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Making Room for Fresh Food, Healthier Communities

Regional planning could boost budding local food economy

August 25, 2007 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Bryan Poirier said that the great taste of local fruits and vegetables helped him stick to his diet and lose 50 pounds.

TRAVERSE CITY—With his family history, Bryan Poirier knew he could someday become a candidate for heart disease, high blood pressure, even diabetes.

But you’d never know it by what he ate when he was the one choosing the food. Often it was burgers on the go from fast food restaurants. And did he ever worry about where his food came from? His wife, Lori, did. But not Bryan.

Now, though, Mr. Poirier excitedly anticipates the boxes of fresh salad greens, brilliant red peppers, and juicy heirloom tomatoes his family receives each week from nearby Meadowlark Farm. Today he revels at how great he feels after losing 50 pounds in four months by changing his diet and exercising.

The Poiriers and Meadowlark, in fact, are examples of how farming can be a vibrant part of a region’s healthy lifestyle, economic vitality, and community identity. And the pieces are there for such a vision to take hold in the Grand Traverse region.

That is particularly true now that residents have a cutting-edge opportunity, currently known as the Grand Traverse Area Land Use and Transportation Study, to figure out what they want their community to be like as its population more than doubles over the next 50 years. A nationally renowned planner, whose state-of-the-art computer programs turn citizens’ dreams, officials’ data, and developers’ proposals into vivid illustrations of what a region would look like in the future, will assist local residents in choosing the small actions that can make dreams a reality, from walkable communities to a countryside of thriving farms.

The consultants don’t have to look far to see how close the region is to achieving a significant, permanent local food economy that could help many small farms thrive and slow the suburbanization of the countryside: Farmers, business leaders, and eaters alike are keenly interested in growing local markets for local foods. The number of farmers markets in the five-county region has skyrocketed. A non-profit local foods campaign, Taste the Local Difference, is now in its fourth year, and a majority of more than 200 participating farms credit it with leading to new sales.

Many restaurants, stores, schools, and the region’s largest hospital are buying and serving farm-fresh fare. And economic development leaders with the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce are helping to assemble a business plan for a food distribution hub and other infrastructure that would strengthen the connections between local farms and buyers who want their products.

The citizen-powered land use and transportation planning project just getting underway here could dramatically boost the region’s move toward a local food economy by making room close to cities, towns, and villages for more small farms—with the emphasis on small. For example, Jenny Tutlis and Jon Watts, who run the "community supported agriculture" farm that keeps the Poirers in fresh produce, cultivate just six of their farm’s 20 acres to feed more than 200 families. Like other CSAs in the area, they have a waiting list.

"Clearly there is space for more small farms," Ms. Tutlis said. "The demand for local food is really high."

Good Feelings, Better Health
It’s not that Ms. Tutlis’ happy customer Mr. Poirier, a six-foot-tall financial planner, professional musician, and father of two, couldn’t have lost 50 pounds by eating vegetables and fruit grown in Mexico, Peru, or China. But like so many other people across the country, he discovered two things about locally grown food that help him stick to his new diet.

First, truly fresh food picked at peak ripeness and not shipped long distances tastes so much better than the usual fare. Second, Mr. Poirier likes the genuine community connection and sense of security that comes from knowing the people who grow his food.

"It’s fun to know the people who grow something for you," he said. "We know what’s on it that we’re washing off—if anything. There are a number of farmers we buy from who are members of our church. There are farmers with kids who are in my kids’ Boy Scout troop.

"These people are a part of our life and social network," Mr. Poirier added. "I so respect them. It’s nice to put something on the plate and say thanks to Jon and Jenny in a prayer. It is a very cool thing."

Physicians, dieticians, hospitals, and even insurance companies across the country also see the value of local food. Kaiser Permanente, a California-based health care chain, now hosts weekly farmers markets at 30 of its hospitals and other medical facilities; a survey found that 71 percent of the markets’ repeat shoppers said they eat more fruits and vegetables as a result of being able to buy such fresh food so conveniently.

In Wisconsin, the Physicians Plus Insurance Corporation, which insures 95,000 people, now helps its members pay for fresh, healthy foods from local, community supported agriculture farms similar to Meadowlark. The company has figured out that if members eat healthy they’ll prevent some costly future health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Big Problem, Delicious Cure
According to Michigan Department of Community Health statistics, northwest Lower Michigan residents could use a dose of prevention. They suffer mild to severe obesity—a leading indicator for future heart problems and diabetes—at rates comparable to those in the rest of the state, which makes them among the worst in the nation.

Not surprisingly, state health statistics show that they could stand to eat better, too: about 77 percent of residents in the region eat fewer than the five daily servings of fruits and vegetables that health and diet experts recommend.

Flora Biancalana, a Traverse City physician, said she’s written prescriptions for patients to eat fresh fruits and vegetables as a concrete reminder of how they can help prevent and solve health problems. She happens to buy from Meadowlark Farm, too.

"I encourage people to buy locally," Ms. Biancalana said. "I think there are direct and indirect benefits, the direct ones being the enriched nutrient value of the food because it’s fresh. And there may be less chemicals overall because you’re not worrying about preservatives to ship them across the country or overseas.

"And it has the secondary advantage of building your community and keeping jobs here," she added.

Schools and school groups in all five counties of the Grand Traverse region also are interested in introducing students to farm fresh foods for good nutrition. And it’s making a difference. Students at Frankfort-Elberta Area Public Schools in Benzie County, for example, went from eating one bushel of apples a week to five after the school food service director ditched the bland, out-of-state ones and replaced them with juicy, fresh that were "thousands of miles fresher" because a nearby farmer grew them.

More Local Food, or More Strip Malls?
It’s not just our bodies that benefit from local-based agriculture. It’s good for the region’s economic health, too, said Tino Breithaupt, senior vice president of economic development at the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. His eyes lit up as he talked about a local vintner who’s teamed up with a farmer to create a new product, pear brandy.

Mr. Breithaupt also is working with the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute to develop a business plan for that local-based distribution hub. And he takes out-of-town business representatives to Traverse City’s bustling farmers market to showcase the region’s quality of life.

"They are definitely selling points when we talk to prospective clients," he said.

There are other signs, too, that the Grand Traverse region has a solid base on which to root a local food economy into its future. Wineries, farm stands, and artisan cheeses complement the region’s largest industry—tourism—and farms still outnumber construction firms two-to-one.

Mr. Poirier, however, notices subdivisions popping up in farm fields and worries that farmers facing low bulk commodity prices will sell out to developers who are willing to pay high prices for their land. He recalled songwriter John Gorka’s lyrical lament about losing farms: "Houses in the fields, no prayers for steady rain this year."

His fear is hardly unfounded: This region lost 35 percent of its medium-size farms in recent years, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

As Mr. Poirier watched his family work with other volunteers one fine July day on Meadowlark’s garlic harvest, he observed that the region’s farms have reconnected him and his family to the "rhythms of the season." He seemed proud that his kids, who were snipping off fragrant bulbs from their long green stems, actually know that garlic grows underground.

It’s an experience he doesn’t want to lose.

"If they are going to take a wonderful local farm and put up a paved shopping mall or strip mall, I just don’t think that is a solution," Mr. Poirier said. "There’s got to be a system of growth that is managed and done effectively, but also is a means of conserving the things that are important to us."

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist who manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s farm to school program, was once a farm market master. Reach her at diane@mlui.org. For more coverage of the Grand Traverse Area Land Use and Transportation Study and information about becoming a stakeholder in this citizen-based process, click here.

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