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All Aboard the SW Mich. Good Food Tour!

Region’s food, farm connections fertile ground for businesses, community action

August 18, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A greenhouse near Grand Rapids sells vegetable plantings to immigrants eager to grow the foods common to their home countries.
The community garden at Fourth Reformed Church, on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, is a serene place on a Thursday evening in early June. The clear air and eager sunlight set the young lettuce leaves, the turned-up dirt, even the parking lot aglow. With gardeners bent to their work and talking together, the scene speaks of care, abundance, and relationship. It’s like a postcard of Italy’s Tuscan countryside, or a cityscape painting that shows how neighborliness thrives even in big, busy places.

Then I spy the tag in the ground next to some plants that Monica Moore is tending in her plot. The tag, which reveals where Mr. Moore got some of her plants, confirms just how wide and intricate the web of new food and farming connections is becoming in southwest Lower Michigan.

As we will see in this tour of the region’s food and farming networks, these connections present powerful opportunities to build the kind of public health and community wealth that Michigan needs for prosperity in the 21st century.

These new connections are happening as families, businesses, and organizations pursue their interests in finding or providing “Good Food”—that is, healthy, green, fair, and affordable food. They include city planners amending zoning ordinances to allow for more urban food production, community gardeners marketing to local chefs, small and larger farms building new business ventures, and regional leaders putting local food and farms into their economic development planning.

All are collaborating, innovating, and, in the process, building a new and fruitful landscape of community and commercial relationships.

This tour of southwest Michigan’s Good Food networks shows how support for the enterprises, initiatives, and networking involved can paint a new picture of Michigan’s future, one with healthy people and thriving, neighborly places.

Six Degrees of Connection
That tag I spied at the community garden, next to a freshly planted Thai Green eggplant, represents one of the many threads tying regional food and farming interests together. It came with the rare variety of eggplant that Ms. Moore, an immigrant from Indonesia, planted in her plot.

She said she was thrilled to find Thai Green at a nearby garden center, because Grand Rapids grocery stores do not carry many of the vegetables she grew up eating. But the community garden allows her to make some of her indigenous foods come alive for her family.

“I can grow things here from my country,” she said, and then added that she also spends time at the garden, with her toddler in tow, for the friendships that come with spending time with neighbors digging in the dirt and enjoying the hearty results.

“It’s more fun to garden together,” she said.

And that tag? It bore the name of another business I had visited in a earlier trip— Elzinga and Hoeksema Greenhouses LLC in Portage, about 50 miles south of Grand Rapids.

Owner Mark Elzinga launched his company’s Ethnic Flavors line of organic vegetable starts in 2008. The line is now for sale at garden centers, including Meijer Inc. stores in five states. Mr. Elzinga realized that he could make money—and a lot of people like Monica happy—by filling a big gap in what gardening supply stores offer a customer base that is growing more and more diverse.

“I started wondering where our Asian and Hispanic workers get their special ingredients,” he said. “There are pockets of ethnic communities all over the Midwest, and nobody is looking out for these guys. It’s a nice little niche.”

Like the famous “six degrees of separation” concept, it’s easy to trace the threads of food and farming connections that relate Mark and Monica’s worlds.

The Thai Green eggplant connection is about choice. It’s about the fresh tastes of just-picked local foods, for example, and the greater variety that more flexible niche- and local-market producers can offer, such as heirloom tomatoes and heritage-breed turkeys.

Choice is one of the leading reasons local food is a fast-growing segment of the food industry. Market researchers predict the local food segment will turn into a $7 billion business by 2011.

Mark and Monica are also connected by their interest in healthy food and their involvement in building the strength of neighborhoods and local economies.

In addition to its Fresh Tastes line, for example, the Elzinga and Hoeksema business strategy includes growing fresh, organic vegetables over the winter for local schools and hospitals, as well as new green-energy investments to make its 30-acre greenhouse business more economically sustainable in peak oil times.

Local buyers of Elzinga and Hoeksema winter vegetables, like Bronson Methodist Hospital, in Kalamazoo, are motivated by the opportunity to serve fresh, healthy foods and to put their dollars to work securing local businesses.

Similarly, the church-sponsored community garden tended by Ms. Moore is operated by New City Neighbors, a non-profit focused on building the health and wellbeing of people living in the Creston neighborhood of northeast Grand Rapids.

Helping people raise healthy food together is a key part of New City’s work. The organization is one of many groups and thousands of individuals involved in the city’s Green Grand Rapids effort, which is about designing ordinances and other rules so that they help build family, neighborhood, and city strength.

Stronger Every Day
So, Mark Elzinga and Monica Moore’s connections are among thousands of such relationships and interests around Good Food and its role in building sustainable communities. I found hundreds more on short, exploratory tours of the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, and Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon areas of southwest Michigan.

From the city manager’s office in Benton Harbor, where a new regional food policy council is forming, to a new urban farming project in Muskegon, the region’s Good Food landscape is growing more extensive and robust every day.

Tying together the many neighbors, businesses, and organizations that are involved are six main threads or, we might say, “six degrees of connection.” They are:

  • Choice – finding or providing a wider variety of tastes and other qualities in food that the mass market, which thrives on uniformity, does not offer.

  • Health – improving diets and dietary choices through greater availability and affordability of wholesome food.

  • Community – building relationships that enliven and sustain people and places.

  • Commerce – growing jobs and business opportunities through more local and regional economic interaction.

  • Ecology – respecting and working with natural assets, cycles, and limits.

  • Self-reliance – building the capacity of families, neighborhoods, and economies to chart their own course.

In short, these people and places are building a new Good Food system that, in turn, builds the sustainability and resilience of our larger community and economic systems. Every interaction I had on these tours, and every person I found leading the way, pointed to food as much more than a commercial product or package of vitamins and minerals.

Rather, they pointed to food as a function. Food brings people together. It drives land and water uses. It defines regions.

It is a fundamental part of the new Michigan picture that southwest Lower Michigan and other regions of Michigan are painting as they pursue their Good Food interests.

This is part one of the Michigan Good Food Tour, a continuing series on regional food and farm networks in Michigan. Financial support for this Good Food tour, which covers southwest Lower Michigan, comes from the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University. Patty Cantrell is a program director at the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she has built northwest Michigan’s nationally recognized Taste the Local Difference program. Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow focused on promoting local food and farming as a New Economy strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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