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Michigan’s Crash Diet

Governor’s council nourishes economy with more local food

October 16, 2005 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Governor Granholm’s Food Policy Council aims to grow the state’s economy by helping farmers develop more local markets.

Just like squirrels busily storing nuts for the winter, our mothers and grandmothers used to spend much of this time of year putting up food from the fall harvest: Applesauce and plum jelly made from the fruits of backyard trees, vine-ripe tomatoes stewed and canned for February’s chili, and winter squash tucked away in the cellar to bake in butter and brown sugar for a snow-day treat.

Indeed, it was at his mother’s side that Jim Ruster, a vegetable farmer from northwest Michigan’s Antrim County, learned about preserving food. But, on a recent blue-sky fall day, only some of the tomatoes he was stewing in big pots were for his own use; the rest were headed for customers at the Bellaire and Boyne City farmers markets, where he makes a good part of his full-time farm living.

“Most people have never seen something like this,” he says, holding up a jar of bright red culinary beauty. “But they’re looking for this kind of stuff,” he adds with a wink of his entrepreneurial eye.

Mr. Ruster might be pleased to know that an unusual, yearlong gathering of minds, called together by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, is focusing on people like him and a new era for Michigan. The state wants and needs jobs, healthy kids, solid cities, and clean, open countryside — all things that a prosperous farm economy could provide. In June, the 21-member group, known as the Michigan Food Policy Council, started working on the governor’s charge: Moving a new-generation opportunity for economic growth higher up on the state’s development agenda and, by next October, developing action plans for enhancing the state’s economy through better food and sounder farming.

More economic development experts are realizing that increasing demand for the homegrown tastes that mass-produced versions cannot replicate is opening new business doors for small and medium-size farms in Michigan. That’s a promising turn of events for the auto state. Michigan is emerging from its industrial past to face a 21st-century world where natural resources like farmland and rivers are now more valuable for enjoying than exploiting, and where truly wholesome food is a major factor in the health and wealth of communities.

Food, Health, and a Healthier Economy
When it comes to generating jobs and attracting business investments, the council’s focus on economically healthy farms and fresh, local, tasty food is certainly unconventional. But it may well prove to be the most productive economic discussion currently occurring in Michigan. The state, with its traditional focus on big capital and big labor, lags behind others that are investing in small business entrepreneurship and the high quality of life that keeps and attracts families and businesses.

“In another time, even six years ago, you might have heard that agriculture and tourism are much less paramount than manufacturing and the auto industry,” said Justin Rashid, owner of the Petoskey-based American Spoon Foods and chair of the council’s task force on enhancing agriculture’s future, one of four groups working in depth and in tandem with the council to inform its progress. “But with the future of manufacturing looking as it does, people are more open to looking at agriculture, more open to looking at tourism as growth areas for the future.”

Food is at the heart of the prosperous future that the governor’s new council envisions for Michigan. This good-food vision includes helping to grow industrial jobs, too; Michigan’s high healthcare costs are among the state’s chief challenges as it tries to keep companies and attract new ones, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth. Poor diets contribute mightily to those high health costs, including obesity, and Michigan has the nation’s second-highest obesity rate, after Mississippi. That concerns large and small business owners.

One effective way to help fix that situation, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health, is to connect people of all incomes with fresh, nutrition-packed foods — especially tasty, just-picked, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Currently, however, the local-food connection is weak; it is difficult for farmers like Mr. Ruster, for example, to sell Vitamin C-packed, vine-ripe tomatoes to local schools, the place where kids learn a lot of their food habits.

Schools try hard to provide good foods, but using the normal food distribution channels often means, among other dispiriting things, hard, bland, road-weary tomatoes that kids, rightly, are reluctant to eat. Yet, ironically, there are smaller-scale farmers nearby that have tangy, juicy tomatoes ready to sell. But the growers cannot deliver them to schools because mass markets have eliminated most of the smaller distributors that used to connect local farmers with local food markets.

Common Cause
Making much better connections between local schools and local farms offers a prime opportunity to improve kids’ diets and learning, cut future employer health costs, and better Michigan’s quality of life by keeping farms and farmland in business.

But linking local food with schools, let alone with more restaurants and stores, takes more minds and agendas set on tackling the multifaceted issues, says Marla Moss of the Michigan Department of Education. Hers is one of six state agencies sending representatives to the new council’s meetings, where they sit alongside 15 members from the private sector, including little and big farms, urban and rural interests, and public health and hunger advocates. The council intends to get the agencies working as a team that, coached by the private sector, can change the food-and-farm rules and put Michigan into a whole new economic game.

The council’s unique mix and historic mission hearten Ms. Moss, who is actively working with schools across the state to get kids to eat healthier meals. “I don’t think the Michigan Department of Education can do it alone,” she says. “We need help from all these different programs out there helping schools.”

The same is true of Michigan’s 50,000-plus farmers, whose success is crucial to making sure the state has plenty of open spaces, clean water, quality foods, revived rural economies, healthier kids—and a humming 21st-century economy. But the farmers can’t do it alone. They need local and state government to help them protect their farmland from sprawling development and pursue new market opportunities, such as selling more food to chefs and shoppers whose hunger for wider variety and fresher tastes is growing.

The Power of Food
The governor’s new food council might succeed where other such panels have failed. In the past, state task forces focused on building up the agriculture industry, or solving diet-related health problems like childhood obesity, or reviving urban and rural economies. But none focused on the common base of all these issues—food, glorious food—and gathered all of the interests involved into one big huddle. The new council does just that.

For example, rather than pushing the issue of healthy food for poor families over to social service agencies, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth and the Michigan Department of Agriculture are, through the council, working with those agencies. Together, they will try to figure out how getting more fresh food to those families can increase both their health and help the state’s economy.

One idea is to make sure everyone who should be getting food stamps is actually receiving them, and then channeling families’ purchases toward local farm foods. Currently only about 76 percent eligible people receive the stamps in Michigan. Increasing that to 100 percent and putting this largely new federal money toward local farm foods could put up to $125 million more into the state’s farm economy.

But it’s not just the cash that will help. The process by which more farms become involved in new consumer markets closer to home will also stimulate more investments in businesses that turn Ingham County milk into cheese for Detroit delis or that will move local farms’ blue-ribbon tomatoes to school cafeterias. That process will build more rural and urban jobs—from growers to processors to distributors—and help revive urban and rural towns while preserving more open countryside.

This future potential is a glimmer in the Michigan Food Policy Council’s eye right now; many of the local food businesses and markets are still playing in Little League. But that doesn’t bother Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association and chairman of the Michigan Agriculture Commission. “There isn’t a major processor in this state that didn’t start out small,” he said.

Jim Ruster is thinking big, too, although the market he wants to expand consists of the  people who live near him who come specifically to local farmers markets and restaurants to eat his tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, and other garden-fresh vegetables.

“I’m not trying to feed the world,” he says. But he does see plenty of opportunity to feed people all around.

Mr. Ruster is able to test this growing market because he borrows a small travel trailer outfitted with commercial kitchen equipment from the nonprofit Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance. The alliance built the trailer to help farms venture into new local market territory. That is the kind of equipment the Michigan Food Policy Council can help make available to many more farms so they can serve many more people.

Mr. Ruster says his customers won’t know what delight has hit them when they take a bite of chili made with homegrown, fresh-stewed tomatoes like his Mom would make. “She’d be proud,” he said.

Patty Cantrell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture program. She serves on the Michigan Food Policy Council’s Enhancing Agricultural Viability task force. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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