Rust Belt Cities Are Trading Factories for Farms

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the latest city to try to bolster its local ag economy.

(Photo: Tracy Packer/Getty Images)

Apr 15, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

If you’re going to challenge an entire city of people to eat local, you’d better feed them cake. Or rather, vegan raw zucchini cakes.

As part of National Public Health Week, last Friday the health department of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, announced a challenge to area residents and restaurants: From April through October, buy one local farm item per week.

All in all, it’s a pretty modest ask. But as other rust belt communities have shown, when a city with a vacated steel industry looks to its agricultural economies for growth, eating more local vegetables can yield big results.

“We’re encouraging healthy eating. But beyond health, it’s an economic issue, and it’s an environmental issue as well,” explained health director Kristen Wenrich. A few Bethlehem restaurants are already leading the local sourcing charge with dishes of braised kale, “Pennsylvania proud” beef, and those zucchini cakes—and the chefs cooking such dishes are ideal models for what can be accomplished when individuals and restaurants work together to reinforce the local food economy. “It’s just a way of life for them, personally and with their work,” Wenrich said. “They’re committed.”

With #EatLocalBethlehem, the idea is to get more residents to follow suit. A recent assessment found the food economy of the surrounding Lehigh Valley, which has lost 80 percent of its farms and more than half of its farmland since 1930, generates $17 million annually. If residents put $10 per week of their food budget toward locally grown food, the assessment suggested, it would stimulate nearly $100 million for jobs, local farms, and business development. Still, the report pointed out some of the barriers standing in the path of growth, and the new Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council is working to organize the disparate conversations about educating a generation of new farmers and getting local food into businesses, schools, and hospitals via the creation of a centralized food hub. Numerous studies have found this kind of local food infrastructure key to jump-starting a community’s economic engine.

The health department’s challenge is a concrete step forward for a burgeoning hotbed of local food interest, as is a partnership with Pennsylvania Buy Fresh Buy Local and the Bethlehem Area Public Library that will bring a CSA service to residents of one of the city’s food deserts beginning in May. Wenrich excitedly signed up for a share, her first, and can expect to pick up spinach, peas, and radishes next month. It’s one of a host of ideas coming out of the Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council. The Bethlehem Food Co-op could fill the shelves left empty by the recently closed Bottom Dollar Food grocery chain. The defunct indoor swimming pool at the Children’s Home of Easton could be transformed into a greenhouse.

The Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council need only turn its eyes West for examples of how industrial cities have rallied around similar ideas, boosting health and economic stimulus in the sweep of one food movement. In the Steel City, the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council has spearheaded revisions to agricultural zoning laws, increased the number of farmers markets that accept EBT and SNAP benefits, and instituted Edible Schoolyard programs and farming apprenticeships in schools across the city. The council has moved beyond policy measures too and now runs a 15-acre farm and market promoting entrepreneurship for women of African descent. A Pittsburgh co-op has hosted a local eating challenge similar to Bethlehem’s for several years in a row, and an online campaign, #Fittsburgh, encourages movement and healthy eating by, in part, promoting local produce.

In just three years, Pittsburgh has gone from being one of the unhealthiest cities in America to one of the fittest.

But can a health motivation stimulate economic results? Yes, and Detroit could be the blueprint for that—and maybe even more. “What would be the economic impact of encouraging residents in and around Detroit to purchase more local food and beverages?” Fair Food Detroit asked. “In a word—major.” More than 500,000 citizens live in food-insecure areas in Detroit, and Fair Food has focused on creating a coordinated network of community-based local food systems, including some so small in scale that Rising Pheasant Farms delivers its produce to restaurants via bicycle. Vast tracts of abandoned Detroit real estate have been transformed into more than 1,400 networked gardens and farms. These are growth opportunities for people and produce, and the result is a local food economy that can be about far more than food.

“It’s all about that triple bottom line approach—balancing social, environmental, and economic needs,” said Sara Soderstrom, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who spent a summer conducting research with Detroit’s FoodLab.

Anthony Hatinger, who runs the production gardens for the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation, echoed the sentiment. “We hire, we train, we create job skills,” he said. “We create resources to empower and uplift the neighborhood, to learn how to grow, to learn how to sustain themselves.”

In Lehigh Valley, Wenrich is hoping other towns near Bethlehem, such Allentown and Easton, will get involved too. “We’ll see initially what kind of support we get, and if it looks like a lot of people are into the challenge and interested,” she said. “It’s something we certainly would want to grow.”