Allie Hill got really serious about eating local food about eight years ago. She was cooking for three young children. “I was able to go to the farmers’ market and find my produce — fruits and veggies,” she says. “I was able to find meat, and even some dairy.”
She simply couldn’t find local version of other foods, though. These are foods that fill her pantry, like marinara sauce, apple sauce and everything else that comes to us preserved in sealed jars and cans.
The technology of canning, which brings those foods to us, was invented 200 years ago, and it was life-changing. With heat to kill disease-causing bacteria and a vacuum-sealed lid to prevent contamination, you could keep food edible for years.
These days, cans are everywhere, but the act of canning has vanished inside the walls of huge factories. People don’t do it as much at home anymore, and Allie Hill couldn’t find many local farmers doing it in central Virginia.
Then she discovered Prince Edward County’s public cannery, a place where anybody can walk in with bags of produce from their garden and walk out with preserved food.
Places like this once were common. “It used to be, every county in the commonwealth [of Virginia] would have a cannery,” says Wade Bartlett, the administrator of Prince Edward County.
Across the country, there were hundreds of them. Most were set up during the New Deal and the second World War. Many were part of the agricultural extension service charged with bringing technical know-how to rural America. They brought almost industrial-scale food preservation to small towns…
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