Excerpts from “Food Town, USA”

Chapter 1. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – Excerpted Version

I’m gazing out the passenger window of Olga Negron’s car at the most sprawling complex of warehouses I’ve ever seen. Devoid of any signs of human life, hundreds of acres of land are scraped flat as a pancake for giant, windowless buildings stocked full of merchandise for Amazon, Walmart, and Reeb, to name just some of the more prominent brands. The area, known to logistics wizards as LV Industrial Park VII, has roads wide enough to handle eighteen-wheelers running four abreast, which makes Olga’s SUV feel like a toy.

This is the landscape of the new American economy, where no one makes anything anymore, but they sure do buy! We’re in eastern Pennsylvania, only a few minutes from the New Jersey border and barely an hour from Port Newark, where thousands of containers of non-American-made stuff lands every day. From there, containers are loaded on trucks, which take them to Bethlehem, their temporary resting place until a signal from Arkansas or Silicon Valley directs them to a Walmart in Baton Rouge or a warehouse in Texas. The good society turned into the goods society, and in the case of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it stands on the ruins of the industrial society. If you dig a few feet beneath LV (Lehigh Valley) Industrial Park VII, you will find the remnants of Bethlehem Steel, once the citadel of this nation’s industrial prowess.

“This is the largest brownfield site in the country,” Olga tells me. When she’s not serving as the first Latina elected to the Bethlehem City Council, she works for a law firm managing hundreds of personal injury claims. Her clients are Lehigh Valley residents, many of them warehouse workers and 80 percent of whom are Latino. “Warehouse jobs aren’t great, but better to build warehouses on brownfields than farmland,” she says with the hint of a sigh, one that presaged other sighs I’d hear during my time in Bethlehem. It’s a sound like a blues song, one that if you could write lyrics for might go like this: “There were good times, there were bad times / But today’s times ain’t as good as the good times / Ain’t as bad as the bad times.”

For more than one hundred years, Bethlehem Steel sprawled across sixteen hundred acres in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Its beating heart was a series of belching smokestacks and blast furnaces that forged billions of tons of steel to build, among other things, 1,100 World War II warships. Bethlehem Steel closed in 1995, a victim of a changing world economy, throwing thirty thousand people out of work and terminating the hopes of generations of families that could make solid middle-class lives from good-paying union jobs. The industrial site remained vacant for many years, holding groundwater contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethane. Great truckloads of soil had to be hauled away to landfills so that Bethlehem could begin to reinvent itself and create a new identity.

Olga’s vehicle wound its way out of Warehouse World into the city’s nearby core. We soon passed Sands Casino, which was the vanguard of Bethlehem’s post-steel redevelopment—gaming being a tried-and-true government economic-revitalization strategy that too often defines the limits of the public sector’s imagination. In the case of the Sands, however, a flickering flame of originality turned into a soft, warm glow of creativity. Yes, it brought roulette wheels to a city formerly powered by waterwheels, but in an uncommon flight of fancy, the casino’s developers would preserve the skeletal remains of Big Steel: smokestacks and boilers, massive I beam sculptures, and giant, ancient gears more reminiscent of the Stone Age than the industrial age. Bold architectural acts of adaptive reuse turned irreplaceable masonry structures into art spaces and museums. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, immigrants traveled across the globe to become steelworkers in Bethlehem, each day walking from densely packed neighborhoods to the mill. Today’s residents and visitors can still experience an authentic twenty-first-century version of the city’s gritty past, generally free of Disneyfication and insincerity.

The casino would not only celebrate the arts but also become the first place in Bethlehem to embrace the country’s growing love affair with food. Chef Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans fame would open his first of three restaurants in 2009 in the casino and its adjoining hotel. It was certainly a coup for a city of seventy-four thousand to be the only place in the Northeast with Lagasse restaurants.

Bethlehem would follow a trajectory from mills to warehouses to casinos to arts to food—never a straight line, of course, but certainly a lifeline for workers cast adrift by the sinking of Big Steel. Other forces would contribute as well, such as the city’s long-standing academic institutions, Lehigh University and Moravian College; its major hospital, St. Luke’s; and in an ironic twist of history, the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center. Barely within commuting distance of New York City, the Lehigh Valley became a refuge for thousands who believed that the metro New York region now had a giant target on its back for fanatics of all stripes. Following 9/11, Bethlehem itself experienced its biggest population bump since 1950.


