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West Michigan Good Food Spotlight:

Updates from Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland

August 19, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

McLaughlin Grows
  McLaughlin Grows launched a half-acre farm in a Muskegon neighborhood this past May.

Editor’s note: To wind up her tour of West Michigan’s Good Food scene, Patty Cantrell files brief reports on a proposed downtown Grand Rapids public market; an emerging urban farm in Muskegon, the conversion of a Holland church’s lawn into a community garden; a regional online local food co-op; and a push for zoning that encourages urban farming

Grand Rapids: Build a Downtown Public Market
Grand Rapids boasts the hippest and busiest downtown district in Michigan in part because a group of wealthy and powerful leaders have joined together over nearly 20 years to make some big projects happen. The Van Andel Arena, Devos Place convention center, two theaters, and an MSU Medical School facility are all projects of the nonprofit Grand Action group that have spurred further investment and redevelopment downtown.

Now Grand Action is spearheading an effort to build an indoor, year-round public market for regional food and farm products. The $27 million proposal is expected to generate more than $25 million a year in fresh food sales, according to a yearlong study. Over 10 years, this new economic activity could generate nearly 1,300 jobs and $775 million in overall impact as people with those new jobs spend their new money.

Viewing local food and farming as a stimulus for downtown development was a new idea for many on the board, said John Nunn, Grand Action's executive director. "Some of us had never heard of agri-tourism, for example," he said of the growing business opportunity for farms that offer new food tastes and recreational experiences.

The project is different from many other Grand Action efforts, but lines up well with the group's purpose, he said: "Our mission is to identify downtown building or revitalization projects that can assist in economic development around them as core anchors for the city."

In addition to outdoor and indoor spaces for food, farm, and local art vendors, the market plan includes areas for food distribution and food processing. The distribution area would help the growing regional food sector. For example, it could provide a place for farms to combine their inventories and then market jointly to larger buyers, who they could not supply alone. Similarly, the commercial kitchen for small-scale food processing could help startup food-product makers.

Most encouraging to Grand Action was the enthusiasm of everyone that consultant Ted Spitzer talked with as he conducted the study, Mr. Nunn said. Mr. Spitzer met with more than 70 different people and organizations, from restaurateurs to health department officials.

"Throughout all of these meetings, literally not one person has said it's not a good idea," according to Mr. Nunn.

Rather than fearing competition, officials at the main downtown farmers market in Grand Rapids support the idea. Fulton Street Market manager Christine Helms Maletic told the Grand Rapids Press that growth in the local and regional foods sector means there's room for more. "There's certainly demand on the customer side as long as we continue to grow vendors in the area," she said.

Grand Action is working to raise the $27 million needed to get the market going and expects to open it by spring of 2012.

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Muskegon: Neighbors Build Urban Farm Business
The community gardening movement now spreading through urban Muskegon has its roots in a concerted effort over recent years by a group of neighbors in the downtown McLaughlin neighborhood who were just trying to bring people together and beautify vacant lots.

"It was more about growing community than growing carrots," said Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga, director of Community EnCompass. The Christian community development organization works with Muskegon residents to build leadership and opportunity in neighborhoods that growth and development has bypassed.

Now, in addition to its many community and households gardens, the "McLaughlin Grows" project has launched a half-acre urban farm aimed at job training and business development. Several other downtown Muskegon neighborhoods have also started gardening initiatives, including the Nims, Nelson, and Jackson Hill neighborhoods. Muskegon's Bunker Hill Middle School is also in the forefront with its From Seed to Feed garden program.

These projects and others attended a March 2010 Muskegon-area community gardening summit hosted by the county health department. Ms. Sybenga said the big reason so many gardens are growing in downtown Muskegon is resident’s extremely limited retail access to healthy, fresh foods: "There are no grocery stores in the entire city of Muskegon.” The closest store for these residents—and many must walk or catch a ride—is two miles away, in Muskegon Township.

McLaughlin Grows' move from gardening as simply beautification to gardening as also health improvement and economic development came after the group found it had many food-growing strengths and opportunities, Ms. Sybenga said. "We realized we had quite a lot of gardeners in the neighborhood, and they were growing a lot of produce."

With land donated by local Goodwill Industries and a grant from the Community Foundation of Muskegon County, McLaughlin Grows broke ground in 2009 on its urban farm project and added a 96 by 30-foot passive solar greenhouse, or hoophouse, for the 2010 growing season.

