Category: Non-Fiction/Food Politics – Paperback: 288 pages – Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group) – Source: Publisher via NetGalley
First Published: 2012
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.
A Sample Quote: ‘In the popular imagination, after all, “local farm” and “small farm” have come to be just about synonymous. “We don’t talk about how big,” she told me. “It’s about local.” The central question is whether they can trace the food back to the original farmer.’
(conversation with Iowa State University’s director of dining services about the 1.5% of her budget she is allowed to spend on local food and how she prioritises local suppliers.)
This book is an interesting addition to the already well-established, go-to books of American food politics – Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation etc. It approaches the same issues (food miles, lack of awareness on where food comes from, mechanisation of the food chain, health scares like salmonella for example) but it approaches them from a more positive angle. In a style that the author describes as ‘hoperaking’ instead of muck-raking she sets out to visit those who are working towards more sustainable, local and healthy food and food markets. The book’s introduction sets the scene well when it proclaims ‘Our Country Deserves Better Than Cheetos’. Even a non-American can nod at that.
Gustafson’s work is positive yes, but she’s still journalist enough to see when co-op models can’t be scaled up or when a solution doesn’t answer all its critics. She obviously cares but she’s not blinded by idealism and it makes for a much more palatable read. It gives her stories much more credibility.
Of the places and people she visited the most eye-opening to me were the ones I knew least about. There were two stories in particular I wanted to mention in my review. The first was the story of the Land Link schemes designed to pair up elderly farmers who have no next of kin with young, eager farmers who typically have no immediately way of buying land outright was something I’d never heard of. The idea of schemes designed to keep some land out of the hands of big-agribusiness seems an obvious necessity now I think about it. Of course there needs to be a handover service when the average age of a US farmer is 55 and rising each year. That it can be done gently and gradually to give every one security is a wonderful success.
The second example story I immediately wanted to share was that of the New Milford hospital, a hospital that has converted to making fresh, local and inspiring food for its patients and staff and opening its canteen up as a public cafe. The culinary gardens are open to the public too. The hospital gets involved in training young chefs. They’ve built up the local farmers’ market to include more stalls and entertainment to encourage more visitors. Local pediatricians have been issued with tokens for the farmers’ market to give to those children that lack fresh fruit and vegetables. They feed senior citizens cheap, healthy meals in evening social events. It’s a hospital striving to be at the heart of its active, well-fed and healthy community.
This collection is an honest appraisal of the issues facing those trying to keep some of the American food chain independent and local. It’s also a relaxed and inspiring road trip through some of the best schemes, approaches and figures out there fighting for what they believe in. The combination of honest pragmatism and hoperaking makes this an unusual book, but one definitely worth adding to the shelves for balance.