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Fresh Food Brainstorm Feeds The Hungry, Supports Local Farmers

A program for better nutrition and farm profits

December 24, 2004 |

Anna Jonnson, 2004

Bronwyn Jones and her husband launched the Fresh Food Partnership when they discovered the severity of the hunger problem in their area and the ability of local farmers to help solve it.

TRAVERSE CITY — When surgery forced resort cook Jeanette Albert to stop working this past July, she found herself in a position she never imagined. With only her husband Gary’s income, the couple, who live about 20 miles west of here, near Rapid City, couldn’t afford the healthy, low-fat, low-sugar foods they need because of her diabetes and his gastric bypass surgery.

So Mrs. Albert reluctantly went to a food pantry “for the first time in my life” and found not only the canned foods typical of charity food drives but also the freshest whole foods imaginable — fruits and vegetables harvested that day by farmers right in her own back yard.

“Green beans, yellow beans, Bibb lettuce, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peaches, pears, apples,” she recounted. “They even had corn on the cob once in a while!”

The Alberts could eat such high quality, fresh food because another local couple, Bronwyn Jones and Joe VanderMuelen, who live about 20 miles east of here, near Empire, brainstormed a way to feed the hungry while also supporting small family farmers facing their own economic woes. Their project, which they call the Fresh Food Partnership, is one of a small but growing number of efforts nationwide that are tackling two issues: The chronic hunger and nutrition challenges of people who can’t buy quality food, and the need of many family farmers for strong, stable markets in the face of low prices in the global commodities market.

Building a good-food bridge between people who need it and people who grow it can help to solve both of these problems, which are severe in Michigan. The state has the second-highest rate of obesity in the country, and that is costing it an estimated $12.3 billion annually in direct and indirect cardiovascular costs. And Michigan lost 17 percent of farms with sales of $25,000 to $100,000 between 1997 and 2002, putting 1,432 small operations out of business, a loss of eight acres of farmland per hour.

Old Story, New Ending
A common newspaper story in northern Michigan in recent years tells of farmers making the hard choice to not harvest their cherries or apples because it cost more for labor and equipment to pick the fruit than could be earned by selling it. Instead of letting the fruit rot, however, some farmers invited food pantry volunteers to pick the fruit languishing on the trees.

The Fresh Food Partnership, launched in 2003 by Ms. Jones and her husband, takes a strikingly different path. Instead of asking local farmers to donate their products, the partnership raises funds to buy it from them. Volunteers then distribute the food through the Northwest Food Coalition, which works with 34 food pantries and soup kitchens in a seven-county area that stretches from Antrim County to Wexford County in northwest Lower Michigan. This year Fresh Food Partnership raised and spent $21,000 purchasing 13 tons of fresh food from 26 farmers and served 6,500 people in the seven counties. That’s up substantially from the $4,500 used to purchase nearly four tons of food in the program’s first full year.

Val Stone, long-time facilitator of the Northwest Food Coalition, called the Fresh Food Partnership a “wonderful gift” for low-income residents who often have diabetes or hypertension and must steer clear of the pre-packaged, high-salt, high-sugar, and high-starch foods that typically find their way into food pantries.

But Ms. Stone said she is also glad to have a program that pays farmers. She grew up helping her mom run a summer fruit stand on Old Mission Peninsula, directly north of Traverse City, selling cherries from her grandparents’ and uncle’s farms. On Old Mission, as elsewhere in this fast-growing corner of the state, farmers face tough markets and are tempted to sell to developers who covet the orchards’ prime views of Lake Michigan and its bays.

“The only way for farmers to hang on to that land is to keep farms profitable,” Ms. Stone said.

Hunger: An All-American Problem
The kind of hunger and nutrition problems that the Fresh Food Partnership combats are hardly confined to Michigan. This October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 36.3 million people in 12.6 million households had to worry about running out of food before they had money to buy more. The USDA study indicates that those worries sometimes became realities: About two-thirds of those households avoided actual hunger by eating a very poor diet of only a few basic foods to keep their stomachs full. And almost four million of the households had family members — including up to 6.6 million adults and 420,000 children — literally go hungry at least sometime during the year.