Greens grown at the farm were already selling out at Muskegon farmers markets by this past May. Produce will also be on sale from a stand at the site, just off East Apple Avenue, at Iona and Sophia Streets. Equipped with a card reader for electronic benefits (EBT), the farm will be able to sell to residents who take part in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The urban farm will also sell direct to customers like the nearby Mia and Grace restaurant, which builds its menu from local foods.

Dustin Anderson, an Americorps volunteer, serves as the farm manager. He'll raise and market the produce with help from young people who are building skills and earning money through the Youth Employment Project. YEP is a Community EnCompass partnership with Goodwill Industries and the Muskegon County Department of Employment and Training.

At first, people involved with YEP wondered if farming qualified as a marketable skill for young people to learn, said Ms. Sybenga. "But small farming and urban farming are really growing; we think there is job opportunity here. We're not just do-gooders; we're here to develop businesses and create jobs in the neighborhood."

Perhaps more than most businesses, farming takes a lot of getting familiar with the trade's tools, materials, and markets, said Diana Jancek, a local farmer who has helped the group get its hoophouse underway. "Farming isn't digital,” she said. “You have to be willing to put the time into building the soil, seeing what the soil will support, and seeing what the markets will support."

This challenge is now on, with many enthusiastic hands involved, at the McLaughlin Grows urban farm. The goal: To develop a sustainable business and get fresh food to people who would rarely see it.

For more information, contact Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga at sarah@communityencompass.org

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Holland: Church Turns Lawn into Garden
Well-manicured lawns are a hallmark of Holland, Mich., thanks to the large number of Christian Reformed Church members that live there. At least, that is the friendly joke around town about members of this Calvinist branch of Protestants, who fled persecution in the Netherlands in the mid-1800s, started what is now Holland, and established a reputation for strictly clean living—and, among many good things, careful care and feeding of front yards.

So it was not without a bit of resistance from some in the congregation that a team of church members two years ago cut into the sod at their Calvary Reformed Church to establish a community garden, right on the front lawn at 995 E. Eighth Street.

"Some people were very upset and some are still very upset," said Krista Klein, who co-manages the garden as part of the church's neighborhood ministry. "There's a lot of pride in the lawn."

But a new focus on environmental stewardship, combined with neighborhood ministry, won the day, and the garden has since won the hearts of the church, said Kerri-Sue Smits, who works with Ms. Klein. "Most of our church members are now on board with the garden after seeing the impact it is having on the community," she said.  

The garden not only launched the church into a new era. It also put Calvary Reformed right in the middle of a community garden movement that is spreading across church, school, and township properties in the area. These Holland and Ottawa County gardeners share notes and cross paths in several ways, including the Ottawa County Wellness Coalition Facebook page and the Web site for Green West Michigan, which hosts workshops.

Ms. Klein says her journey to community gardening and healthy, locally grown food as a means of environmental and neighborhood stewardship started when her church study group read Saving God's Green Earth. The book is part of broadening interest in what the church calls "Creation Care," a new focus on how the Bible calls upon Christians to protect the environment.

Ms. Klein said many of the younger church members are following the call to "re-examine our use and abuse of the earth and do something visible with outreach to the community." Her own first step was to invest in a season's worth of fresh, locally grown foods at the nearby Groundswell Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Her CSA experience helped see the effect of her food purchases and on the environment, communities, and her own family's health and wellness. 

The next step was lawn activism.

Along with garden co-manager Smits and a host of volunteers, Ms. Klein is growing the community garden at Calvary Reformed Church into a place for people, nature, and neighbors to bond.

Now in its third season, the garden is a feature of the church's larger, Garden Heights ministry, which focuses on people living close to the church. The nearby Holland Heights neighborhood clearly needs a better connection to healthy foods: Half of the population is below 150 percent of the poverty level; medium family income is $26,000 per year.

The church’s garden is open to all comers; most of the produce goes to neighbors who take care of it and to a food pantry operated by Heights of Hope, a group of local churches. The Garden Heights program also includes recipe cards, community meals, nutrition education, and, sometimes, takeaways like kitchen tools that make cooking from scratch easier.

For more information, contact Kerri-Sue Smits at the church, 616-392-8559.

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West Michigan: Co-op Builds Busy Online Marketplace
People who raise food and people who eat food are acting more like partners these days in the business of building a Good Food system. The West Michigan Food Cooperative is a good example of how that producer-consumer bond can satisfy both the farmer's need for more market outlets and the buyer's need for more shopping options.

