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Good Food Networks Bonding West Michigan

From neighborhoods to boardrooms, local food is building community’s economy

August 11, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Spurred by soaring interest in local food, Grand Rapids’ Fulton Street Market is planning a $2.8 million expansion.

GRAND RAPIDS—What do scrappy community gardeners and a bunch of millionaire investors have in common? Quite a lot, when you look at all that is going on in the greater Grand Rapids region these days around food and agriculture.

The commonality is Good Food—healthy, green, fair, affordable food—and what it can do for the region by improving public health, the environment, the economy, and community. It's about carrots from backyard gardens and nearby farms making their way to Michigan schools. It's about the strength a region gains by taking care of its own; that is, by making sure kids have nutritious food and farms can profitably sell their quality food.

On sidewalks in tough sections of town, neighbors are talking food: How to grow it, what to do with beans that don't come in a can, and what it means to take charge of your food and change your diet. In boardrooms, Grand Rapids business leaders are talking food, too: How if they build it (a year-round public market), they (shoppers, farmers, downtown developers, and visitors) will come.

In between the sidewalks and boardrooms are dozens of west Michigan organizations, initiatives, innovators, and entrepreneurs connecting what people eat to what their region grows. They are building a new ethic around food justice, agricultural responsibility, and economic opportunity.

In fact, they are changing everyday life and feeding a larger, ongoing discussion about how "sustainability" can build a healthy, happening, resilient place.

That this is happening in and around Grand Rapids should not be surprising.

As Rick Chapla, vice president for urban redevelopment at The Right Place, West Michigan’s economic development agency, points outs, a sustainable approach to the local environment, economy, and community, "has become embedded in our business culture."

West Michigan’s current Good Food activity suggests the same thing may be happening in the region’s agricultural and food economies. It may become unthinkable for a local neighborhood to go without lush vegetable gardens or corner stores full of fresh, healthy foods. And protecting farmland and farmers from suburban pavement or harmful synthetic chemicals could become a priority for everyone, from urban core to rural outskirts.

In fact, food—where it comes from, who produces it, how they produce it, and why that matters—is spurring new networks across the region. The common purpose is health and prosperity:  producing and providing food in a way that enriches people and the places they call home.

From Backyards to Big Businesses
A good example in West Michigan is compost, that practical, efficient, soil-building necessity that  commercial growers left behind years ago, when farming industrialized and turned us away from natural fertilizers and toward using petrochemicals for feeding crops.

Now two local groups are pointing the community back toward nature’s way.

One is Our Kitchen Table, a grassroots volunteer group in Grand Rapids that supports gardeners in neighborhoods lacking access to fresh foods—often referred to as urban food deserts—and helps people share their homegrown bounty with people living in them. 

The group works with, among others, the 10-year old Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, to change city zoning to allow for low-cost, homemade composting systems, instead of the currently required manufactured bins. Our Kitchen Table also campaigns for giving neighbors the right to compost together and thus spread both the work and the benefits.

Meanwhile, some other people are thinking much larger-scale composting: Zeeland-based Spurt Industries’ Specialized Organics Recycling Team (SORT) collects and composts food waste from local businesses, and saves those firms money.

In just nine months, SORT reduced the waste tonnage of its largest customer, Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, by 50 percent. SORT transforms discarded onion peels, half-eaten candy bars, cardboard packaging, and other organic waste into saleable mulch, compost, and landscaping products.

These two very different groups, doing similar work for similar reasons, demonstrate that the Good Food movement is really about changing a system—in backyards, farmers markets, the offices of food distributors looking for local products, and corporate buildings like the Grand Plaza. Their efforts are cutting costs, reducing food waste, and helping to enrich soils naturally.

The change is a powerful one, driven by powerful forces: Growing concern over America’s epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases, loss of critical topsoil and natural diversity, and near-total dependence on long distance food shipping. And everyday people, business professionals, and community officials are making it happen.

Local Gardens, Local Markets
Compost is only one example of just how diverse the groups working on Good Food in West Michigan are. These groups are forming networks that now operate on many levels--from home gardeners and cooking classes to big food service companies stepping out of their normal way of doing business.

