Mark's Food Policy Blog

Finding Solutions to Today's Food System Challenges

So You Want to Change the World? Go Home!

About a year and a half ago, my son, Peter, told me he was leaving Brooklyn to move back to Hartford, Connecticut where he was born and raised. Having lived in New York for a while and recently completed a graduate degree at N.Y.U., he had soaked up enough of the Big Apple vibe to know that the struggle to be heard above the din was no longer worth the effort. The noise he’d have to make to even get an audition, in a manner of speaking, would break eardrums and what was left of his bank account. He told me, “You have to work so hard to meet the rent for that fourth-floor walk-up that you share with a virtual stranger, that you have no time to be creative or find fulfillment.”

His choice seemed odd to me. Wasn’t Brooklyn the hippest place on earth? And why Hartford, which perpetually teeters on the brink of bankruptcy and whose glory days are long gone? But as I made the rounds to seven U.S. cities researching my new book (Food Town, USA, https://islandpress.org/books/food-town-usa-0)*, I was surprised by how often I heard similar versions of Peter’s views echoed by other Millennials and even Gen-Xers.

While these cities were fine, unique places unto themselves, a hypothetical instrument capable of measuring “hipness” would probably show their combined scores to be less than that of one Brooklyn neighborhood. Why, I asked, would talented people voluntarily move from Portland to Boise, Seattle to Sitka, or Boston to Jacksonville? Is there some kind of reverse diaspora underway whereby the migratory herds that drove up rents in Seattle and packed cafes in Bushwick are disbursing themselves “back home?” While these trends may still be small, my interviews indicated these “homing instincts”—an earnest desire to set down roots on smaller and familiar ground–offered ample benefits for all concerned. Cumulatively, they were good for smaller cities struggling to reinvent themselves, good for emerging food scenes and the cause of food justice, and certainly good for a generation searching for meaning.

One of the cities I visited is Youngstown, Ohio which has a Rust Belt rap sheet a mile long. Closed steel mills, laid-off auto workers, and one of the highest black infant mortality rates in the country have been the city’s most distinguishing legacies for too long. But Dionne and Daniel Dowdy, who head up a project called United Returning Citizens, are trying to mobilize the energy and ideas of those who left Youngstown to come home and contribute to its rebirth.

According to Dionne, anybody who could get out of Youngstown in the 1980s and 1990s did. That included both Dionne and Daniel, African Americans who found the city’s conditions deteriorating so badly they had to leave. “The steel industry was the first domino to fall,” Daniel told me, and that was followed by “crack time,” the period when the crack cocaine epidemic swept across the country and took an extra big bite out of Youngstown. “This is when families fell apart; children were taking care of children; nobody could buy a home and the city started tearing down the empty ones.”

Each of them made changing Youngstown’s food environment a priority, largely because of their past experiences with farming and breastfeeding. Daniel is managing a three-lot vegetable production site and has a commitment for eight additional lots (there’s no lack of vacant land in Youngstown). He also operates a produce distribution system, which among other locations, takes food to a 146-unit senior housing complex in the city’s downtown.

Dionne is helping black men who are returning to the community from prison. Her vision is one of numerous black-owned businesses that become a path to self-reliance and serve as an alternative to what she refers to as the “social service dependency industry.” She said, “Our goal is to have a farm in the city because we believe in our community and children. And that’s how we hope to end this food desert,” referring to the complete absence of supermarkets in Youngstown.

The resettling of America’s under-forties may be the pendulum swinging back against the country’s moving mania. The U.S. Census Bureau says the average person will move over 11 times in her lifetime, and the average 30-year-old will have moved six times. I heard a note of weariness in the voices of returnees; after all, how many times can you gather up cardboard boxes from the local liquor store for packing and borrow your friend’s pick-up truck. Rootlessness breeds alienation and thwarts the formation of social capital, a necessary ingredient for healthy communities. The chance to stay put, give something back to your hometown, and even buy an affordable home in a reviving neighborhood (picking up a house for under $20,000 was common in Youngstown) is starting to sound more attractive to our gypsy children.

