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Watts: Local Food And Rural Places

courtesy of Stowe Farmers Market
'Local food' is often defined as food sold within 100 miles of its origin.

A few years ago the book: Hardwick the Town Food Saved brought national attention to the small Northeast Kingdom Vermont town. The book profiled four entrepreneurs with a shared vision and a commitment to a locally focused ag and food economy. Their goals included figuring how to make agriculture the highest and best use of the land, to create good jobs for the community, to be good stewards of the land, and to offer something to the community beyond commercial development.

To find out if it was working, Kathryn Olson, a sociology professor at Boston College, spent several years researching Hardwick’s commitment to local food to determine if it really did revitalize the town, add jobs and create a renewed sense of community – or whether 'local food' is really just another kind of snobbery that benefits largely the wealthiest and most educated population and excludes the less well off.

Embedded in the concept of 'local food' – often defined as food sold within 100 miles of its origin – are a variety of economic, environmental and social values, from a focus on creating jobs to increasing civic engagement, community interaction and the more equitable distribution of food.

Olson set out to look at these values to see if she could understand the impacts of the Hardwick experiment – a town of about 3000 people 30 miles north of Montpelier.

For example, on the economy, Olson found that between 2000 and 2015, Hardwick created 290 new jobs and unemployment dropped to 1.1 percent. At the same time, the number of families living in poverty decreased by about one fifth.

Olson also found more community engagement, more emphasis on food education in the schools and a greater access to food by town residents. In part, credit goes to a locally based organization, the Center for an Ag Economy, which works to bring the local foods into area schools and conducts fund raising.

While the findings are positive overall, Olson does note challenges when it comes to including all town residents as well as a shifting understanding of what 'local food' means.

But as we look for ways to jump-start other towns that have seen hard times – there’s clearly much to learn from the Hardwick Experiment.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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