I’ve always wondered what it takes to turn around a really down and out place. By which I mean the type of city where the only visible signs of prosperity are a well-lit McDonalds and half-full car wash. Some will say that the only hope rests with bold, inspired leadership by politicians or captains of industry. Others proclaim that better days will come from that big economic home run, like a sprawling new research park where young tech nerds park their wheels in sculptured bike racks. And then there are the more modest voices who quietly, almost sheepishly subscribe to the notion that ball games are won with a lot of singles.
Utica, New York, nestled in the Mohawk Valley and tucked against the banks of the legendary Erie Canal, is a gritty place with no big hitters to rescue it from the throes of a long, steady economic decline. But a team of hardworking food activists are putting the brakes on its road to perdition by placing food at the center of the city’s revitalization plate.
One part of the Utica’s renewal strategy focuses on the beverage side of the food system, namely beer. As one who misspent a portion of his youth quaffing vast quantities of a very mediocre brew called Utica Club – a period of my life I’d prefer to forget if only I could remember it – I was well aware of the city’s reputation for mass produced suds. But by producing beers more recently that you could actually get your lips around, Utica re-purposed itself in line with 21st century microbrew tastes. When Sam Adams first hit the market in the early 1980s – an event I still regard with great reverence – guess where it was first produced? Utica’s Saranac Brewery which dates back to 1888 and now supports 35 fine styles of its own brand. It also contract brews for a number of other popular microbrews.
But in spite of a success story or two, Utica still has a long row to hoe to find its way forward to the good old days. As a local insurance agent told me over bagels at Café Domenico – the best bagel I’ve eaten north of Yonkers – “Utica is New York’s last rust belt city to bounce back from a decades-long recession.” Indeed, slogans like “Utica, the city that God forgot,” and “Last one out of Utica please turn out the lights” were rampant in the 1980s and 90s.
I can remember driving my daughter to nearby Hamilton College in 1996 by way of Utica – a route the pricey liberal arts college strongly discouraged parents from taking – and wondering where everyone was. The city’s population was crashing at a precipitous rate but plateaued at 60,000 with the help of mini-waves of refugees (now 17 percent of Utica’s population) like Bosnians, Somalis, Burmese, and Indochinese. If it wasn’t for a severely troubled world sending Utica its “hungry, [its] poor, [its] huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” that light switch might very well be in the off position today. Depending on who you talk to, there are now between 36 and 52 languages spoken in Utica’s public schools. Like the Italians in the early 20th century and the Welsh in the 19th, immigrant groups have been the Mohawk Valley’s unsung economic engine.
The short stories shared around the table at the newly formed regional Food Policy Advisory Council made vivid food’s role in breathing new life into the region’s lungs. Led by an indefatigable Cornell Extension agent, Jim Manning, the 25 or so food system stakeholders spoke of gardens, farmers’ markets, food-focused training and education programs, and perhaps most importantly, their emerging collaboration for change.
Russ Stewart, a member of the local school board described plans for new school greenhouses and efforts to bring more locally produced food into the cafeterias. “Veggie scrips,” special health provider vouchers issued to pre-diabetic/diabetic patients to purchase produce at farmers’ markets, had public health worker Anamarie excited. Hamilton College sociology professor, Steve Ellingson, described how students and the administration were getting on board with the national Real Food Challenge campaign to bring more local, sustainable and fair food to their campus. With a sizeable food budget at its disposal, the college can purchase a lot of Mohawk Valley agricultural products. And Marty Broccoli (yes, his real name), a Cornell Extension colleague of Manning’s, shared news of a $280,000 agri-tourism grant that came to the region for economic development purposes.
Perhaps the most enthusiasm was generated by projects designed to bring the city’s new immigrants into Utica’s rejuvenated food system. Beth Irons, who runs the county public farmers’ market, regaled the group with her new “Share a Recipe, Share a Memory” recipe swap which is at the center of her cross-cultural food education program. Building on Utica’s extraordinary diversity, she wants to tease out the food stories held in the hearts and minds of the city’s many new arrivals. Beth was especially pleased with her ability to pare the city’s 40 or so languages down to 8 for her farmers’ market flyer translation. In a similar vein, Cathe Bullwinkle from the county health department waxed ecstatic over the explosive growth in community gardens. She reported that over 100 new garden beds had been built and spoken for, and that a new three-acre site should become available for urban farming.
This is the kind of singles hitting that, when woven together with good teamwork, can win ball games. But it doesn’t hurt to have a long-ball hitter on the squad as well, especially when the bases are loaded and it’s the bottom of the ninth. Debra Richardson doesn’t so much carry a big bat as she does a whisk, welding torch, and smartphone, the latter being necessary to keep track of a dizzying array of activities. As director of the Leaf, Loaf, & Ladle, a social enterprise that uses foodservice-based training to empower and prepare people for employment, she’s at the heart of the region’s food movement.
In an attempt to keep up with her during one 24-hour period, I saw her supervise a young autistic man’s vegetable cutting lesson at Leaf, Loaf, & Ladle. The veggies would go into a dish being prepared for elders attending that day’s congregate lunch. Debra set up the coffee service for the food policy council meeting that was taking place that afternoon in her building (she’s also one of the council’s original organizers). During the entire course of the council’s two hour meeting, she maintained an alert, upright posture never slumping into her chair like we all do when things get a bit tedious. She listened, commented frequently, and played what can only be described as a gentle coaching role in an effort to encourage others and, like a switchboard operator, connect people to one another. Rushing home from the meeting, she began her own food preparation for a local Slow Food supper she was hosting for a dozen friends that evening. The event took place in her rain-soaked backyard and featured homemade pizza topped with local kale, goat cheese, and garlic scapes, and washed down with Saranac beer. How was the pizza cooked? In her outdoor, wood-fired mud oven that she had constructed two years before, of course! Dessert consisted of local strawberries and cream from a nearby dairy. She had to clean up and get to bed early since she had to be at the Utica farmers’ market at 8:00 the following morning to set up the EBT machine so that the farmers could accept SNAP benefits.
As the Slow Food band of 12 noshed their pizza and laughed at each other’s mud-streaked legs, the chatter swung between despair and hope for Utica’s future. One guest noted that the well-kept, three-story house across the street with the “For Sale” sign in front was listed for only $40,000. Someone else chimed in that the city’s largest employer, St. Elizabeth Hospital, was laying people off (the TV news that night was filled with footage of angry fireman protesting recent cutbacks). But then the mood shifted when one pizza muncher mentioned a new farm-based business that was opening up, and another sharing the news that this had been the best year for maple syrup production in New York’s woods in a long time. Good food and good food news seemed to lift the party’s spirits, and that may be the promise that Utica’s faithful are destined to fulfill.
And what about Debra’s welding torch? In a rare moment when she had time on her hands, Debra decided she wanted to learn welding. She did it not so much to have a trade to fall back on, and not, as I wondered, to keep these emerging coalitions “welded” together. I suspect it had something to do with a fire inside that wasn’t going to let Utica’s lights go out.
There’s an eerie parallel with civilization’s original Utica founded by the Phoenicians on the Mediterranean shores of modern day Tunisia. As history tells it that Utica is no more because deforestation created massive soil erosion that wiped out the settlement’s agricultural capacity. Maybe Debra and her food partners know this tale which is why they are eager to pass that fire from one to the next with a real hope that food will become a combustible force for change.