Brew Works

As one who came to Bethlehem twenty-five years ago from Puerto Rico, Olga takes Bethlehem’s renaissance with a grain of salt. “It’s still too controlled by special interests, money, and good ole boy politics,” she says. While acknowledging the big players who hit economic development home runs, Olga puts more stock in the hundreds of singles that its residents scattered north and south, east and west. These grassroots efforts have created dozens of restaurants, a new Charter Arts high school, a food and farm program at the community college, a new supermarket in a food desert, farmers’ markets, festivals, and numerous no-profit and nonprofit organizations that raised the city’s quality of life while also taking care of those left behind.

You get a quick idea of what these connections look like while chomping on a Brewers’ Grain-Fed Burger at Fegley’s Brew Works. It’s a half-pound, intense beef experience from a cow raised at nearby Koehler Farms and fattened on spent grain from the Susquehanna Brewing Company. Not only does it take your palate to those special places only a superior burger can go, but its sheer righteousness envelops you in a virtuous circle of sustainability. As I’m washing it down with a Hop’solutely Triple India Pale Ale in one of those oh-so-warm-and-cozy wooden booths, I’m joined by Rich and Diane Fegley, owners, operators, and inventors of Fegley’s Brew Works.

“I went to Drexel University for an English degree, and worked for the Johnson and Johnson Corporation, but it wasn’t until I got into home brewing that I got interested in the restaurant business,” Rich tells me as he unravels the Brew Works creation story. After a stint in Boulder, he and Diane returned to Bethlehem, their hometown and still home to their extended families. They were determined to open a restaurant and brewery, which they did at what was the absolute nadir of Bethlehem’s post–World War II existence. “The Bethlehem Steel plant had been slowly shutting down for years and the downtown had been bled by the malls and box stores. On the same day in 1998 when we opened our doors on Main and Broad, the Historic Hotel Bethlehem [just down the street] declared bankruptcy and closed.” Rich and Diane were either the most courageous and committed citizens of their generation, or Pennsylvania’s most foolish entrepreneurs.

For a couple of years, their restaurant and brewery was a lonely outpost in what decades earlier had been the city’s commercial hub. However, their bet—clearly a long shot at the time—paid off, but most important, their business gave heart to others who hoped that downtown, and the city as a whole, would turn around. And it did. Historic Bethlehem, with the Moravian Book Shop as the country’s oldest bookstore, proved too strong a draw, and the Historic Hotel Bethlehem would be renovated and returned to its past glory.

For their part, the Fegleys are committed to sustainability and a more expansive definition of “local.” In addition to recycling brewer’s grains through livestock feed, they work to reduce waste, including recently eliminating plastic straws, and are active composters. “‘Local’ is problematic because you can’t get enough local,” Rich tells me. He also notes that the big food service companies like Sysco and US Foods are certainly offering more sustainable food but no locally produced food. “But with their technology and online purchasing systems, they sure do make it convenient,” he notes. Nevertheless, when Brew Works is not buying from farmers like Koehler Farms or Breakaway Farms and Butchery, they are using regional distributors like Pocono ProFoods. By keeping their purchasing and overall orientation regional, Rich and Diane see their business having a significant economic impact. They opened a second restaurant in nearby Allentown in 2007, and altogether the two sites employ almost two hundred full- and part-time staff members. Brew Works inspired dozens of other food and beverage entrepreneurs, and pioneered Bethlehem into a twenty-first-century food scene.


As much as “the food scene has blossomed in Bethlehem,” Diane LaBelle says, “it’s the arts that saved the city.” LaBelle is director and cofounder of the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, which opened in 2013. She deliberately chose to locate the school on Bethlehem’s South Side, in a redevelopment area that qualified for the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program. The school has 650 students but no cafeteria, which according to LaBelle, is partly by design. She told me that she wants the school to be an integral and supportive member of the community. That means all those students must find lunch off school grounds. Similarly, the school offers ninety-two evening student performances per year that are attended by friends and family members who often use the occasion to dine at South Side restaurants.