The West Michigan Food Co-op is made of producers and consumers who connect online for local food selling and ordering. Now numbering about 500 members, these buyers and sellers meet face to face once a month to deliver and pick up orders, placed earlier online, from a building at the corner of Hall and Godfrey in Grand Rapids.

The co-op has grown steadily and significantly since its start, in October 2007, with just 10 orders and $600 in sales. This May, the co-op logged 306 "baskets" of orders and $25,000 in sales.

Those numbers are drawing more sellers and shoppers.

"We are adding more producers monthly and have a need for more eggs and chicken meat, and green veggies," said director Jerry Adams, whose communications company, Media Rare, owns the building that houses the co-op's monthly marketplace. 

Adams helped found the co-op, along with wife Amy Sherman, who leads the Grand Rapids Slow Food group, and Tom Cary and others from the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council. Their inspiration was the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, which, over the last decade, built a statewide producer and consumer network. It developed an online ordering system that it willingly shares with other communities.

The West Michigan crew modified the Oklahoma software to suit its own needs and vision. Now the West Michigan Co-op version is available for free to others, as well.

"I say let's evangelize this model, help people get started," Mr. Adams said.

The payoff for farms and other food businesses are many, including a guarantee that growers won't go home with unsold products.

"Buyers have already made the commitment over the Internet, so the farmers know that if they make the drive they will get their money," he said.

The cooperative buying and selling arrangement also helps even out seasonal fluctuations in local crop availability. The co-ops strongest sales are in the winter, when seasonal farmers markets are closed. "Some of these people are doing four and five grand a month that they were not doing before," he said.

It all happens online at wmcoop.com. Membership involves a one-time fee of $35, plus the opportunity to volunteer occasionally on pickup days. Producer members post products for sale and update prices and amounts available. Consumer members have a weeklong shopping window at the start of each month to place orders. The co-op covers its costs and builds capital for future investments (refrigeration, possible processing facilities, etc.) through a 4 percent transaction fee (2 percent comes from the producer's revenue and 2 percent comes from the consumer's total order).

For more information contact Jerry Adams at (616) 248-2936.

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Grand Rapids: ‘Our Kitchen Table’ Says Food is a Right
Lisa Oliver King wants more from urban agriculture than new jobs, friendly neighbors, and a greater number of markets with healthy fresh foods.

She wants enough food for everyone.

So Ms. King and her volunteer organization, Our Kitchen Table, help people not only feed their own families but also feed those in need in their own neighborhoods. Our Kitchen Table's Food Diversity project is all about building "food power," Ms. King says, particularly among people and neighborhoods that have little power—and are suffering some of the worst effects of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related, chronic diseases.

It started when Our Kitchen Table became involved in a Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council survey of people living in Grand Rapids and Muskegon Heights neighborhoods lacking adequate access to fresh, healthy foods.

The survey found three hot spots where residents lacked Good Food options and had major environmental health concerns. But the study also uncovered an important asset:

“We found that many people were growing food; there were more yard gardens than you would think," Ms. King said. 

So Our Kitchen Table focused on deepening what we know as urban agriculture. The group now connects people and neighborhoods to build a good food supply for all, and the social networks and action groups needed to achieve food justice.

Most urban agriculture initiatives function as forms of economic development, with a profit motive, she said: "That still leaves a subgroup of people who will not have access to fresh foods, like families transitioning from temporary to permanent shelter. They may have health issues that require them to eat fresh foods, but they can't afford them."

So Our Kitchen Table weaves connections among people in the city who are willing to share what they grow—and what they know.

The project includes 40 home and community gardeners in three target neighborhoods on the city's tougher southeast side that have so far signed on to share their crops. It includes an herbalist teaching people how to recognize and use the free food, like dandelion greens, growing along sidewalks, as well as neighbors saving and sharing seeds. It includes talks with Grand Rapids urban chicken enthusiasts about using some of their chicken litter for fertilizer.

The project is also working with the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council and others to reform the city's composting regulations to allow more flexibility, including composting at the neighborhood level. Workshops on building soil, using cold frames to extend the season, and much more are on the capacity-building list of Our Kitchen Table activities. "We approach this from a no-cost, low-cost perspective," Ms. King said.

The group also hosts annual garden tours and regularly spotlights new gardens as they emerge, so people can learn who's doing what, and where and how they're doing it.

Patty Cantrell, who founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food and Farming program, is MLUI’s senior policy advisor. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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