By Hailey Grohman
UVM Food Feed contributor Darryl Benjamin is one half of the author team behind a hotly anticipated new addition to the sustainable food systems bookshelf: Farm to Table: The Essential Guide to Sustainable Food Systems for Students, Professionals, and Consumers. A New England Culinary Institute professor for seven years, Darryl now teaches in the Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems program at Green Mountain College.
Part textbook, part how-to, Benjamin and his co-author Lyndon Virkler’s book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in sourcing, serving, or even consuming farm-to-table food. It is divided into two distinct parts: Farm, a history of modern agriculture and its impacts on society; and Table, a guide to employing the principles of farm-to-table philosophy in a variety of different sectors.
We talked to Darryl about this exciting new book, available September 29 from Chelsea Green Publishing.
In the book’s introduction, you mention that the purpose of the book is to serve the food movement. Which stage in the food movement do you think is currently happening, and how does this book fit into its development?
Now is an exciting time because people are beginning to understand the food they regularly purchase at the supermarket isn’t exactly what they thought it would be. Processed food has hidden dangers that only now are beginning to materialize in the public eye. My book, co-written with Chef Lyndon Virkler, is intended give a full picture of where we stand now with industrial food and where we need to be with sustainable, healthy, fresh, whole foods.
You quote Wendell Berry several times, as well as other notable activists and leaders in the food movement. Which food systems actors do you think are doing the most inspiring or impactful work today?
I love Wendell Berry because he’s able to put a human face on the challenges farmers and others in the food chain face. His humanistic assessments are expressed in concise, powerful terms that speak to both mind and heart. I admire Vendana Shiva, Mark Bittman, Paul Thompson, Joel Salatin, Dan Barber, and many others because they are all educators as well as advocates for policy reform.
Photo by Charles Hermanowski
In many ways, this book could only have been written in Vermont, as many of the lessons imparted were learned in the context of Vermont food systems. Can you talk about its applicability in other states or regions, ones with less infrastructure for or interest in local food?
What you say is true. Many examples are Vermont-centric. However, this is not to imply that solutions only work in Vermont. The book has a national as well as global scope. We are indeed fortunate to live in a state frequently referred to as ground zero for breakthrough models for local, equitable, and sustainable fresh food. However, I spent five months in Florida writing part of the book. When it comes to farm to table, they are almost the anti-Vermont. Most people I met never heard of it. One person asked if it was a movie. There was a recent article on green-washing in Florida where restaurants routinely lied about farm to table fare while advertising its virtues. The book is perhaps more valuable in Florida than Vermont, where it is preaching to the choir. It can be used as a standard, a guide, a textbook, a consumer education book on how to achieve sustainable food with its attendant benefits.
The chapters of the Table section of the book are divided by the types of food service environments that could apply farm-to-table practices: restaurants, primary and secondary schools, healthcare, colleges, and more. Which of these sectors do you see as having the most potential for change in the food system?
I feel strongly that Edible School Yard and similar education programs mentioned in the “Models of Food Education, School Gardens, and Farm-to-School” section are the likeliest to make a difference. Education is at the heart of a healthy consumer, community, and business. Imagine a memorable experience for children who plant seeds and grow them into something they can eat in their own cafeteria. Vertically integrating sustainable food education into the curriculum of all grades at increasing depth would have the effect of rippling out to reshape the political, social, economic, and environmental sectors of the fresh food movement. Education is the crowbar we need to pry ourselves from dependence on the convenience of processed foods.
Finally, what are some steps that consumers can take to incorporate farm-to-table principles into their daily food habits?
Ask questions at your supermarket (avoid products with ingredients you can’t pronounce or readily understand from the label) and restaurants you frequent—ask where the food is sourced and request local, regional, or organic food when possible. Check out websites such as Civil Eats to find out how to start and what you can do, and read as many books as possible on the subject. I would be remiss, of course, not to point out that there are many resources on steps consumers can take to actively support the farm to table movement right inside the book.
-Hailey Grohman is a graduate student in food systems with research interests in food communication and media.