Charter Arts isn’t the only educational institution in the area. From the South Side’s river valley, you ascend quickly to the mountainous heights that envelop 150-year-old Lehigh University. Lehigh is an old institution that until recently maintained a guarded relationship between its campus and the community. When it finally began doing some outreach—breaking through classic town/gown paranoia—a pent-up dam of economic demand flooded nearby neighborhoods. But regardless of timing and intention, both schools are now vital contributors to Bethlehem’s South Side food scene.

For its part, Charter Arts draws students from twelve surrounding counties and forty-seven school districts. In Diane’s estimation, the arts are a growing field—an industry of its own making—that her kids will move into for decades to come. But having said that, she also describes how food is integrated into the school’s life and curriculum. “Food is a big part of the language curriculum, and soon we will have a professional kitchen,” I was told when I spoke briefly to a creative writing class during my visit. But for the meantime, the lack of a cafeteria remains problematic, especially since 35 percent of the school’s students are eligible for the free and reduced-price federal lunch program. Because there’s the economic impact from students buying lunch locally—650 students multiplied by five dollars a day—in a community that still needs more money flowing through it, the school will offer only limited eat-in options for the foreseeable future.

Above and beyond what happens within the school building, Diane maintains that the school’s presence is a community magnet that has drawn many new businesses to the immediate area. Her examples are interesting because none of them—a brewpub, a distillery, and a meadery (where wine is produced from honey)—could be legally frequented by her kids, but school’s existence as a large institution with eating and drinking parents and faculty, combined with thousands of semi-legal drinking Lehigh students up the hill, leverages investment by all kinds of food and beverage interests.

That there is a synergy between food and art, built on the ruins of steel, seems like the fairest way to resolve the question of which one has contributed the most to Bethlehem’s revival. One without the other would likely have led to very mediocre results all around. But what’s still unresolved is the issue of social justice. As the area with the highest poverty rates and most people of color, the South Side is not treated equitably by the retail food system.

I’m having a cup of coffee with Javier Toro at the Lit café, where we are surrounded by dozens of Charter Arts students doing their best to assist the local economy. A member of the Bethlehem Food Coop board of directors—a coop without a business location or significant dues-paying membership yet—Javier is explaining to me why Bethlehem needs a food co‑op and why the South Side is a food desert.

The simplest explanation, according to Javier, is that, “the marketplace doesn’t respond with good food.” He acknowledges that the neighborhood has many bodegas and corner stores, but it is served by only two medium-sized grocery stores. One is called Ahart’s Market, which I toured and left as soon as I could. It was a mess, small, poorly lit, and retained the odor of thousand-year-old objects excavated from peat bogs. Reviews on Yelp and similar sites confirmed my impressions. The second store, however, was a C‑Town Supermarket on Third Street that opened about three years ago, with the help of some public financing. While still small by current standards, it was clean, well-lit, and stocked with good selections of perishable food items. It also offers a delivery service: a godsend for many of the area’s seniors. C Towns are independently owned franchises widely prevalent throughout the Northeast, especially in urban areas. Online reviews as well as comments from others I interviewed generally gave this C Town high marks.

Javier, however, doesn’t feel that the C Town adequately resolves the community’s need for good food, especially food that is preferred by Bethlehem’s Caribbean people, such as Puerto Ricans. Hispanics make up 30 percent of Bethlehem’s population, and he reminds me that they have higher rates of diabetes. “Overall, our community’s health is not good—too much fried food, sugar, and salt.” Jokingly, he adds, “We Puerto Ricans can lose our Spanish in two generations, but we never lose our eating habits, which aren’t always healthy!”

The question of whether or not C Town—or any other supermarket, for that matter—turns a food desert into a food oasis pivots on Javier’s use of the phrase “good food.” The definition of “good” is perhaps more subjective than “healthy and affordable,” a goal that probably everyone agrees is worth achieving. It’s not that residents or community leaders challenge CTown’s ability to meet basic food needs; it’s that Javier and the five hundred households that have made a preliminary commitment to the coop have set the bar higher. “Good enough” is not good enough in the eyes of those who now want the best, and given that Bethlehem’s South Side is a five-mile crosstown drive to the Wegmans, a co‑op food store in or near the South Side just might be the ticket.

