The Places that Food Saves: Evaluating Local Food Infrastructures

By Sharon Astyk
Science Blogs

Review of The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt (Rodale, 2010)

We got a supermarket in the springtime, and much has been made of that in my area. Many of the area’s people rhapsodized about it – one woman told me she’d been waiting 15 years. It is about 8 miles from my house (compared to 13 to the nearest one before), in a town that is making the shift from rural to bedroom suburb, in an area that isn’t quite ready for outer bedroom suburbs.

Before the store opened there was much talk about how our area had been and would no longer be a “food desert.” This term means an area where there simply isn’t good local access to food. And in some measure, there was some truth there – the long distances that one had to drive to get to Cobleskill or Guilderland or Rotterdam (all about equidistant) were tough on the elderly, the disabled and the deeply time pressed. At the same time, I found it frustrating to hear the rhetoric “food deserts” applied to one of the richest food landscapes I’ve ever encountered. Others who were bothered by this framing also came together, and we began to talk about how it would be smart to evaluate our local food resources more thoroughly, to be able to speak honestly about my area’s capacity for self-provisioning. The very fact that our area looks like a desert to some of its residents seems telling, and troubling.

When this came up, I went back to a book I’d read this winter. I did Ben Hewitt a disservice — he sent me a copy of “The Town that Food Saved” — and I meant to write a review and didn’t. That wasn’t because I didn’t like the book – I loved it. I’d initially approached it unenthusiastically, assuming that this would be just another piece of rhapsodizing about some local food system. I’d read some of the press about Hardwick, and my thoughts were “well, that’s great, but that kind of thing is happening a lot of places, if not quite so coherently, and I’d bet it is more complicated than that, just as it is here.”

Hewitt’s observation is that it is indeed, more complicated – and that those complications are a central part of the story. Hewitt’s book is not a rhapsody, but something else – it is the first really popular (ie, not produced as a white paper, transition document, etc… but as a book people would read for pleasure) serious assessment of the virtues and resilience of a local food system. The book is honest, smart and thoughtful – and provides a way of applying Hewitt’s analysis to other places.

From one thing and another, I never wrote a review. But my attempt to see my local food system as a whole brought me back to it recently, and I found in the book a useful frame for my own analysis of my region. I’m going to put it up in several posts over the next week or two. I’m fortunate – I get to see a lot of local food infrastructures – this is what I like to do best when I travel to do talks. Sometimes I get deep tours, sometimes I see only one or two places, but wherever I go, this is what I want to see – where does the food come from? Who eats it? Where and how do they enjoy it? They are simple questions, but complicated ones too – and what I love about Hewitt’s writing is that he truly grasps the complications. They are complications that apply deeply to my place – and I suspect, everywhere.

Read the full review at Science Blogse above.

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