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Can local, organic food be affordable to all? Hardwick, Vermont, works to find out.

In Hardwick, Vermont, unemployment is 40 percent higher and the median income is 25 percent lower than the Vermont state average. And yet, in the midst of this economic trouble, local, organic farming is booming, according to Ben Hewitt, who writes about the town in his book The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food.

But before you start celebrating the economic engine that can be fueled by small, organic farms, listen to the piece that aired on NPR’s Morning Edition. The story looks at the other part of Hardwick—the part that can’t afford to eat at Claire’s, the local restaurant serving up the area’s food bounty, or to buy the fresh, organic produce sold at the town’s busy farmers’ market.

“[Hewitt] only covers one side of the town,” Derek Demers, a Hardwick high school student who read Hewitt’s book, told NPR. “There’s the side of the town that’s for the local food movement, but I think there’s an even greater side of the town, with more people, that can’t afford the local food. I work at our local supermarket grocery [where less-expensive food is shipped in from far away], and I see most of the people in town there.”

Listening to this story during my commute to work this morning got me thinking. What would be required to make local, organic food affordable? This form of agriculture isn’t supported by the government subsidies that help keep down the prices of corn, soy and other commodities grown by factory farms. Small farmers also do not benefit from the efficiencies of production that come with larger scale agriculture.

Pete Johnson is one Hardwick farmer who is trying to solve this puzzle. Owner of Pete’s Greens, one of the largest organic farms in the area, Johnson is investing in equipment that will enable him to freeze his harvests so that the products can be sold throughout the year, as well as to cut and puree the vegetables he grows so that they can be more conveniently consumed. The local supermarkets are also trying to do more to support Hardwick farmers by stocking their vegetables, and Hardwick schools are buying the potatoes used in school lunches from area farms. According to NPR, all of this is beginning to make a difference in helping the farmers of Hardwick get their food into the bellies of local residents.

Based on the 40-plus comments that already have been logged on the NPR website in response to this story, local farming strikes a nerve for many people. It may not be the most “efficient” form of agriculture, but it seems to represent how a growing number of Americans want to live. “I prefer to spend more on food, which ends up in my bloodstream, than on say the cable television I don’t have time to watch anyway or on clothes I will only wear once.”

The NewHope360 team (along with Natural Foods Merchandiser, Nutrition Business Journal and Delicious Living magazine) plan to dive deep into the issue of food affordability later this year and in 2012. We will tell the story of places like Hardwick, and explore ways farmers, manufacturers and retailers are working to make healthy food more affordable while also changing consumer perceptions that McDonald’s prices represent the real cost of food.

Can local farmers feed America, including people who make minimum wage and struggle already to put food on the table for their families? Or do we need to rely on mega players such as Walmart to make healthy food affordable? Is organic an “elitist preoccupation” (as one person recently told us)? Who are the leaders in helping to make healthy food affordable for and accessible to all? We’d love to hear your thoughts as we investigate these issues. Please join the conversation by sharing your comments below.

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