But there’s something else at stake that Javier describes with passion, and that’s the tradition of cooperation and the way it empowers traditionally underserved people. “Puerto Rico has a long history of co-ops,” Javier tells me, and perhaps even more relevant to Bethlehem is the fact that cooperation is a local ethic that grew out of its centuries-old diversity. “The history of Bethlehem is based on cooperation. People came here from so many different places to work in the steel mills that they had to learn how to cooperate, or they never would have made it.”

As of this writing, the Bethlehem Food Coop has launched a membership campaign with a target of three hundred dues-paying members ($300 per household, payable in monthly installments of $25). Once that target is reached, the board of directors will commence the search for a storefront location. The coop has an active online presence, a qualified board of directors, and a thoughtful development plan.


Northampton Community College

It’s a sunny but chilly April morning that finds me stumbling over soggy turf and dodging woodchuck holes in an attempt to keep up with the long-legged Kelly Allen. He’s an English professor at Northampton Community College located on Bethlehem’s exurban northern fringe, but also the inspiration behind East Forty Acre Farm and the school’s emerging food study programs. If Charter Arts is the Lehigh Valley’s training ground for future artists, the Northampton Community College where aspiring young foodies, farmers, and chefs come to acquire their skills.

Currently, Kelly and his program are actively using about 4.5 the property’s 40 acres for various garden beds, cold frames, high-tunnel greenhouses, beehives, compost bins, and even a wood-fired kiln—because the arts just can’t be too far behind where food is present. A large section of farm includes a wooded portion and open fields that Kelly wants to maintain for wildlife. An additional seven acres that adjoins their production field will be leased to a young local farmer for vegetable and herb production. And to bring along the surrounding, nonacademic community, the farm includes twenty-four community garden beds.

“This land is owned by NCC, but for a long time, all they did was put down weed and feed and cut the grass twice a year,” Kelly said. The place was in bad condition, and the soil nutrients were depleted. He tells a story that he now takes as an omen for the school’s active use of the land. “I saw a mangy fox out here just before we started work; its coat was missing fur and it was clearly undernourished. After a year of restoring the land, I saw the same fox again, but this time its coat and body were full, and its eyes were bright.” Clearly the community college’s students saw it the same way. What Kelly thought would be a three-year process to get the land ready and the farm up and running took only eight months because enthusiasm for the place and the program was so high. Today, about 150 students participate in various ways throughout the school year, which includes some paid student summer staff.

Unlike most professions I’ve encountered, food system work seems to attract people with a personal story that often illuminates their choice of career. Kelly’s story is no different, though perhaps surprisingly dramatic. He came from a poor family in Western Pennsylvania, where all the mills had shut down and unemployment was high. His father had a drinking problem and his mother needed food stamps in order to feed the family. Kelly took up hunting, not for recreation but as a way to help put food on the table. “I never forgot being poor. When I met my wife, we started homesteading, and through gardening I came back to food.” His attitude shifted from one of scarcity to one of abundance, something that’s easily detectable when you listen to the animated way he describes the past, present, and future efforts of the farm and the school’s proposed food studies program.

“Food is a means of experiential learning,” is how Kelly described the farm’s purpose. But East Forty Farm’s success has clearly made food a growing part of NCC’s academic mission. There are what might be called integrated activities, such as the farm’s getting fifteen five-gallon buckets each week of compostable food waste from the school’s dining service, and the on-campus farmers’ market that’s held in the main courtyard every Thursday. But there are also plans under way to build a year-round facility dedicated to food studies and food science, both of which will be degree-granting programs. The timetable calls for a grand opening in 2021. In the meantime, Kelly is infusing this robust community college with a fervor for food and farming that borders on the religious. To that end, his students are bound to carry the gospel of healthy eating and sustainability with them for the rest of their lives.


Taking Care of Our Own

Just as I was falling into woodchuck holes at East Forty Acre Farm, I’m now catching the toe of my boot on slabs of sidewalk cracked and lifted by impertinent tree roots. Diane Elliott is giving me a walking tour of the South Side neighborhood that rings New Bethany Ministries, the multiservice, multi-care facility she directs. Diane wants me to see the gritty side of Bethlehem that is physically close to the arts and restaurants of the historic downtown but miles apart when it comes to income. “The Lehigh Valley has sixty-two thousand food-insecure people,” she tells me. “New Bethany’s food pantry gives out a three-day supply of food to three hundred households each month, and we serve one hundred seventy-five people a hot meal each day.” There are twenty-one emergency food pantries scattered across Bethlehem, and right now we’re walking through the part of the city where most of those food pantry recipients live.

