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There’s a Ford in Food’s Future

By turning back time, museum’s kitchens looks forward

September 22, 2006 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The Henry Ford Museum is restoring the Central Farmers Market structure, which once stood on what is now Cadillac Square, in the heart of downtown Detroit.

DEARBORN—The excitement in George Moroz’ voice is about more than The Henry Ford Museum’s recent big discovery. It is also about the fact that the discovery—of one of the country’s oldest urban farmers market structures—will not only show people how we used to eat, but also how we could begin to eat again.

Mr. Moroz is director of advancement at The Henry Ford, a top tourist attraction here in Ford Motor Company’s home town. He said that, along with the adjacent Greenfield Village, a 200-acre, walkabout collection of authentic, mostly colonial American structures often staffed with docents in period costumes, the museum strives to fulfill founders Clara and Henry Ford’s vision: keeping traditions alive to better inform our thinking about the future.

That’s exactly what Mr. Moroz plans to do with the historic farmers market, which is about half the size of a football field and made of unusual cast iron columns and heavy timbers. When the market, once located at the center of 1860s Detroit commerce, “smack dab in the middle of Cadillac Square,” is eventually restored, it will become part of The Henry Ford’s fascinating expedition into the history and future of food. It all began just under two years ago, when the museum began offering visitors dishes that taste “like food used to.”

The expedition has already transformed the $5.8 million food service budget of Michigan’s second-largest tourist attraction. It has also brought the institution face-to-face with present-day, food- and farm-related concerns in the economy, public health, and the environment. As a result, The Henry Ford is now working shoulder to shoulder with leaders of a broad-based movement gaining ground in Michigan and across the nation that aims to strengthen rural and urban communities by re-linking local farms and local food.

The Great Re-linking
Across the state of Michigan, and from New York to California, clusters of everyday people, elected officials, and all kinds of agencies are involved in the local food movement. Buttressed by research that shows the potential positive economic impact of buying locally grown food, their growing interest and increasingly organized efforts form the vanguard of a new, post-industrial food and farm economy emerging in response to a variety of issues communities now face—including childhood obesity, unemployment, and loss of farmland to suburban growth.

There’s the five-county Food System Economic Partnership in southeast Michigan, which has brought together local governments, large and small farms, food service buyers like The Henry Ford, metro restaurants, and health care interests. The partnership explores new opportunities for local foods and local farms, including ethanol production and other non-food developments.

In west Michigan, the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council is leading the way with its guide to local farms, its networking events for new food and farm entrepreneurs, and its initiative with local colleges to explore local food purchasing.

Northwest Michigan’s Taste the Local Difference program is marketing local farm foods, working with school districts to serve fresh local options, and working with entrepreneurs to address challenges to local-food use, such as a lack of smaller-scale distribution and processing in new local food markets. The effort is a project of the Michigan Land Use Institute in partnership with economic development agencies, Michigan State University Extension, and area farms and food-service buyers.

In between are a number of local and statewide efforts. They include a team of business counselors at Michigan State University focused on helping farms innovate, an historic move by the Michigan Farm Bureau to pay attention to the needs of direct-market farms, and an initiative led by the nonprofit Michigan Food and Farming Systems organization to help the state’s swelling ranks of farmers markets grow stronger with a statewide farmers market association.

The common thread in these efforts, and many like them across the country, is the link between people and their food, which the late 20th-century move toward mass produced and processed foods essentially broke. Building markets for local farm foods is one way these initiatives aim to fix that and grow local businesses, save farmland, and improve public health.

Restoring Rationality
Economists have traditionally applauded the current agricultural system’s success at producing more corn, meat, and milk with fewer farmers. The logic of such mass production is clear in the efficiency of assembly lines, which Henry Ford developed to produce more cars with fewer people.

But market forces around food are no longer headed in that old direction, says economist Soji Adelaja, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy at Michigan State University. The local food movement, which The Henry Ford is helping to lead in southeast Michigan, is just the beginning of that change.

Currently, most all food comes from far way through a global industrial system. Coming soon: More produce, meats, cheeses, and products like juices and baby food from a resurgence of nearby farms and food businesses.

Dr. Adelaja says a range of indicators, such as higher transportation costs and increasing consumer concern with health and wellness, all point in the direction of more regional food systems.

“Our food is just moving all over, and the bulk of what we’re moving is water,” he said. “It’s not rational, but it worked in the past,”

That’s when oil was cheap and large federal subsidies to products like corn—now found in most any processed product as high-fructose corn syrup and other junk-food additives—went unquestioned.

“Now society is demanding more environmental and social accountability from agriculture,” Dr. Adelaja says. “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re seeing a gradual movement of the food system to more local supplies and local assets.”

Historic Food
The person who turned The Henry Ford on to local food supplies and assets was Food Service Director Susan Schmidt, who continues to lead the museum’s effort, which now includes a whole “food experience team” with representatives from across the organization.

Ms. Schmidt’s epiphany came one day early in 2005 when the tall, dynamic native of New Jersey, whose family used to run a general store in rural West Virginia, realized that everything about one of Greenfield Village’s most popular dining attractions was historically authentic except for the food.

The museum’s popular 1850s Eagle Tavern has no electricity and uses real china and only historic recipes to feed visitors. But until last year, its food came through the late 20th-century system of far-off industrial fields, long-distance trucking terminals, and produce chosen for its ability to withstand travel, not tantalize taste buds.

“We weren’t going far enough,” Ms. Schmidt said. “The food at our 1850s Eagle Tavern should taste like it used to, with heirloom varieties or from a farm around here—like it did when food would come from a farm and go to a plate.”

“So we started asking our food service suppliers: ‘Where can we get heirloom tomatoes? Michigan sweet corn?’” To her surprise, she said, “They said they didn’t know.”

Ms. Schmidt recalls how Executive Chef Nick Seccia then came up with a novel strategy: “He said, ‘Why don’t we just call some farms?’ After that, the phone started ringing off the hook.”

Now, during the growing season, 70 percent of the fruits and vegetables at The Henry Ford’s restaurants and snack bars comes fresh from local farms. Year-round, 60 percent of its chicken comes from area organic producers. Half of the flour used in baked goods comes from Michigan suppliers. The museum has also ventured into new product development with its signature line of sausages and cider, made from local organic pork and apples.

It’s Personal
The Henry Ford’s commitment to a new local food economy is personal, as well. A number of employees buy shares in a local organic farm’s produce and receive weekly boxes of fresh food for their own families. A charter school at the museum now features local farm foods and educational gardens, where kids learn the story of food from the ground up.

Best is how kitchen employees are now head cheerleaders of the effort, says Chef Seccia, laughing as he recalls the first day he brought boxes of a local farm’s tomatoes into the main kitchen.

“The staff was whining about a few bugs in the boxes and how the tomatoes were not all the same shape,” he says. “But then we sliced some up and compared them to our other tomatoes. … They forgot all about the odd shapes.”

Everything’s different now, he says, picking some Greek oregano from one of the pots of culinary herbs that now sit on the porch outside the kitchen for cooks to use. “All the way through, there’s pride in the product.”

That pride extends well beyond The Henry Ford’s gates. Ms. Schmidt works on the leadership team of the five-county Food System Economic Partnership, and Mr. Moroz raises money to restore the historic farmers market and show how vibrant local food economies were—and could be again.

“We are a history museum,” he says. “But our value is in connecting that history with contemporary issues and future concerns.”

Patty Cantrell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s entrepreneurial agriculture program. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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