Change Comes to Dinner: How Vertical Farmers, Urban Growers, and Other Innovators Are Revolutionizing How America Eats

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9780312577377: Change Comes to Dinner: How Vertical Farmers, Urban Growers, and Other Innovators Are Revolutionizing How America Eats
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A fascinating exploration of America's food innovators, that gives us hopeful alternatives to the industrial food system described in works like Michael Pollan's bestselling Omnivore's Dilemma

Change Comes to Dinner takes readers into the farms, markets, organizations, businesses and institutions across America that are pushing for a more sustainable food system in America.

Gustafson introduces food visionaries like Mark Lilly, who turned a school bus into a locally-sourced grocery store in Richmond, Virginia; Gayla Brockman, who organized a program to double the value of food stamps used at Kansas City, Missouri, farmers' markets; Myles Lewis and Josh Hottenstein, who started a business growing vegetables in shipping containers using little water and no soil; and Tony Geraci, who claimed unused land to create the Great Kids Farm, where Baltimore City public school students learn how to grow food and help Geraci decide what to order from local farmers for breakfast and lunch at the city schools.

Change Comes to Dinner is a smart and engaging look into America's food revolution.

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About the Author:

KATHERINE GUSTAFSON is an award-winning writer, journalist and editor whose articles and essays have been published in numerous print and online media. She has written about sustainable food for Yes! Magazine, The Huffington Post, Civil Eats, Change.org, and Tonic. She lives with her husband in the Washington, DC, area.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1
 