One level includes community gardeners and nutrition and farming educators like Mixed Greens at Blandford Nature Center. It also includes health education efforts like the Healthier Communities program, at Spectrum Health, which helps people use more fresh produce and change their lifestyles.

There are now more than 22 community garden projects in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area—and many more in the broader region. Calvary Reformed Church, in Holland, turned its front lawn into a vegetable garden and neighborly meeting place. And Muskegon's McLaughlin Grows set up an urban farm, produce stand, and gardens throughout the McLaughlin neighborhood. Gardens are starting up in other urban Muskegon neighborhoods, too.

Marketing opportunities for all of that good local food leads to another level: farmers markets, farm stands, direct sales to restaurants, and other such face-to-face markets. These grew exponentially in the last decade in West Michigan.

Today that growth continues, as the many listings in the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council’s guide demonstrate.In fact, downtown Grand Rapids' main Fulton Street Market, an 87-year-old open-air facility, is now in the midst of a $2.8 million expansion. Yet Fulton Street Market manager Christine Helms-Maletic is not worried about a proposal to build an even larger, year-round market downtown.

"We're working together to make sure both markets can thrive," she told the Grand Rapids Press.

The proposed public market for farmers, artisans, and specialty food makers has strong support because it is expected to increase the number of consumers, farmers, and others trading in Good Food and create new wholesale and product development opportunities. There will be space for smaller scale entrepreneurs making products like sauces and mixes without investing in all the needed equipment themselves.

A feasibility study estimated the market could generate up to $25 million in revenue and $2 million in rent annually, with operating expenses of just $1.5 million a year. Report author Ted Spitzer thinks the market could generate 1,270 jobs and provide a $775 million economic impact over 10 years.

Local restaurants and grocers are also getting in on the economic action, by buying direct from farms or farmers markets. For example, Mia and Grace, a bakery and bistro in downtown Muskegon, gets most of its ingredients from local farms and businesses, including the McLaughlin Grows urban farm.

There’s now a list of the farms, restaurants, grocers and others involved: the West Michigan Guide to Local Foods, produced by the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council.

Moving Markets
Some other firms are also participating, and they form another important level of the Good Food movement here.

Those firms include distributors and processors, which is good news: They have equipment, transportation, and logistical expertise that can help local farms move their products more cost effectively. That allows farmers to concentrate on farming, not marketing and distribution.

That is unusual; many areas lack such middleman because the globalized food industry consolidated many smaller, regional distributors into a few large concerns. But, in West Michigan, Good Food is triggering significant supply-chain innovation.

The West Michigan Cooperative offers a homegrown example. It is an online marketplace that allows shoppers to order directly from farms; the farms then deliver their orders to a single drop-off location, in Grand Rapids. There is a lot of progress: The co-op’s first drop-off day, in October 2007, saw just 10 orders or "baskets" and $600 in sales. This past May, the co-op logged 306 baskets—$25,000 in sales. The co-op now numbers 500 consumers and farmers.

Then there is industry food service giant Sysco, which is innovating in its own distinct way as it breaks out of its consolidated system and integrates local produce and other items into its product mix. Driven by consumer demand, a two-year pilot project in Kansas City and Grand Rapids proved to Sysco that it’s good business to diversify suppliers and make its system more flexible.

Now other Sysco regions are building local food into their business models; a 2009 report explains how the project went, both for participating farms and for Sysco.

Sysco’s story about apples shows why their new model works: Because of consolidated food sourcing, Sysco Grand Rapids previously offered only two kinds of apples—Golden Delicious and Red Delicious—even though Michigan is a major apple-producing state boasting many tasty varieties.

When Sysco Grand Rapids adjusted its old way of doing business, it ended up offering 12 different varieties of apples, mostly from Michigan. So consumers not only have a wider variety of apples to choose from, those apples are fresher, better tasting, lead to healthier eating habits, and keep more food dollars in the West Michigan economy.

And that’s good news for everyone, from neighborhood gardeners to corporate leaders. It is another fine example of just how powerful, life-changing, profitable, and pro-community Good Food can be.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food and Farming program. She currently serves as a senior policy advisor to the Institute; reach her at pattycATmlui.org. Read more of Patty’s ongoing Michigan Good Food Tour articles here.
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