This is also where former steelworkers raised their families. Once solidly middle-class, it got a bit tattered at the edges, declined, and eventually became the place where people who were struggling to get by could find cheap rents. But even that is changing, with homes that used to go for $20,000 now selling for $200,000 as more folks with means discover Bethlehem’s attractions. This only pushes the renters into tighter and more difficult surroundings. “According to HUD data, a fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is almost eleven hundred a month,” said Diane. “To say that we have a housing crisis here is an understatement.” That is a good part of the reason she prides herself on New Bethany’s commitment to providing shelter for the most needy—thirteen transitional family units and fifteen single-room occupancy (SRO) units.

As we’re settling into a booth at a nearby coffee shop largely populated by Lehigh students, I ask Diane, who is sixty-eight and an attorney, why she continues to run a place that by her own admission is a 24‑7 job. “I was treated badly as a law student and as a lawyer. I was told by male lawyers that women can’t be good lawyers, because they cry. Every time I’d walk into the courthouse, I had to show my credentials, even though the guards never asked the male lawyers.” As a result of this prejudicial treatment, she became a public defender. But when the public defender’s office found out she was pregnant, they let her go. At that point, she’d had enough, which is when she came to work for New Bethany.

After a long and effective tenure at New Bethany, Diane plans to retire soon. That’s not an admission that she’s ready to walk away from her larger mission of advocating for those who need housing, food, and jobs. In spite of the C-Town grocery store, for instance, she thinks that the South Side is still a food desert, so one of her crusades will be to find a full-line supermarket to locate there. And she also plans on speaking out when the occasion calls for it. This happened recently when a few blustering politicians got on their high horses to repeat the old saw about fraud among welfare recipients. When she wrote an op-ed that defended recipients of public assistance, and then asked about the billions of dollars in fraudulent behavior on the part of bank executives, she received a number of threatening emails. That’s not likely to stop her.

It turns out that one of Diane’s “partners in crime” is Olga Negron. Between the two of them, they’ve been fighting the good fight in south Bethlehem for a couple of decades. Olga serves on Diane’s board of directors; Diane helps Olga and other women and people of color get elected to local office. They both share a story of resilience in the face of adversity and a refusal to accept second best for the people they represent. The interaction between diversity and change remains Bethlehem’s guiding narrative—a relatively small city with a powerful past searching for a new identity that encompasses the depth and breadth of its population.

Olga suggests that we get a cup of coffee at Café the Lodge, a restaurant and bakery that is run by and for people recovering from mental health illnesses. It’s a little rough around the edges, the service has its challenges, but the scone I was served was pretty good. In a way, it’s Olga’s kind of place—give people a chance to make something of themselves while giving back to the community. “I grew up in a food environment,” she tells me. “In Puerto Rico, we had two hundred chickens, three avocado trees, guava and mango trees; my father built and ran a local supermarket in the mountains. He could look at a live pig and tell you exactly how much meat was on it.”

Organizing and helping those who were injured and used up by the warehouse industry were the natural antecedent to running for political office. All that community engagement is probably why she was the highest vote-getter in the 2018 election for the City of Bethlehem’s eight city council seats. And just in case you think she forgot her food roots, she had three daughters along the way, all of whom are vegetarians today.

There is a personal stake that runs deep in Bethlehem. It manifests itself among people like Diane Elliott, Olga, and Kelly, who aren’t going to be beat down by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or old ways, old boys, or the old guard. It includes people like Diane LaBelle and Javier, whose roots in the community are strong and whose commitment is unwavering. Resilience in Bethlehem is more or less wired into its residents’ genetic code, given the hits they’ve taken. As Diane Elliott said to me, “I know what it’s like to be laid off. Everyone knows someone who has lost a job in Bethlehem.”

Food Town, USA: Seven Unlikely Cities That are Changing the Way We Eat by Mark Winne.
Copyright © 2019 Mark Winne. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.