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Benton Harbor: Pulling Together Food and Farm Leaders

A new food council comes up with tableful of ideas

August 21, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Lee Lavanway, who manages the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, is responsible for launching the Benton Harbor Food Council.
The group of people that sat down together in late May 2009 at Benton Harbor City Hall was small but powerful.

Representing farmers, economic developers, local government, and local businesses, they talked about food: How Berrien County can benefit much more from tasty, healthy, trustworthy food that so many local farms produce.

And that is how the Benton Harbor Food Council got started a few months ago—a budding community effort to bring local food to their community’s own market, as well as build the health and wellbeing of local residents by focusing on healthy food and strong local agriculture.

Berrien and its neighboring counties are among the state's most prolific fruit and vegetable producers. Yet cities around the region—from Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids to Chicago—import much of their produce from distant states and countries. The opportunity the council sees, particularly with growing interest in local foods and in connecting with nearby farms, is to change that situation for the better—and for good.

Throughout the meeting, the room bubbled with ideas and suggestions from virtually everyone at the table.

From Tourists to Business Incubators
Bob Jones was there; he’s the resource development coordinator with the Cornerstone Alliance, Berrien County's economic development agency. For Mr. Jones, the value of farms to the region's tourism economy is obvious.

"We have a great agri-tourism opportunity here," he said of the many small farms in the county, a top lakeshore destination for travelers from Chicago and Michigan's number-one recipient of tourism dollars. "The Chicago Tribune mentions this area once or twice a month in the summer."

But Mr. Jones said Berrien County could take much greater advantage of that attention through a concerted agri-tourism marketing effort, complete with calendars of local food events and maps to farm markets.

Benton Harbor city manager Richard Marsh was also at the meeting. He recognizes the power of healthy food and successful farm businesses to strengthen the city. And that’s something Benton Harbor needs: It is, in fact, one of eight high-poverty urban areas in Michigan receiving focused economic development attention through Governor Granholm's Cities of Promise initiative.

So Mr. Marsh hopes to include the re-use of vacant properties, including a potential food business incubator, in Benton Harbor's economic revitalization planning and make that happen through the food policy council.

Joanne Davidhizar, Berrien County Extension Director, has worked with researchers on a food business incubator plan. She told her fellow council members that she believes the project is ripe for Benton Harbor.

"There are some things the city can get working on right now," she told Mr. Marsh at the meeting.

Reviving the Good Old Days
One of the people who knows the lay of the local farmland business is Lee LaVanway. He’s manager of the wholesale Benton Harbor Fruit Market, and instigator of the three meetings the group has had so far. He told the meeting that the potential for growing the local economy by supporting local farms and food businesses is huge.

“Here in Berrien County, 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.”

Ed Kretchman, president of Berrien County Farm Bureau, chimed in, too. He said he remembers those days when farming was profitable and the city and county's economy was strong. He's involved in the food policy council because he sees an opportunity to put together a strategic plan and renew the region's economic base.

Regional planning to steer housing developments away from farmland is crucial, he said, in order to avoid crowding out farms with second homes: "To get any processing company to invest here, they need to know that this region will still have a strong base of farms working farmland in the future."

And Tony McGhee, who owns the Phoenix, a downtown cafe that regularly uses food from area growers, said that building the local farm-to-table connection is key. He should know: His spot is one of several new businesses in a downtown that is coming alive again.

And the architect at the meeting, Tim Flynn, said that community gardens and other food and educational efforts are great ways to get kids and families in the swing of eating healthy food. In fact, he’s working on such a project now.

The discussion was wide-ranging, but also disciplined, at the third meeting of the Benton Harbor Food Policy Council. Their next step is to work through a strategic planning and community outreach process while also moving some "shovel ready" projects forward.

This is the second part of a series on the Good Food movement 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 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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