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Kalamazoo: Oh, the Webs They Weave!

Town’s many networks support its booming Good Food movement

December 1, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Eat Local, Kalamazoo! is one of several organizations promoting the region’s homegrown food products.

The rise of Kalamazoo’s strong Good Food movement is a story about people—and about how one good thing often leads to another when those people are passionately committed to a local food economy—and communicating with each other.

For many in this region, the Good Food movement revolves around a non-profit called Fair Food Matters. FFM hosts the Eat Local, Kalamazoo! group, which sponsors events throughout the year to connect local people and local foods. FFM also puts on the Fair Food Film Festival and operates projects like the Can-Do Kitchen, summer chefs classes for kids, and learning gardens, like the Roots of Knowledge garden at Woodward Elementary School, in nearby Portage.

FFM got started because so many people were bringing their healthy eating questions to the People's Food Co-op, a member-owned, downtown health food hub.

"We were getting a ton of really diverse questions," recalled co-op general manager Chris Dilley. "People were asking us about genetically modified food, about local farms and where we were buying our food from, as well as a lot on how to prepare food, and nutritional questions."

So the co-op hosted lectures on nutrition, agricultural practices, groundwater issues and more. It also started its own garden.

"We thought it would be a production garden for our store,” Mr. Dilley said, “but we quickly found ourselves hosting adults and kids who wanted to learn."

So the co-op launched the independent, nonprofit Fair Food Matters to manage some projects, like that original "Growing Matters" garden, and link with others interested in building a communitywide Good Food system.

Eight years later, Mr. Dilley says there’s still plenty to do,

"We are constantly balancing the need for education with the realization that there are big chunks of what would be a local and regional food systems (like regional storage and distribution) that are just kind of missing," he said, adding that FFM’s main goals are to "educate, build and advocate" for Good Food.

That brings us to Donna McClurkan, who briefly directed FFM, now sits on its board of directors, and is one of the most active Good Food networkers in town.

Walking Her Talk
Ms. McClurkan made her way to the board, among other projects, thanks to her obsession with reading food information labels and her past life as a registered nurse. She turned this background into a new vocation a couple years ago, when she answered a public radio cooking show's call for blogs about eating year-round on a 100-mile diet.

As she blogged for the show, Splendid Table, she grew food roots deep into the Kalamazoo community, where she'd lived for six years, and found that the region could provide most all she needed.

"The muck soil, our greenhouses, the fruit belt, water ... we have so much!" Ms. McClurkan said.

To learn about food and farming in the region, she became active with the Eat Local Southwest Michigan listserv, EatLocalSWMich, on Yahoo. Started and managed by Paw Paw resident Lori Evesque, the listserv allows hundreds of users to share information, debate issues, find farms, and start projects.

Ms. Evesque is also a founder of the Southwest Michigan Harvest Festival, which, in its seven years in Scotts, Mich., has become a veritable crossroads for people and organizations interested in making healthy-food retailing easier to find and use, and the farm economy more sustainable and profitable. Tillers International, an educational farm on the festival site, practices and teaches new, less energy-intensive farming techniques and artisanal food skills.

It was at that festival where Ms. McClurkan met Mark Elzinga, a local greenhouse operator, and told him about her 100-mile diet adventure. That got him thinking about the budding market for local foods, and inspired him to start growing and selling winter vegetables.

Mr. Elzinga’s new business actually revisits his family's roots—40 years of not just farming, but selling produce at the Centre Street market, downtown.

"We always bought local when available,” he said of his family’s approach to retailing food. “That was our deal—Michigan cantaloupe over California's. I grew up with that!"

So, after meeting Ms. McClurkan, Mr. Elzinga reached out to like-minded independent grocers in the region, along with food service at Bronson Methodist Hospital, to get his winter vegetable business going. Today Bronson and the retailers—including Sawall Health Foods, the People's Co-op, and Hardings Friendly Markets—are key parts of Kalamazoo’s local food and farming network.

Debate, Too
Kalamazoo's Good Food networks include everyone from passionate foodies and crunchy environmentalists to highly experienced conventional farmers who question the local food choir.

Through the EatLocalSWMich listserv, for example, Ms. McClurkan now has an effective working relationship with one of those experienced farmers, Brigette Leach, who hails from Climax, between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. Ms. Leach, a Michigan Farm Bureau board member, often challenges other group members’ ideas with what she’s learned from her lifetime in agriculture—and her near-decade directly marketing her family's farm products.

"One conversation on the listserv had to do with processing," she said, reflecting one online discussion. "Several were upset there is no place to take chickens and have them processed."

"I had to explain there used to be lots of those processors,” she said. “But when Michigan was no longer able to provide inspectors, it wasn’t feasible for them to stay in business anymore. Until you have an historical perspective it's easy to jump from point A to point K and have a real misperception of why things are how they are."

