Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Healthy Choices, Healthier Economy

Healthy Choices, Healthier Economy

March 25, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe
Asparagus growers in west Michigan used the state's "Select Michigan" promotion program to build a big, new market for their fresh product.

In addition to jobs, efforts to build more regional food systems can help Michigan meet two other big needs: Stronger regional economies and lower economic and social costs from dietary diseases.

Strong farms support regional economies not only with local spending but with local amenities, like wineries, pumpkin patches, and the simple pleasures and environmental protections that come from open fields and forests.

For Michigan to have local food and farm amenities in the future, however, it must view farmland around its cities and towns differently and invest accordingly.

Over the last 50 years, our economic planning has not valued open land on the urban edge for food, clean water, and family outings but for siting the next shopping mall or suburb—a trend confirmed by a 2002 American Farmland Trust study. Michigan ranks ninth in the nation for the most threatened farmland. Over the next 35 years, our metropolitan counties stand to lose 25 percent of our urban-influenced land.

Yet fully 86 percent of the country’s fruit and vegetable production occurs on so-called “urban influenced” land. Sixty-three percent of dairy, 39 percent of meat, and 35 percent of grain production happen there, too. Regional food-system building is a key step toward keeping this land on the job of nurturing our bodies, hearts, and minds.

It’s also key to addressing Michigan’s high rate of diet-related diseases.

A recent study for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation compared Michigan's health insurance costs to other states. It found that diet-related health problems here contributed significantly to higher health insurance costs, which makes it even more difficult for Michigan to keep and attract employers .

The solution, according to well-established dietary guidelines, is for everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables, particularly fresh produce. And that means business opportunity for existing and new farms, if Michigan invests in them.

“To provide a healthy food supply in terms of fruits and vegetables, we need a lot more farmers on the landscape,” said Mike Hamm, director of MSU’s C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the country needs 13 million more acres of such production to provide enough fresh produce for Americans to eat according to dietary guidelines.

The potential to build strong local economies by putting more of Michigan’s food dollars toward healthy options from farms nearby is clear to Mr. LeVanway, the Benton Harbor Fruit Market manager.

“Here in Berrien County, we’re number one in the state for agriculture, but we spend $375 million each year for food that does not come from here,” he said. “If we spent more locally we would see an economic stimulus in our rural areas that would bring us back to the 1950s, when our communities were vibrant.”

Farms at that time sold locally and exported their excess, he said. More local money stayed in the local economy, circulating and multiplying as it moved from one person’s paycheck to another.

Oran Hesterman, an Ann Arbor-based national leader in the movement for healthy, green, fair, affordable food, also says that producing and selling local food can build more robust regions, which strengthens Michigan’s economic and social foundation.

“It’s really around creating opportunities for local ownership of sustainable food sources so that, as those entrepreneurs are successful, value that accrues to those enterprises also accrues to the community,” Mr. Hesterman said.

That’s exactly what Lee and Laurie Arboreal are doing for the state’s economic future. So are the 13 other beginning farmers who, like the Arboreals, participated in a small but powerful savings-match program two years ago. The community investment helped each farm entrepreneur’s startup effort; for example, Lee says it helped him make a down payment on a new tractor.

“The $3,000 came at a key time,” Lee said of the program which offered a 2-1 match of his savings. “I didn’t come from agriculture and have land or equipment from my parents.”

Neither did most of the others in the program. But they’re farming now and staying in touch, often buying supplies together to get bulk discounts.

These new, local farmers are in Michigan to stay, contributing to a new economic future in which our state's regions function, from urban core to rural edge, as key economic drivers for the state’s success in the 21st century.

1. Bologna J, Hughes-Cromwick P, Roehrig C. Health Care Costs and Premiums: Michigan Compared with Selected Benchmark States. Ann Arbor, MI: Altarum; 2004.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org