury of looking beyond the tangible metric of money in, money out…You’re not considering its health costs, or the erosion of the topsoil caused by monocropping, or even the backward logic of a subsidy system that pays farmers not to farm; you’re too busy trying to find that Coco Puffs coupon tucked in your wallet.”
—The Town That Food Saved, Ben Hewitt
This year, I paid an undisclosed amount for our family’s Christmas prime rib. It was so expensive that it made me–a girl who believes adamantly about paying paying a fair wage for the food which sustains me–just about bowl over. When I asked the farmer’s daughter, a student of mine, if the holidays were a profitable time for them, the question seemed silly. At that price, how could they not be raking it in? “Welp. If we sell all our cuts, we just about break even.” Break EVEN. As in, they’ll be able to pay the winter heating bill and put new tires on the farmer’s market van. Forget about contributing to the college fund.
So I finally picked up Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved and devoured it. Hewitt, a farmer, gardener and Gourmet writer, delves into the local food politics of Hardwick, Vermont, and digs into the gritty questions that loll about in my head: what is sustainable, how local is local, is it working if it’s not feeding the immediate community,
can should there be profit when it comes to our most basic need, how have we managed to move so far away from this basic need: to feed ourselves?
Hewitt is out to help the average American family. He wants us to find a way to afford fresh strawberries, a healthy cut of beef, and yes, even bacon. If people like me have sticker shock at the true value of meat (granted, my usual veggie status means I’m out of the meat pricing loop) than how can the entire nation buy into–literally–paying fair cost for food? Hewitt’s out to figure out if and how it might be done. Can the magic of Hardwick duplicate itself across the nation, ultimately saving our food system? Would we want a Hardwick to duplicate itself? Would we be able to feed our entire gluttonous nation? (This question from a girl who gorged on two scoops of ice cream and several servings of green curry in one sitting.)
His investigation, basted with humor, ride-alongs and an eye for food equity, kept me flipping pages well past bedtime. The book reminded me that winter lends time to plan my first Washington garden. That my purchase of the Christmas prime rib was necessary to support an alternative system and a family. And Hewitt watered ideas in my head planted long ago on the earthen floors of Pun Pun Farm in Thailand: that I need to find my local foodie community, roll up my sleeves and get dirty.