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West Michigan Businesses, Governments Incorporate Good Food

Leaders campaign to ‘go local,’ ‘go green,” and protect farmland

August 23, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Local First/Grand Rapids
  Local First, a business group in Grand Rapids, celebrates local food at its annual street party.

One reason why people are trying to buy more food from local and regional sources is to put more money back into those local and regional pockets. Spending locally, the argument goes, leads to more local spending: As money circulates among area businesses it keeps local people employed and spending their money in the area, too.

Local spending is like healthy eating, which keeps your body strong. Like a strong body, strong local economies can do more things, like investing in education, public transportation, parks, other health and wellness amenities, and more. These benefits make a place more attractive, and end up attracting even more investment and resources.

These are among the reasons that west Michigan business and governmental interests are gathering around Good Food, too.

The popular and growing Local First organization promotes and supports local food and farm businesses along with other west Michigan businesses. It hosts the Eat Local Challenge every fall as one way to heighten interest in and commitment to west Michigan food and beverages.

The annual Local First street party, an official “celebration of local food, local beer, and local music,” has become a major event attracting thousands of people to downtown Grand Rapids. As Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing Company said about buying local first: “If you can’t sell beer in your backyard, you’re not going to sell it anywhere else.”

Another business stakeholder is the region’s economic development agency, The Right Place, which is particularly interested in the power of healthy food and strong farms to keep and attract business investment to the region. Rick Chapla, vice president for urban redevelopment is working, for example, on building an ethnic food district into the redevelopment of Grand Rapids’ Division Street corridor when a planned transit line brings more walking traffic to the downtown thoroughfare.

“It’s along the water, and many ethnic grocery stores and eateries already exist there,” Chapla said. His “Mercados” project would help those businesses take advantage of opportunities, like energy efficiency and small business grants, to boost their bottom lines and grow.

Leading Grand Rapids investors are also involved in the region’s Good Food development with a plan to build a $27 million urban market downtown. It will serve both as a retail anchor for downtown redevelopment and a valuable distribution and small-scale food processing resource for agri-food entrepreneurs.

A group of business and civic leaders named Grand Action is spearheading the effort. Earlier Grand Action projects brought significant new business and investment to downtown Grand Rapids, including the Van Andel Arena and De Vos Place convention center.

Triple Bottom Line
The Good Food drive toward healthy, green, fair and affordable food enters the west Michigan business world primarily through the concept of sustainability. West Michigan is a leader in the sustainable business movement, which brings a “triple bottom line” perspective and consciousness to business decisions. Environmental costs and benefits, as well as social costs and benefits begin to figure into calculations along with financial considerations.

Two sustainability groups in west Michigan are among those that put Good Food in the mix of what they support and work on locally. They are Sustainable Grand Rapids, which features healthy food and sustainable agriculture in conferences and other outreach. The Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition also connects into the region’s Good Food networks.

Public efforts to build sustainability into the region’s development also recognize and incorporate food and farming.

Green Grand Rapids is a city initiative to gather and apply information and ideas from residents about how to develop more “green infrastructure” (parks, trails, gardens, healthy food markets, waterways etc.) as a way to build quality of life in Grand Rapids. Household and community gardening emerged as a clear priority for Grand Rapids residents during the Green Grand Rapids input process. Now moving toward implementation, the resulting plan builds on the choices and ideas that came up through that process, including zoning changes to accommodate more local food markets and urban production.

Similarly, the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, which promotes regional collaboration, has a focus on improving the region’s farm economy for its many benefits, from jobs and tax receipts to water quality protection and beautiful rural landscapes. As part of its green infrastructure focus, the Alliance recently published a comprehensive report on the value and status of agriculture in west Michigan.

Among the reports findings are these facts:

  • Agriculture in the region represents approximately 28 percent of Michigan’s $74 billion agri-food economy
  • The agricultural sector employs more than 26,200 people in eight counties.
  • For the west Michigan region, agriculture’s state and local government tax impact is more than $103 million.
  • An increase of 5 percent in agriculture-related sectors could result in an estimated increase of state and local tax revenue of nearly $5.2 million.

Business Support, Land Protection
Two leading strategies for building the local food and farm economy are business development support and farmland preservation.

The West Michigan Strategic Alliance has included farm business development in its WIRED West Michigan workforce initiative, which was funded by a three-year U.S. Department of Labor grant. WIRED West Michigan partnered with Michigan Food and Farming Systems to hold workshops with area farmers on new regional market opportunities and how to organize production and marketing for them.

Farmland preservation is another approach for boosting a local food economy, but it’s a tougher strategy to use, despite longtime, widespread support. The approach, which keeps farmland out of commercial and residential real estate development, is controversial because it pays farmers the difference between the value of their land for farming and its value for development. In exchange, the local government receives a permanent non-development easement.

The Kent County Purchase of Development Rights Program is one of just a handful in Michigan. This year the county will for the first time put public money toward purchasing rights. The county committed $275,000 in 2009, which leveraged a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. This summer the county will consider contributing an additional $350,000, or establishing a dedicated millage for farmland preservation. Such action would bring in $250,000 over three years from the Frey Foundation.

The program and farmland preservation in general were among the many food and farming issues highlighted in a new documentary, called Eating in Place, that the Grand Rapids Area Council on Humanities produced with Calvin College students.

Other regional organizations working farmland protection into their support for healthy food and profitable farming are:

  • United Growth for Kent County, a coalition of urban and rural citizens working to improve land development patterns so that city and country both thrive.
  • The Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, an alliance of governmental bodies joined together to plan for growth and improve quality of life.
  • Kent County Extension the community outreach and technical assistance arm of Michigan State University, involved in the full range of economic development and quality of life initiatives in the region.

As the range of business and governmental involvement in food and agriculture shows, more in West Michigan understand that an important piece of saving farmland is supporting new market and business development for them.

More also understand that the quality of life they seek, through farmland preservation and other strategies for making the region strong and attractive, also depends on more people—from the city to the countryside—enjoying greater access to healthy foods and greater connection with their neighbors through such things as food.

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