School Bus Farm Market
 
An unusual small business brings farm-fresh to the city
 
 
MY HOPERAKING JOURNEY BEGAN, like so many voyages of discovery do, on an old yellow school bus. This bus was not full of children, though, but food—tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, apple cider, milk, ribs, chicken, barbeque sauce—all of it from farms within 150 miles of the Richmond street corner where I filled up my shopping basket in this unlikely vehicle.
Up by the steering wheel, Mark Lilly presided over the bus with a proprietary air, greeting people as they came aboard to browse in the apple barrels, wooden shelves, and freezers he had installed, showing kids the baby chicks he was keeping in a cage out on the sidewalk. The products I picked out to purchase—a tub of frozen pit-cooked barbeque made by a Mennonite family, a whole chicken from the famous Polyface Farm, a glass bottle of yogurt topped with blackberry jam—were things that I had spent ten hours driving all over the Virginia countryside with Mark to pick up a few days before. I couldn’t wait to see how they tasted.
A visit with a local-food entrepreneur like Mark was, I felt, the logical place to start my journey; the commitment to eating locally is the sacred cow of the sustainable food movement. There seems to be a general—though sometimes only vaguely justified—consensus that sourcing as much of our food as possible from within a short driving distance of our houses is one of the most important things we can do to right the sinking ship of the U.S. food system.
I wondered if this was true. Is relocalizing our food economy the answer to our woes? It seemed improbable to me that small farmers selling at urban markets—the image almost universally associated with the idea of “eating local”—could be the much sought-after solution to all the complicated problems of our industrially dominated food system. Aren’t these local farms just too small and too few and too apt to be growing things like garlic scapes and ramps, which—let’s be honest—sound more like pieces of equipment found in a skateboard park than food?
The most familiar argument for locavorism arises from an objection to the massive distances that the vast majority of food eaten in the United States travels before it reaches dinner plates. The figure fifteen hundred miles is thrown around a lot, and while that number—calculated by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture—is only kind of true and then only if you live in Chicago, the exact number doesn’t really matter; the sticking point is that we eat many things that have flown on airplanes from other hemispheres or been trucked across continents (or back and forth between states in a pointless bureaucratic shuffle) to get to us.
The ghastly carbon footprint of all that global food shipping is the more commonly reiterated reason to eat more locally. The environmental impact of getting an apple from five miles away, the logic goes, must surely be less than that of shipping your fruit in from New Zealand. Unfortunately for the locavores, the ecological argument for eating locally doesn’t always stand up well to scrutiny. An apple in a load of millions shipped cross-country in an efficient eighteen-wheeler might well account for fewer carbon emissions than an apple in a single bushel driven thirty miles to a farmers’ market in an old diesel farm truck. And that comparison doesn’t account for the carbon dioxide expended by the shoppers getting to and from the place of purchase—a figure that might be lower for those who shop at grocery stores where only one trip is necessary than for those who take separate trips to farmers’ markets, specialty shops, and other stores to put the week’s menu together.
Making local and regional food distribution systems more robust and efficient would change the environmental calculus considerably. But as things stand now, other reasons for eating locally turn out to be far more compelling. What people want by and large, it seems to me, is to live in communities that are thriving, where they can find the means to be happy and healthy. What better way to make sure our communities thrive than by locating a chunk of the most important businesses of our lives—the work of feeding ourselves—close to our cities and in our own neighborhoods? Bolstering local food economies means creating and keeping local jobs, maintaining food producers’ interest in and responsiveness to the needs and wants of the community (including the need for safe and healthy food), ensuring greater freshness, and providing local consumers with more instead of fewer options regarding where, when, and how to buy their food.
I still had my doubts about whether all those little guys farming their hearts out on their one-, five-, and twenty-acre parcels and dragging their wares to the farmers’ market every week could feed our country effectively, but logic had it that they were doing vital work to keep our country from inexorably being taken over part and parcel by corporate food concerns. Local-food entrepreneurs were on the front lines, bringing us all hope. And hope is what I was after. In trying to find some small answer to the question, “What would a better food system look like?” I clearly needed to see “local food” in action. If what I found didn’t appear to be the final, glorious solution to our food dilemmas, perhaps I could gain some hints about what such a solution might be.
So one April evening I headed south from my home in Washington, DC, to Richmond, the capital of Virginia, where Mark is making a go of it with his school bus-cum-roving farmers’ market, an unusual business venture he calls Farm to Family. His bus route follows a schedule, but he uses his BlackBerry to remind his thousands of Facebook and Twitter fans of his location and to update them about any change of plans, which happen occasionally due to parking problems, absence of shoppers, or previously unscheduled visits.
When I inquired whether I might see his operation, Mark had kindly invited me to stay at his house for the night so I could come on his purchasing rounds at local farms early the following day. That’s how I found myself sitting at a dining room table in a cozy house somewhere in Richmond eating a bowl of yogurt criss-crossed with a drizzle of maple syrup, products Mark buys from local farmers and sells on his bus.
“This is the best stuff you’ve ever tasted,” Mark said, pointing at my bowl. Something about his friendly, low-key demeanor, shaved head, and sun-reddened cheeks reminded me obscurely of a firefighter. His wife Suzi, a warm woman in a teal “eat local” T-shirt and reddish hair twisted up in a clip, chatted with me about her job in the alternative healing and body care section of Ellwood Thompson’s, a unique Richmond grocery store focused on local food. Not long after my visit, she would begin working full-time with mark on Farm to Family.
“The Fs should be green, darker green. Don’t you think?” Mark interrupted, leaning over and showing Suzi a picture on his BlackBerry—the drafts of a Farm to Family logo sent by his designer.
“It’s a little busy,” she said. “You have to picture it on everything.”
He brooded on this for a few moments then stalked away from the table, leaving Suzi to install me in a sweet-smelling, crimson guest room with an antique bedstead, a shelf of Buddhist relics, and a tinkling wind chime made of slices of pink stone.
The next morning as we sped down the highway toward the Shenandoah Valley in his truck, dragging a trailer equipped with six giant plastic coolers, Mark told me how he got the idea for the bus venture after experiencing a political awakening about issues of industrial food during a master’s program in disaster science and emergency management. A research project about California’s San Joaquin Valley for a class called Hazards and Threats to the Future led him into a sobering investigation of soil salination, monocultures, water shortages, labor issues, and petroleum’s role in an area that grows almost 13 percent of the country’s produce.
“It is really bad, what is going on out there,” he said, propping his arm on the steering wheel. “If that system fails, that’s going to have a major, major impact on the country.” The idea for the bus venture started simmering in the back of his mind, but he would never have gone ahead if he hadn’t lost his job working in food service at a university. By then he had already bought the old bus from Craigslist on a hunch.
All around us, spring had burst upon the countryside, the pink cotton candy fluff of redbud trees lacing the edges of the roadway. It was an unusually hot day for April; the temperature reading in the corner of the rearview mirror was climbing past eighty. The truck’s AC was on the fritz.
“It all boils down to money,” he went on. “What corporations do is they want to make as much money as they can and exploit anything in their path to get that done. These lobbyists and players in Washington—the government makes laws to benefit them, not to benefit the people.” For a guy engaged in such a creative and optimistic business endeavor, he exuded a surprisingly intense sense of outrage.
We trundled off the highway onto a country road slicing through green hills and pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald’s, of all places, where a white-bearded Mennonite farmer in a straw hat and his blue-skirted wife in a pale kerchief were waiting incongruously for us next to their truck and trailer.
This was Mike and Diana Puffenbarger, a thirty-years-married couple who run a farm, a barbeque business, and a hunting and fishing guide service. Mike’s family has been producing maple syrup fo...

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