Pros: A cornucopia of ideas and inspiration for those who want to make a difference
Cons: Brief tonal confusion at first, and obviously there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review book provided courtesy of the publisher
Journalist Katherine Gustafson spent a lot of time reporting on food and environmental issues. Unfortunately, she found that these issues tend to be depressing, and after a while people don’t want to hear about them any more—we all have a limited tolerance for bad news. So she set about looking for good news to counter the bad, or as she likes to say, “hoperaking” to counter the muckraking. Back and forth she went, examining businesses, farms, and initiatives that struggle to find a new way to bring healthy, organic (or close to it), well-treated food to those who want and need it.
Some of those initiatives are as simple as forming distribution networks that bring products from a variety of scattered small farms to a nearby city where folks are happy to pay a little extra for such fresh food. One man repurposed a school bus for just such a use.
Educational initiatives are often put into place by schools—anywhere from middle school to college programs—teaching children and adults the methods and know-how to feed themselves, and the importance of taking care of the land that feeds us. Some programs educate immigrant workers and help them to establish their own farms.
Many elderly farmers are finding that their children have no interest in continuing to run their farms after they’re gone. What they often don’t realize is that there are plenty of other young couples who’d love the chance to learn alongside an older couple and continue their traditions after they’re gone; some states have established programs to bring these two groups of people together.
Some colleges try to spend a certain amount of their student meal budget on local, small-farm establishments. One hospital has focused on good food and food education to such an extent that people in the surrounding community prefer to go there for dinner!
Other businesses concentrate on connecting sellers with buyers, farmers with each other (so they can learn from each other), and so on. Whereas whole communities are banding together to create community plots where people can raise their own edible foods.
The tone of the book is highly narrative and conversational. We get to see not just the wonderful ideas that people have come up with, but also the day-to-day roadblocks that get in the way. There’s humor and frustration, wonderment and awe. It took me a little while to realize that what initially seemed like an over-the-top zeal on the author’s part was primarily a quirky and energetic sense of humor that I swiftly came to enjoy.
I think Ms. Gustafson’s Change Comes to Dinner: How Vertical Farmers, Urban Growers, and Other Innovators Are Revolutionizing How America Eats would be most useful to two groups of people. One, those already trying to make a change in how we grow, obtain, and eat our food. These folks might find further inspiration and hope, solutions to their problems in things that others have done, or advance warning of troubles they might run into up the road. Two, those who want to make a difference but who really have no idea what needs to be done or can be done. The stories of all these amazing folks and how they’ve succeeded (or sort-of succeeded) might give the reader a better idea of what might be done in her own community with the resources available.