Like those she often questions, Ms. Leach also wants to see more market opportunities and support for local farms. She said farmers market vendors could sell more preserved products, like pickles and jams, for example, if there were nearby "shared-use" facilities, where farms could make products without having to invest in building their own commercial kitchens. But the closest place with low-cost, small-scale commercial equipment is many miles away, in Hart, Mich.

Kalamazoo’s new Can-Do Kitchen could help. The low-cost food processing space is another Fair Food Matters project. The Can-Do Kitchen plan includes job training for food industry work, and moving from its temporary locale, a church's commercial kitchen, to a permanent facility.

Meanwhile, Ms. Leach’s family sells heavily to local markets: some 250 CSA shareholders, Kalamazoo restaurants, and at farmers markets. They launched their greenhouse and direct-marketing operation, Avalon Farms Homegrown, after years of raising as many as 1,500 hogs at a time. Brigette and her husband, Larry, changed their business to fit their daughter’s interests and skills.

Farm to School in Battle Creek
But Ms. Leach’s real passion is connecting farmers with eaters, particularly those moving into once-rural areas. That's why she teamed up with Paul Yettaw, food service director for Battle Creek's Lakeview School District.

Mr. Yettaw is a school wellness leader in Michigan. He's helped Lakeview's administration and students produce a strong wellness policy, including a healthy- food-only rule for school vending machines and snacks. 

He says he wants kids to see the connection between health, good food, and their community.

"Once we get the purchasing from local farms going, I want to take this into the classroom," Mr. Yettaw said. "They'll go home and say ‘Mom, I met the farmer who grew the apples we had in school today!'"

Like many others, Mr. Yettaw got interested in local farms and schools via the local Good Food network: He met Ms. Leach at an annual, nearby family farm conference staged by Michigan Food and Farming Systems, a statewide non-profit. The two learned more from Michigan State University's Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, where they met Colleen Matts, who heads up the Mott group's statewide farm-to-school support.

Now, as Ms. Matts helps Mr. Yettaw and other school food buyers find farmers, she also interconnects the buyers so they can share their experiences. Some are in entirely different parts of the state, like Kristen Missiak, food service director at Traverse City Area Public Schools, who has led development of a district-wide farm to school effort there.

Network Builds Businesses, Markets
Other efforts, as well, lead back to Donna McClurkan, the EatLocalSWMich listserv, or Fair Food Matters' powerful projects. 

For example, some students and faculty at Kalamazoo College developed their Farms to K program by working with Fair Food Matters. Farms to K is helping the college change its food system from one that has long bought from, say, California and Chile to one more focused on local food.

Students, buyers, farmers and more discuss this on the listserv, at Eat Local, Kalamazoo! events, and at farmers markets, where there are many new possible connections for new local sales to schools.

Meanwhile, Ms. McClurkan, a practical, widely respected, diplomatic visionary, said she’s now hearing from conventional farmers and others newly interested in Kalamazoo’s Good Food scene.

Recently, a group of local growers asked her to help them plan for an increase in next year’s food production for local restaurants and supermarkets. Together, they came up with something called Farm-to-Chef Connections.

“It’s a little like speed dating for farmers,” she explained. “Making those connections is critical to getting more food in area restaurants and retail outlets.”

She says that, if they were approached, many more local producers could be interested in such local food opportunities. Such conversations are spreading across the region, she noted, and local officials are getting involved. For example Texas Township, where Ms. McClurkan lives, now has its own farmers market. It started two years ago after she approached her local township officials.

The trial run, on Sept. 27, 2008, turned out 24 vendors and 1,500 patrons, instead of the expected 16 vendors and 300 shoppers. Things have only improved since then.

“This year, we featured 60 vendors, most of whom traveled from within 20 miles of our market,” she said. “That speaks volumes about the rich, diverse, and plentiful agriculture we have in our backyard. " 

There are now more than 30 farmers markets within 100 miles of Kalamazoo, including the city-operated Kalamazoo Farmers Market, which started at the turn of the last century and has hosted some farms there for decades.

Area farmers markets also include the new, local-only 100-Mile Market, sponsored by the People's Food Co-op, and the Richland Farmers Market. Ms. McClurkan says this farmers market, operated by the Richland Area Community Center, grew from conversations among three churches about the value of Good Food—and their role in it.

Churches elsewhere in Michigan and nationwide are talking more about food and farm issues. There is even a growing set of study materials, like the Just Faith curriculum, Food and Faith study guide, and others, like those on this list from the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Whether it's the local Bible Study leader, township trustee, or daycare cook, the leaders of the Kalamazoo Good Food movement seem to be everywhere. Step by step they are getting locally grown food onto more local dinner tables and cafeteria trays and transforming the Kalamazoo region's people and economy.

For those who admire this town’s long agricultural history, it’s like the entrepreneurship of those early Dutch celery farmers and pharmaceutical industry pioneers emerging all over again.

This is the sixth 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 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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