Main Street Vs. Eat Street

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I’m not sure I would recommend this, but I recently read two books back-to-back that represent the “how” extremes of today’s food system. I started out with The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, and, literally within minutes of finishing it, picked up Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

As the titles imply, the former book is a bit of a feel-good, if complicated, look at what can go right about food (and farming). The latter work is an in-depth, often depressing, look at what has gone so very wrong with the way we process our vittles.

Talk about whiplash. Let’s start with the good news contained in The Town That Food Saved. In an engaging book, Ben Hewitt writes about Hardwick, Vermont (pop. 3,200). During the past half-a-dozen years or so, the community has become home to businesses that do everything from provide seed to organic farmers to put locally produced food in front of diners.

As Hewitt points out, a few of these enterprises have been around for well over a decade, and in the case of farmers producing for local markets, many have been around for several decades. But the ones that have caught the imagination of sustainable agriculture and local food promoters have arrived just within the past few years.

“Indeed, the sudden growth in Hardwick’s ag infrastructure has been nothing short of explosive, with numerous food-based businesses and organizations settling in the region, seeking to become part of the town’s answer to the vexing question of what a healthy food system should look like,” writes Hewitt.

Based on various measures, this has been a success. Farmers in the area are increasingly seeing that if they convert to sustainable production methods there will be an infrastructure in place to support them. And by Hewitt’s count, this recent growth in new food-related businesses has brought nearly 100 jobs to a town that is desperately in need of economic development.

But, as the author admits, there is more to the story.

Hewitt writes with an insider’s eye: he grew up in the area and still lives and works on a small farm there. He is friends with many of the players in Hardwick’s local food renaissance, which at first blush would seem to make the writing of this book a relatively easy task. But to Hewitt’s credit, he doesn’t take the easy road and just write an “ain’t it great” story. In 2008, Hardwick’s “success story” was splashed all over the national media, including the New York Times. People are hungry for a story that goes against the grain, especially one fueled by compelling personalities like Tom Stearns, the outspoken, entertaining owner of Hardwick’s High Mowing Organic Seeds.

As often happens when a small community becomes a media darling, such publicity brought mixed results for Hardwick, which over its history has experienced boom and bust economies based on quarrying and dairying. Some long-time residents felt the story was being spun as a “new arrivals bring positive change to a backward hick town” kind of narrative. Plus, all of a sudden people from across the county were looking to the community as some sort of magic model for how to counter an “industrial food system run amuck” as Hewitt describes it.

But the local boy does an excellent job of going beyond the headlines and doing what journalists call “a second day story.” In some ways, he feels it’s the least he can do; after all, a feature article he wrote for Gourmet magazine was part of that national media blitz.

So Hewitt starts asking some hard questions. Is a local food business no longer a “local food business” when it starts sourcing and selling products out of the region? Is it really sustainable to produce local cheese that costs $20 per pound, putting it out of the price range of just about anyone between Hardwick and New York City? When people like Tom Stearns brainstorm such ideas as starting a 10,000-member Community Supported Agriculture operation, is this simply one more innovative way to bring healthy food to more people, or is it the death knell for a sustainable local food economy? In other words, what is appropriate scale?

Hewitt travels the roads and streets of the Hardwick area searching for those answers, talking to the owners of these exciting new businesses as well as long-time farmers and even back-to-the-landers living off the grid. In the process of relaying the results of all these interviews to the reader, Hewitt doesn’t so much answer the big questions, as debate them on the page. Perhaps that’s an unsatisfying result for anyone looking to find a quick-fix solution to our dysfunctional food and farming system, but it’s probably more honest.

Hewitt makes it clear Hardwick is in many ways unique, and what works there can’t be easily transferable. It’s also in the very early stages of building an economy based on local foods, and so many of the questions the author asks won’t be fully answered for several years. Local food hasn’t saved Hardwick just yet—maybe Hewitt should have reserved that book title for a sequel written five years from now.


Punch to the Stomach

After reading Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, it became clear to me we are going to need a whole lot of Hardwick success stories to save us all from the industrial food system. Moss is an investigative reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his coverage of contamination in the food industry.

Salt Sugar Fat goes beyond issues of contamination and provides an in-depth look at a business that sees eaters as just so many guts to be filled—the industry literally refers to “stomach share,” or the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab. Basically, nothing is off–limits in the rough-and-tumble world where firms like Philip Morris, General Mills, Cargill (the world’s number one supplier of salt) and Coca-Cola battle to get as much salt, sugar and fat down our throats.

As Moss documents, that means everything from formulating food to make it more addictive and to fool our brains into thinking we’re not full, to using cartoon characters to vilify healthy foods like apples while making fake health claims that the added sugar in cereal will raise kids’ grades. As Robert I-San Lin, a former chief scientist for Frito-Lay, told Moss: “I feel so sorry for the public.”

Moss pulls together documents that show just how insidious our industrialized food system is. Perhaps the most damning are the meeting minutes, memos and other written statements he has dug up proving the food giants have long known their products are not healthy. Some feeble attempts have been made to lower the salt, sugar and fat content over the years, but, according to Moss, almost all have gone down in flames, often because Wall Street is so concerned that less of the bad stuff in food will result in less consumption, which is bad for business.

Reading this book, one gets the sense that the industry is caught up in a kind of arms race—no one wants to be the first to lay down their most potent “market share” weapons for fear competitors will eat their lunch, so to speak.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this, argues Moss. After all, these companies are in business to make money, and food that’s bad for you rings a lot of cash registers.

“It’s simply not in the nature of these companies to care about the consumer in an empathetic way,” he writes.

If ever there was a need for a leash to be placed on an industry, this would be it. But Moss’s description of how the USDA and other government agencies have repeatedly failed to take on Big Food—and in some cases have enabled its efforts as a kind of perverse partner—won’t be news to most of us.

Salt Sugar Fat would be a complete downer if it wasn’t for the fact that Moss supplements his detailed documentation with interviews of real people. His surprising access to the scientists, executives and marketing geniuses behind the food industry reminds the reader that ultimately real human beings are behind this mess. They have families, live in communities and don’t want to die an early death because of a bad diet (most of them don’t eat the food they sell, reports Moss).

These are people like Robert I-San Lin, who has deep regrets about how his scientific expertise was abused by his employers. Another Moss source, Michael Mudd, is a former top executive at Kraft. He tried to not only reform his own company but once stood before the heads of the most powerful food companies in America during a meeting at Pillsbury’s headquarters in Minneapolis and compared their industry to the tobacco business. Mudd left the business in 2004, frustrated with its lack of ethics, but his name popped up in the news on the very day I finished reading Salt Sugar Fat. In mid-March he penned a commentary in the New York Times calling for regulation to make the food industry do what it will never do voluntarily.

“I could no longer accept a business model that put profits over public health—and no one else should either,” wrote Mudd.

As Moss acknowledges at the close of his book, such measures are not likely anytime soon. That’s why the Hardwicks of the world may be more important than ever.

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