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West Michigan Organizations Spur Good Food Transformation

Community groups, advocates, schools pitch in to ‘go local’

August 23, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Last school year, Kids Food Basket volunteers provided 2,500 quality sack suppers each school day to “food insecure” students in the Grand Rapids area.

West Michigan is in the thick of a food transformation, from the most local home-and-neighborhood level to development of supply chain partnerships among farmers, distributors, and others.

Both personal and community values are driving this transformation; in other words, the market is beginning to respond to messages about public, environmental, and community health, which more and more consumers, producers, and business and civic leaders are sending.  

And while there is no one organization that can contain all the Good Food activity and innovation in West Michigan, there are several groups that help to connect, focus, and spur it. They range from food justice advocates to farmland preservation proponents, to educational institutions, including schools.

Their reach is wide, and their connections are growing into a regional network of diverse people and organizations working toward related health, environmental, and economic objectives.

Both the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council and the new Grand Stone Soup coalition bring together people and organizations working to build more healthy, green, fair, and affordable food into West Michigan's daily life.

The Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems provides some key services, like directories of West Michigan's community gardeners, farmers, and farmers markets and other resources at its Web site. The council spurred development of many Good Food projects, including the Southeast Area Farmers Market in an underserved part of the city; the West Michigan Co-op online marketplace; and the marketing of produce from community gardens through the startup Cultivating Urban Seeds of Prosperity program, or CUSP.

The Food Systems Council also took the lead during a citywide planning process, called Green Grand Rapids for its sustainable development focus, in making the case that zoning should allow for more food production in the city.

Current zoning restricts many community gardening activities. Yet, home gardens and community gardens in parks or even street medians are fundamental to helping people meet basic food needs and strengthening community by providing people opportunities to meet their neighbors.

"There is recognition now in the west Michigan area that community gardens are 'green infrastructure' (the planning term for parks, trails, and similar amenities)," said Food Systems Council president Cynthia Price. "That's not the case everywhere; we've worked very hard."

Another group supporting gardens as green infrastructure for the region's broader wealth and wellness is Green West Michigan. The group hosts gardening workshops and other outreach work.

The emerging Grand Stone Soup coalition of food and farm interests is still another example of people in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area coming together to build more healthy, green, fair, and affordable food into the community's future. The coalition started bringing as many people and organizations together as possible in late 2009, including those involved with the Food Systems Council, to see what would happen.

Now the coalition is planning a summit later this year, as part of its work to focus, connect, and promote all the related Good Food activity.

The Grand Stone Soup coalition includes farmers, gardeners, restaurateurs and other food buyers, as well as health and human service agencies and outlets.

The group also includes the Spectrum Health Healthier Communities program, a systematic effort to support people as they try to include healthier food and lifestyle in their daily living; Kids Food Basket, a group of volunteers preparing packs of after-school food; and the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force Food Subcommittee, which is a county government-led collaborative of food security groups like West Michigan Second Harvest Gleaners and Kent County's food pantry network.

People and organizations that educate people about good growing, healthy eating, and community development are involved, too. They include Grand Rapids' Blandford Nature Center and its hands-on Mixed Greens program with schools and summer day campers. Another is Grand Rapids Community College’s Keller Future Center, which hosts the Urban Farming Demonstration Project, in which students, businesses, and community members develop ideas and designs for facilities and other infrastructure that can support urban farming.

Calvin College, with its student garden and cafeteria program of purchasing local foods, is there, as well. In fact, Calvin College students recently produced a video with the Grand Rapids Area Council on Humanities that puts the west Michigan Good Food movement into perspective.

Called Eating in Place, the video poses the question: "Can we eat our way to a healthier economy?"  Interviews with the broad range of people involved come together in a big “Yes!” Those in the film show a great sense of empowerment; each points out progress the region has made in a relatively short time.

Patty Cantrell established the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food and Farm program. Show is now senior policy adviser for MLUI; reach her at pattycATmlui.org.
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