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Change Comes to Dinner
How Vertical Farmers, Urban Growers and Other Innovators are Revolutionizing How America Eats
By Katherine Gustafson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Katherine Gustafson
All rights reserved.
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 for five generations, and he himself has been at it for at least three decades. Their 4 × 4 sported a window sticker saying "TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE, JOHN 8:32" alongside another emblazoned with a picture of a howling coyote in crosshairs surrounded by the motto "HUNT HARD, SHOOT STRAIGHT, KILL CLEAN, APOLOGIZE TO NO ONE."
As they helped load tubs of their pit-cooked barbeque and bottles of their syrup into Mark's truck, I asked Mike about their biggest challenge as small farmers.
"The government," he responded without a pause. "They're letting in all this junk from China. But we try to do something, they hammer us. We've been butchering meat for years from our farm and we've never had a recall. What's that tell you?" The Puffenbargers take their animals destined for sale as meat to a slaughterhouse as required by the USDA, the closest one being in Harrisonburg, eighty miles from their farm in Bolar, Virginia. They prefer to butcher at home the meat they eat themselves.
Mike's comment highlighted one of the many reasons local-food advocates cite for buying closer to home. The country's industrial food chain has been busy building itself an abysmal record on food safety. The USDA website posts hundreds of recalls of food products every year, the majority of them for posing a "possible health risk." The word salmonella makes a distressingly regular appearance on this list, as do E. coli and Listeria, a dangerous bacterium. One compelling reason to buy your food — especially your meat — from smaller-scale farmers who are involved in your community instead of from corporations whose operations are opaque, remote, and likely too massive to be handled safely is that smaller, closer-to-home producers are more likely to have both the ability and the motivation to make sure their products aren't tainted.
Back on the road, the pungent odor of manure wafting in the window and the temperature in the truck climbing toward incendiary, Mark told me he had been totally unprepared for what he was getting into when he started the bus business. His original idea was to go into food deserts — urban areas where residents don't have access to stores that carry fresh food — and sell his local meat and produce to these underserved communities. He got registered to accept food stamps and parked in poor neighborhoods, waiting for the rush of customers. But the people there looked at him like he was crazy and continued to spend their money in the corner store, where fresh vegetables are usually absent in favor of fried chicken, chips, and soda.
"I got blindsided. I was really naïve," he said. "A for-profit business has no incentive to go into a food desert and set up shop. If you're a for-profit business and you're bringing in high-quality stuff, it costs. I would be out of business if I were to just go into low-income areas." Mark was referencing one of the most prominent critiques of the locavore ethos: the cost of food from nearby small farms is almost always substantially higher than the products of industrial production you can buy in the average supermarket or at the corner store. Critics accuse the eat-local movement of promoting two separate food systems: one that's supplied with healthy, "happy" food for all the people who can afford it, and another stocked with ecologically damaging, pesticide laden, processed junk for everyone else.
But when you're trying to start a business like Mark Lilly, you don't have the time or money to fix the world's problems. You find the customers who can help you succeed. So, while still doing some work in low-income communities, including occasionally giving away free food (efforts for which he has received high-profile publicity, including a three-page spread in People magazine), he has focused mostly on parts of town where people have a little extra money to spend and are attuned to the politics of local food. He runs his own version of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which he calls a USA for "urban-supported agriculture," that has people pay ahead of time for a season's worth of biweekly boxes of fresh food. He also delivers milk to people's doors early in the morning, just like guys used to do back in my grandmother's time.
"I'm giving people a way to opt out of the current system," he proudly told me as we rattled up a long, dirt drive into the cluttered parking area of Mountain View Dairy Farm. Proprietor Christie Huger, dressed for the heat in a white T-shirt, athletic shorts, and sandals, greeted us as Mark backed the truck up to the loading area by a dilapidated trailer office. They consulted for a few moments by a set of glass-fronted refrigerators before starting to load jars of blackberry yogurt and glass bottles of milk into the coolers in Mark's trailer.
Christie's tousled hair and tired smile suggested that it had already been a long day despite it not yet being noon. She used to be an art teacher, she told me, but she quit teaching two years ago to attend full-time to the farm. I asked her if it's been a hard transition, and she answered unhesitatingly: "If I went back to teaching it'd be easier. When you get up at four-thirty and then force yourself to come inside at eight at night to feed your kids dinner, it's hard." I wondered aloud if she planned to go back to teaching, and her answer was again immediate: no way.
I followed Christie's daughter Isabelle, an energetic girl in a peach tank top and a bowl haircut, toward a pen by the house where a tiny lamb was bleating manically. She grabbed a baby bottle full of water and kneeled down beside the animal.
"Do you want to be a farmer when you grow up?" I asked, thinking about that statistic I had recently come across: the average age of farmers in the United States is fifty-five and rising. We badly need kids to take an interest in this kind of life.
"I already am," she said matter-of-factly, squinting up at me in the sunshine. "I'm a sheep farmer. Because we have this little baby sheep."
My heart melted, and I realized that this moment, as much as the fresh, delicious milk itself, was what the consumers on Mark's bus are buying. From Mennonite farmers to milk in glass bottles to the old yellow school bus, Mark's business plays on city dwellers' sense of nostalgia for what they see as a safe, picturesque, and pastoral yesteryear. A common theme in the movement to reinvigorate local food systems is the idea of a David-and-Goliath battle between corporate overlords and the small family farmer, with the corporation representing the evils of mechanized, overcrowded, stifling, isolating modern life and the little guy laying claim to a virtuous existence of nature, space, freedom, and community. Not to mention little baby sheep.
Excerpted from Change Comes to Dinner by Katherine Gustafson. Copyright © 2012 Katherine Gustafson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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