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 GrossePointeToday.com, 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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Tue, 07/10/2012 - 9:26am
I detest this article.
Ken Kolk
Tue, 07/10/2012 - 10:02am
I'm retired, but for many years I was a field man for a cherry processor. Michigan is the largest producer in the world of tart cherries (mainly Mount Morencies) that are used in pies and pie fillings. I purchased sweet cherries (Heidleflingens, Golds, Emperor Francis, Windsors) which are used to make Maraschino cherries, the cherries in candied fruit. All of these cherries, except the Windsors, are referred to as "yellow cherries". Tart cherry growers need some sweet cherry trees to cross pollinate their trees, but since the yellows are in great demand and can be picked by mechanical pickers (seems finding migrant workers is difficult and expensive as you also have to house their families most cherries are picked using cherry shakers) and the processors immediately begin to process them, they tend to use these cherries as their cross pollinators. The big black cherries you want for eating fresh are grown by far fewer growers and have to be hand picked. Most of those are sold directly by the growers at roadside stands, local farmer's markets, or at the fresh fruit and vegetable exchange in Benton Harbor (where most of them get shipped to Chicago or Detroit). If you live in Western Michigan, where the fruit belt is, they are usually easy to find. However, the hot spring we had last March and the freezing temperatures we had in April and early May wiped out the cherry crop for this year. Finding a cherry from Michigan as fresh fruit is nearly impossible this year. Meijer's is bringing them in from Washington State, where they grow far more sweet cherries. As for the the folks in "Upperland" there isn't enough demand there to warrant the growers to ship them over The Mac.
Nancy Derringer
Tue, 07/10/2012 - 10:23am
Ken, when I lived in Indiana there was a processor who would come to my local farmers' market in late June with five-gallon buckets of processed tart cherries -- something like 20 pounds, pitted, mixed with five pounds of sugar and flash-frozen. I'd take it home, thaw it enough that I could break it up into one-quart freezer bags, give some away and have enough for a year's worth of pies and ice-cream toppings. I was struck by the fact he could do this on a very small scale and still make it worth his while. I wonder where that guy is now.
Mrs. A
Tue, 07/10/2012 - 10:56am
Regarding Project Fit - what kid would pick an apple over a Twinkie? Ms Thompson poses an unreasonable choice that is off the mark and espouses the sort of moralistic overtone that guarantees failure. Twinkies are intensively processed, nutritionally deficient, and irresistibly sweet, and putting them in the equation is unfair to apples. The kids absolutely need apples, along with lean meats, veggies, fresh grains, and other fruits. Offer the Twinkie against an oatmeal-raisin cookie made with whole grain and you have a realistic alternative that would challenge a kid to make a healthier choice while not penalizing his or her normal, natural sweet-tooth.
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/10/2012 - 12:19pm
"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." This implicitly acknowledges the nature of the problem, and that is lack of demand for fresh produce. If the residents of these neighborhoods wanted fresh fruits and vegetables, the merchants, and supply chain, would be providing them. I would like to know how successful Ms. Thompson was in persuading the obese children who were on free or reduced lunches to modify their eating habits. There is little sense in moving heaven and earth to bring fresh, high quality food to an area if there is no demand for it. Why were children so poor as to receive reduced or free lunches, fat? Does Ms. Thompson have answers?