Editor’s Note Winter 2009
Written onDecember 01 , 2008
Community isn’t the easiest word to define. It’s used differently by biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, political theorists, computer scientists, legal scholars, and economists. In sociology, nearly 100 definitions have been concocted since the 1950s, according to Wikipedia. (Yes, it even has its own Wikipedia entry.) The local food movement uses the word often, talking about “community-supported agriculture” and how farmers’ markets, gleaning initiatives, and farm-based educational programs “build community.”
Given all the ways that community can be interpreted, maybe it’s better for us to come up with our own definition. What does “community” mean to me? Those of us who aren’t sociologists, anthropologists, or the like will probably think of a simple definition, like, “It’s the people I enjoy spending time with,” or, “It’s the people in my town.” But maybe it’s not so simple, either.
At its broadest, community means togetherness—joining with others in a shared practice or event. At its core is usually a catalyst, such as a church, a political goal, a town crisis, a celebration, the needs of a farmer, or a place where people can simply bump into each other. These places, circumstances, and events give us the chance to meet people we might like, people who can help us, and people we can help. It’s easy to see how farms and food initiatives can be catalysts for community: They introduce us to folks who live near us but who we might not otherwise meet, and who need food, and enjoy food, just like us.
But as soon as we become part of a community through an organization or event, or simply by living in a certain geographical area, questions may start to arise: Is this community just made up of people we are familiar with, or does it welcome strangers? Does it embrace people of different ethnicities, races, or religions? Does it make room for animals or nature? If I go to an event in town and feel “a sense of community,” but then realize I can’t knock on my neighbor’s door to borrow the proverbial cup of milk, what does that mean? Is a community something I join, or something I build?
A number of stories in this issue of Local Banquet focus on community, and each story uses the word a little differently. There’s an article on community-supported businesses, built with the investments of local people who see the business as a catalyst for community. There’s a story on wood-fired ovens, which people often build as a group, thereby strengthening community. In another piece, a recent farm apprentice writes about the sense of community she found on the farm where she worked, and in the farmers’ market where she sold produce. In yet another story, the executive director of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont reflects on the tight-knit communities of farmers who pioneered Vermont’s organic movement.
Four different stories, four definitions of community. It may feel like a lot of work, trying to figure out what community really means to us. But by digging into the meaning of the word, we get to examine who we are in relation to those around us, how we are living our lives, and what we need to do to bring the reality of our communities closer to our ideals.