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In Local Fruits, Vegetables, A New Prosperity Beckons

Michigan Food Council aims to connect food, people, and jobs

July 17, 2005 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The newly established Michigan Food Policy Council charged its 27 members with pursuing new opportunities to grow jobs, save farmland, and improve public health by increasing everyone’s ability to enjoy the taste and nutrition of foods produced close to home.

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1985, I was standing in line at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie holding a little bag of strawberries and wilting in the heat. I was bringing the strawberries to friends in East Berlin, less than a mile away but worlds apart, separated by the Berlin Wall, an impenetrable line of concrete barriers, razor wire, and guard towers between the capitalist West and the then-communist East. Fresh strawberries were like gold to East German people, who had all they needed — as far as food, clothing, and shelter — but couldn’t get many of the things they wanted — from farm-fresh foods to blacklisted books.

Last month, I experienced a déjà vu when I learned from a woman from a middle-class Lansing suburb that she had had no idea strawberries were ripe and ready for eating in Michigan. Only when she came upon farm stands far outside of town selling fresh-picked strawberries did it hit her that some of the juiciest, tastiest fruits on earth were available nearby, even though such local gems were nowhere to be seen in the aisles of superstore groceries featuring hard-traveled strawberries from California and Mexico.

Unlike East Germany, where the government controlled and undermined the economy, the United States has a robust free enterprise system. But even free markets can fail. That’s what’s happening in Michigan and across the country, as family farms continue to go out of business and sell their land for strip malls, while families from suburbia to the inner city go hungry for authentic, nutrition-packed, locally grown foods.

Twenty years from now, however, I predict we’ll look back at the summer of 2005 and say that this is when the great wall between Michigan food producers and Michigan food users began to crumble.

Breaking Down the Wall
The State of Michigan, the nation's eighth largest, recently took a significant step toward reconnecting the state’s great variety of farm products — second only to California’s — with its people. On June 7, 2005, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm established the Michigan Food Policy Council by executive order and charged its 27 members with pursuing new opportunities to grow jobs, save farmland, and improve public health by increasing everyone’s ability to enjoy the taste and nutrition of foods produced close to home.

Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Michigan Food Policy Council heralds an incredible transformation to come by simply removing barriers and building new bridges between demand and supply. As farms gain new economic choices and residents gain new healthy food choices through the council’s work, the state will have more open farmland, more food and agriculture-related jobs, and more cool cities. All are desperately needed in a state struggling to keep and add businesses and jobs.

One area the council will focus on is reducing healthcare costs by improving access to fresh, nutritious foods, particularly in school cafeterias. Michigan is currently second only to Mississippi in obesity rates; junk food diets are a prime factor. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation warns that diet-related healthcare costs — $12.3 billion annually for cardiovascular diseases alone — are slowing economic growth and job creation in the state.

A Team Effort
The council can make a difference because it brings together, for the first time, the private and public segments of our food system. The council’s 21 non-governmental members range from big agribusinesses and little organic farms to high-end food makers and low-income food pantries. Six state agencies, from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Education and Department of Labor and Economic Growth, are also participating.

These diverse but inter-related interests actually have a chance of breaking through barriers that would stop one of them alone. Working with farm and public health interests, the education department can explore how to adjust regulations, purchasing patterns, and other longstanding policies to help school food service departments buy more local farm foods.

The departments of agriculture and labor and economic growth will look for ways to help farms overcome processing and distribution hurdles to supplying schools. In a recent survey, 85 percent of state school food service directors who responded said they were “highly interested” in buying local foods if the wholesale distributor that already trucks food to the school district could also deliver the local foods.

The governor ordered the council to develop, by October 2006, action plans for pursuing the tremendous economic, environmental, and social opportunities inherent in expanding the use of locally grown foods in the state. A ten percent increase, for example, would put $730 million into the state’s economy to support farms, increase related jobs, and improve rural and urban quality of life.

Thanks to this council’s work, I predict that come strawberry season in 2025 the challenge of getting fresh-picked strawberries to friends in Lansing will no longer be like crossing the Berlin Wall.

Patty Cantrell, a Fulbright Scholar, spent a year studying economic policy in Germany. Now an economist and accomplished journalist, she directs the Michigan Land Use Institute's Entrepreneurial Agriculture program. Reach her at patty@mlui.org

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