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Kalamazoo: Getting Ready for Good Food

Locals reinvent, grow region’s innovative traditions

November 9, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  An old postcard reflects Kalamazoo’s innovative “Celery City” past, which could be renewed with local residents’ embrace of the new“Good Food” movement.
In August the Michigan Good Food Tour reported from Benton Harbor about the community’s Food Policy Council and efforts by two area colleges to preserve local fruits and vegetables for the winter. Now we visit Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, where a broad cross section of the community is building a new food and farming future.

KALAMAZOO—Often, big changes start with big ideas from “little people.”

Even something as big as the launch of the Dot-Com Era started that way—in that case with just a few geeky entrepreneurs experimenting with circuit boards in their garages in what is now known as Silicon Valley.

Today, a big change is occurring in Kalamazoo. And, once again, it’s coming from the little people, in this case a remarkably diverse group: farmers, chefs, parents, teachers, business owners, and county commissioners. They are black, white, and Hispanic; poor and rich; young and old.

These folks see clearly that their community’s future health and wealth, from urban core to rural outskirts, can come from what’s called the Good Food movement—a vision for improving everyone's diet with affordable access to tasty, healthy, trustworthy food. The movement prizes re-connecting local people with local farms, backyard gardens, and neighborhood markets and treating them as assets for building both public and economic health.

So a new, Good Food network is taking shape in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and environs; business and social entrepreneurs there are building a new food and farming future.

Their transformative work recalls the efforts of some earlier Kalamazoo residents who made a big name for the town. That includes the poor Dutch immigrants who discovered in the mid-1800s that celery was the perfect crop for the area's waterlogged muck soils and built a worldwide reputation for their town as Celery City. This, it turns out, planted seeds for Kalamazoo's future pharmaceutical industry: The Upjohn Company, which later became part of Pfizer Inc., promoted celery’s health-promoting properties as it built its pioneering businesses.

But now Kalamazoo is one more Midwestern city with a glorious past struggling to attract new investment after decades of suburban sprawl and globalization segregated their residents and undermined their local commerce.

It turns out that, in today's new economy, employers trying to retain and attract talent are more interested in diverse neighborhoods, happening downtowns, and clean water than they are in low wages and taxes or outlet-mall shopping. That helps explain why city leaders launched the Kalamazoo Promise—a privately funded offer of college tuition for all kids who stick with Kalamazoo schools: It underscores the value of people. After all, it is people who make a place.

And that explains why the Kalamazoo region’s Good Food movement is stepping up: It, too, is all about people.

The Role of Good Food
The people in Kalamazoo who are pushing the Good Food movement see it as a key ingredient in their community’s 21st-century prosperity for three reasons.

First, it's a lot of fun, and fun is the lifeblood of neighborhoods and thriving places.

For example, food, art, and issues intermingle at Kalamazoo’s Fair Food Film Fest and other community events. Seniors from the town’s economically segregated Northside neighborhood get out of their houses and socialize at the community-owned grocery store, which not only spurred other business investments down the block, but is also one of the first efforts nationwide to deal with the "food deserts"—i.e., the lack of quality groceries—in urban and rural neighborhoods.

All kinds of people turn out for the area’s farmers markets, too, including the one at the local hospital, to appreciate the art and science of farming and the beauty of the earth's bounty.

Second, local initiatives around healthy, green, fair, and affordable food are in step with the times. Economic and community development officials are starting to pay more attention to improving economic and social health by addressing public and environmental health. For example, governments and businesses are now taking steps to deal with the current epidemic of diet-related diseases and the reality of climate change.

Third, this area is rich in the assets it needs to prosper. For example, farmland here is close to water and big population centers, meaning that Kalamazoo-area food and other products could become prominent in regional markets as the global economy decentralizes from its current, long-distance transportation model.

Kalamazoo's Celery City history is already pointing some local growers in that new direction.

That is because, after the celery business moved to California, local farmers switched to greenhouse production of bedding plants and became the leading suppliers of plants for big garden-center retailers, like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Meijer Inc. Kalamazoo area growers now account for most of southwest Michigan's 32 million square feet of greenhouse space.

But the big-box bedding plant business has stopped growing and only runs from early spring into the fall. Some greenhouse operators are realizing they are in prime position to meet the growing demand for fresh local vegetables during Midwestern winters.

One is an enterprising, third-generation Dutch farmer, Mark Elzinga, who is already selling winter vegetables to local Bronson Methodist Hospital and several grocers from part of his 30-acre Elzinga-Hoeksema greenhouse operation. More greenhouse operations could follow, which should attract greater economic development attention to the idea.

Good Food Networks
Like the Kalamazoo region's early celery and pharmaceutical entrepreneurs, its Good Food entrepreneurs are still operating at a small scale. But they are building a new kind of prosperity with their community initiatives and market trials, like offering rental space at Kalamazoo's new Can-Do Kitchen or growing winter vegetables at those greenhouse businesses.

It is these small steps and big ideas that will amount over time to a quantum leap for Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.

Among those leading the area’s move toward Good Food are Kalamazoo County Extension, which helps out both farmers and families; Fair Food Matters, a community organizing group; Eat Local Southwest Michigan, a Yahoo email discussion group; and the Northside Association for Community Development, which is supplying leadership from and for one of Kalamazoo’s more segregated neighborhoods.

You meet a lot of people and see a lot of innovative action when you start down some of these pathways. Our Michigan Good Food Tour will take you along three of them, which, as in all strong networks, intersect many times.

So we will meet Michael Rowe, food service director for Kalamazoo's Bronson Methodist Hospital. Then we'll see how Donna McClurkan, a leading local locavore, weaves together the region's many food and farm interests. Finally, we'll learn from the work of Mark Thomas and others at the Kalamazoo County Extension office how local people, food, and economy are coming together.

This is the fourth in a series about food and farming in southwest Lower Michigan. Financial support for this Good Food tour comes from the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University. Patty Cantrell is a senior policy specialist 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 economic strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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