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Michigan food and the case of the Chinese cherries

Matt Gougeon runs the Marquette Food Co-op, a store that began the way a lot of co-ops did in the 1970s, as a buying club for a number of families who wanted food that was hard to find in the Upper Peninsula. Over the years, it’s grown into a 3,200-square-foot store with $5 million in annual sales. But Gougeon has a problem.

“It’s easier for me to get cherries from China than from Traverse City,” he said. “The distribution system makes it difficult. It’s easier for growers to sell their cherries to a wholesaler who will load them onto a truck and drive them out of Michigan. But it’s hard to find a small hauler who will find a method of distributing cherries within the state.”

And that, among many reasons, is how Gougeon and several hundred others found themselves at the Michigan Good Food Summit in Lansing last month, marking the two-year check-in after the adoption of the Michigan Good Food Charter. It's one thing to grow the food, but there's also the matter of getting it to those who need it or want it.

At a point in human history when food is so plentiful that nearly a third of Michiganians are obese, how can we eat better? And how can the state be helped in the process?

Creating a diet for Michigan

Now two years old, the charter was the brainchild of a number of organizations, including the Michigan Food Policy Council, the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University and the Food Bank Council of Michigan. Funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the idea was to craft a vision for the state’s future that would “make it just as easy to get food from a nearby farm as from the global marketplace and that will assure all Michiganders have access to good food and all Michigan farmers and food businesses have entrepreneurial opportunities.”

Or, in other words, to get Michiganians eating more affordable fresh food grown here, in a sustainable fashion, produced, harvested and sold in a manner that doesn’t exploit anyone.

“Economies of scale are finite in agriculture,” said Michael Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University and one of the architects of the charter. “In commodity crops, efficiency of production actually levels out at a much smaller amount of acreage than what you might think.”

In some ways, we’re victims of our own success. Industrial agriculture has vastly increased the productivity of farm acreage, but not necessarily in ways that lead to better eating. Grocery stores are glittering temples, offering dozens of varieties of flavored potato chips and a rainbow of soft drinks, but “most people have a woefully inadequate diet,” Hamm said, adding, “for lots of reasons.” The charter is an attempt to address some of those reasons.

What needs to happen is for food systems to “re-regionalize,” in Hamm’s words, not only to make it easier for shoppers to find Michigan peaches in Michigan groceries, but to correct such nonsensical anomalies as the fact “about half of our domestic production of produce comes out of California. It isn't sustainable,” he said, not with such issues as water use, energy expenditures and climate change looming on the horizon.

But getting better food to the people who need it most is no simple matter.

Being 'fit' in Grand Rapids

Tracy Thompson is an outreach specialist for the Institute for Health Care Studies, part of MSU’s medical school. With a Blue Cross/Blue Shield grant and help from other institutions, she guided Project Fit, which addressed childhood obesity among economically disadvantaged populations. Focused on four urban schools in Grand Rapids where more than 90 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, the idea was to sell anti-obesity eating and exercise to both parents and children.

Project Fit had several components, but among the hurdles Thompson faced was getting better food into corner stores, where many residents of poor neighborhoods get at least some of their groceries. The project went so far as to pay for coolers and general improvements for stores, so that fresh produce and food could be offered there.

“The area we’re looking at is not a food desert,” Thompson said. “There’s food there. But they needed help to fill these gaps in the market.”

Having a cooler filled with fresh food is one thing. But, she added, “Now you have a choice, the apple or the Twinkie. How do you influence them to make a healthier choice?”

Many children would choose the Twinkie. Which is why Project Fit appeared in everything from math lessons (teaching fractions using recipes) to after-school programming for parents and children.

The road to apples over Twinkies is likely to be a long one, but Thompson compares it to the one that finally marginalized smoking:

“It will take a while, but it will happen.”

'Growing Hope' in Ypsilanti

In Ypsilanti, the lessons start well before the corner store. Amanda Maria Edmonds runs Growing Hope, founded in 2003, which seeks to teach people of all ages and income levels how to build gardens and advocates for social, economic, environmental and neighborhood change.

“It’s all in the model of capacity-building,” said Edmonds. “We’re not building and managing, but training people to do it for themselves.”

Growing Hope also runs Ypsilanti’s downtown farmers’ market, which takes over a city block six months out of the year and, this year, is up to almost 50 vendors.

Back in the policy market, Edmonds said things are slowly changing to reflect the charter’s goals. Michiganians receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can take their Bridge cards to participating markets and receive tokens that will double whatever they spend at market booths, a program called Double Up Food Bucks.

The Cottage Food Law, which passed in 2010, exempts small-batch producers of certain specialty food products from standard licensing and inspection laws, enabling them to set up businesses more easily. And, Edmonds said, local ordinances allowing such things as backyard chickens are putting more people on the path to raising their own food.

The hardest part, she said, will be setting up supply chains and hubs that can connect, for instance, hospitals and institutions to small growers, toward the charter’s goal of sourcing 20 percent of the food they serve from within the state.

“You might start with the hospital cafeteria, rather than serving to patients,” she said. “There might be ‘Fresh Fridays’ in schools. When institutions have events like that, it builds awareness and interest.”

At the June summit, organizers released a report card on progress toward the charter’s goals. Progress is mixed, sometimes hard to quantify, and Hamm says, “You can always do better. But it's true to say that there is a lot of amazement that Michigan government, the non-governmental organizations, the philanthropic world and the land-grant universities, while they are not completely congruent, are at least looking in the same direction and thinking about these things. That’s not true in most other states in the country. I don't think it's hyperbole that we have greater alignment in moving toward these goals than probably anywhere in the country.”

Climate change will likely uproot existing systems, and Michigan needs to be positioned to react wisely and well, Hamm said:

“If we don't sell our water, we will be the place to be in 20 years.”

Gougeon goes further than that:

“I'll say that in 2016, you will start to hear a presidential platform based on food. By 2020, we'll elect a president based on food and food production.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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