Millennials and Gen-Xers are also fueling a from-the-ground-up economy. In Sitka, Alaska, a town whose physical isolation gives it some of the highest food prices in America, young women like farmer Andrea Fraga, restauranteur Renee Trafton, and seaweed diva Amelia Mosher are infusing this town of 9,000 with imagination and entrepreneurism. Andrea grew up in Washington state but was drawn to the rugged independence of Alaska’s coast. As one of Sitka’s handful of farmers, she’s keeping the local farmers’ market well-stocked with her organic produce. Trained at some of New York City’s better restaurants, Renee Trafton opened and chefs the excellent Beak Restaurant that buys as much Alaska-grown and caught food as possible and employs a staff of 10. Amelia, born and raised in Sitka, returned home after a rather disappointing time in the Northwest to start Inspired by the Wild, a business which combines art and natural, local items like seaweed, to make jewelry and beauty products.

Wendell Berry once said that one of the cheapest things you can do to develop a struggling community is “get to know your neighbors [because] there is an economic value from such intangibles as getting to know a place and its people.” That kind of “native knowledge” was very much on display in Jacksonville, Florida, where a bevy of enterprising back-from-elsewhere folks were spinning a web of new connections. One of its exemplars is Nathan Ballentine, a.k.a. Man in Overalls, a modern-day Johnny Appleseed who hires himself out to homeowners, schools, and anybody who wants help installing or maintaining a vegetable garden. “My mission in life,” Nathan told me, “is to reconnect people with gardening.” His father, who grew up in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood, where Nathan moved back to a few years ago with his family, told him that there used to be several nearby grocery stores where now there are none. So, as Nathan sees it, he wants to teach people to “grow their own groceries,” and to that end he’s “developing community networks which are flexible and fast ways of delivering information and getting stuff done.” 

One of the feistiest people I met during the course of my research was Chef Amadeus, an African American culinary wizard who grew up in Jacksonville, was a private chef, had a specialty spice business, but moved away to become a part of the Seattle food scene, where he said, “food is a religion!” He came back, however, to take on the food deserts of the city’s predominantly African American Northside, where “there’s a fast-food place on every corner, and the healthiest food available is at Subway.” In addition to trying to bring healthy food to his community, Chef Amadeus is a one-man cheerleading squad for the city’s African American culinary scene, which in his opinion has been over looked and underappreciated by the city’s predominantly white media.

My journey clearly revealed the impact that under-forties are having on local food systems. As the USDA has noted, “Millennials will be an important driver in the economy for years to come.” They demand healthier and fresher food, and they eat out more often. While their presence in my seven cities wasn’t always large enough to create a food tsunami comparable to the one that engulfed Brooklyn, the fact that small numbers were showing up in all these places was a trend that should be encouraged by local officials who are looking for ways to raise the quality of community life. And what better pool to draw on than those who once lived there, and who, in their younger days may have said, “I’m never going back there again!”

Even when the “explosion” they cause in their respective food scenes is more like a “pop,” millennials and those a little older are causing an outsize ripple when they assume leadership roles as they are doing in all the cities I visited. The business and social entrepreneurs I met were generally under forty, but their energy and ideas were having an impact far beyond their relatively young years. And when those young people are returning to their hometowns “to make a difference,” “to give back,” or rediscover their roots–or as Amanda Mosher put it, “like salmon returning to their home streams” –those towns should do everything they can just short of a ticker-tape parade to welcome them back.

*When ordering directly from Island Press, use the code WINNE to receive a 20% discount.

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  1. Debbie
    July 3, 2019 at 6:33 pm #

    Very nicely said, Mark! I’m seeing this happen in my hometown of Gary, Indiana (not unlike Youngstown) and other places in the Rust Belt. Was in Ft. Wayne earlier this year for a local food forum, and I couldn’t believe the amount of energy and activity I witnessed in relation to local food system development and entrepreneurship. We’re definitely seeing the renaissance of smaller cities and towns that offer affordable neighborhoods, a strong sense of place and easy community connections.

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