The problem is worsening. Last week the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that overall requests for emergency food assistance in major American cities increased by an average of 14 percent in the last year, thanks largely to under- and unemployment. In addition, many low-income families can’t easily shop for healthy food because quality grocery stores have abandoned their neighborhoods for more lucrative locales. A recent University of Houston study funded by the American Heart Association Heartland Affiliate, for example, found that people living in low-income, urban neighborhoods had much easier access to convenience stores and liquor stores than to supermarkets or grocery stores.

So it is not surprising that, across the country, other groups are also trying to help poor people get better nutrition and, at the same time, help the small farms that are ready to provide it but are having a hard time in today’s globalized food economy. They are using a wide range of tactics, including:

  • Sliding-scale fees or special payment plans that allow low-income families to buy from community supported agriculture farms. CSA farms provide weekly baskets of produce throughout a growing season for a single, upfront fee.
  • The purchase of a season’s share in a CSA farm for food pantries and soup kitchens by nonprofit organizations like United Way.
  • Inner-city programs that employ teenagers to grow produce for food pantries. This can also help develop the next generation of farmers.
  • A federal program, Project Fresh, which provides $20 coupons redeemable at farmers markets to low-income pregnant women and moms with infants. In 2003, 2.3 million women redeemed $24.2 million in coupons with more than 16,000 farmers.
  • Placing farmers markets, produce stands, and “mobile market” fresh produce trucks in low-income neighborhoods.

The Fresh Food Partnership
Ms. Jones, a college communications instructor, knew only a little about any of this when she first explored the hunger problem in her rural community. She and husband Joe discovered the depth of the problem because they were members of Sweeter Song Farm, a community supported agriculture farm near here. The farm’s owners, Jim Schwantes and Judy Reinhardt, told Ms. Jones that they wanted to provide a free, season-long share of their products to someone in need. They asked her if she knew how to locate a family.

After she took a crash course in the local social service system, Ms. Jones discovered to her surprise that there were in fact thousands of people in the Traverse City area who were not eating very well. The next thing her husband knew, she was telling him: “You need to do something.” And thus was born the Fresh Food Partnership.

Ms. Jones tagged her husband because Mr. VanderMuelen runs a nonprofit agency here called Land Information Access Association, or LIAA, which offers planning and computer-oriented data and mapping programs. She correctly figured that LIAA could assemble a computer map based on her research. LIAA assembled a map with the location of food pantries, shelters, and community meal programs across the region; the location of volunteers near each of these sites; and the location of farmers who agreed to grow food for them. LIAA also began providing office space for the Fresh Food Partnership.

Now, each Sunday night during the growing season, participating farmers check a Web site with their computers and tell the Fresh Food Partnership how much of what kinds of food will be available that week and when and where to pick it up. Volunteers log onto the same site and list when they can make deliveries, while pantries record how many families they anticipate will need food. On Monday mornings, a LIAA employee coordinates the distribution.

The other partners in the project — United Way, the Northwest Michigan Human Services Agency, and its Northwest Food Coalition — provide the volunteer network. Michigan State University Cooperative Extension provides nutrition literature and links to farmers, and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce promotes the project.

Positive for All
Mr. VanderMuelen sees it as a way to build both community and future markets.

“You have to think that people aren’t poor forever,” he said. “If you introduce people to fresh, local produce they will see that it is as good as you get. So, when they can buy food, they will buy local food. We actually bought enough to make a difference for some farmers. We will have to raise more money to really make a difference.”

Marvin Blackford, one of the participating farmers, sees plenty of potential.

“It definitely adds dollars to farmers’ incomes,” he said.

Mr. Blackford, one of the busiest farmers at the Traverse City Farmers Market, grew up poor himself, so he’s particularly glad to know the dozens of different varieties of vegetables he grows are reaching people in need. Mr. Blackford said he doesn’t mind donating some food. But he’s also glad to have another market to sell to and plans to explore whether people who use the food pantries would like him to grow anything special, such as ethnic vegetables.

Mrs. Albert of Rapid City, meanwhile, expects to be back at work soon and, by next summer, growing her own vegetables in her own garden, which she physically couldn’t tend this year. She says she won’t forget the help she got from the Acme Christian Thrift Store and Food Pantry, a member of the Northwest Food Coalition, and the fresh food she received as a result of the Fresh Food Partnership.

“As soon as I get back to work, I will start donating back,” she said.

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and farm-market manager, is the Institute’s coordinator for its Entrepreneurial Agriculture project. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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