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Talking Detroit's Eastern Market, the hunt for the Michigan potato, and other food stuff

Dan Carmody joined Detroit’s Eastern Market Corp. in 2007, just in time to catch the local-food wave. The market district covers one square mile on Detroit’s east side and holds about 150 businesses, but the public draws are the five city-owned structures where, on Saturdays year-round, Metro Detroiters flock to buy fresh produce, meat and other food items. In 2006, market management was taken over by the corporation, a nonprofit Carmody runs. With a staff of 13, the corporation has sunk $15 million into the market, mostly renovations of the once-crumbling sheds. Attendance is now 30,000-40,000 on market Saturdays during the growing season, and 10,000-15,000 in the off-season. Carmody discussed progress at the market and its future with Bridge Magazine.

Bridge: What does the Eastern Market Corp. do for this part of the city?

A: We have four principal functions: Run the market on a daily basis; identify, design, fund and build major capital improvements to the market; serve as the official neighborhood economic development organization for the Eastern Market district; and lastly, something that wasn’t on the list in 2006, in response to interest in local food systems, serve as a key facilitator and collaborator in the development of a stronger regional food system.

Bridge: Food systems is something that came up at the Michigan Good Food Summit last month. A food co-op manager said it’s easier for him to get cherries from China than Traverse City.

A: It’s easier for a Michigan resident to get Michigan potatoes in the form of potato chips than actually to buy a Michigan potato. If you really poke around under the hood, we’ve got some great examples. There are 4,100 (senior Meals on Wheels) per day, 1.5 million meals per year that are being prepared, flash-frozen and shipped from Jackson to Detroit. That would be a great victory for Michigan, except that I’m talking about Jackson, Miss.

Bridge: What role does the Eastern Market play in changing things like that?

A: We’re trying to build out some other incubative facilities to help foster more development of more successful food-processing companies. That’s why we don’t like to talk about the term “urban agriculture,” but “urban food systems.” The difference is urban agriculture is focused just on the production side, while systems involve production, processing, distribution, retailing, even recycling waste into soil nutrients, i.e. composting. In Shed 5, (now under renovation), a principal feature of that building is a community kitchen, to provide a low-cost space for people who can’t get access to a licensed kitchen (for food-based entrepreneurship).

We’ve also worked with Michigan State University Extension and MSU product center to make space for up to 11 extension agents, some of them to help with nutrition outreach efforts, and some of them to provide mentoring food businesses.

Last year, we also began adding market days. We added the Tuesday seasonal market (which opens today), and we may add a Thursday market from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. -- a night market, programmed with more ready-to-eat food and entertainment. We’re also in advance planning for opening a Sunday market. That would be a full-market-campus, five-shed event, the yin to the Saturday-market yang. What that means is, on Saturday we have 85 percent food and 15 percent other, so we want to invent a market that’s 85 percent other and 15 percent food. The way I’ve shortened it is, I want a mash-up between Brooklyn Flea and House of Blues Gospel Brunch.

Bridge: There’s a lot more here than just flowers and tomatoes.

A: We’ve developed a lot of programming around some issues, (including) food delivery systems to address access issues. Despite having this great portal of food, a lot of great food comes into the city of Detroit, but it doesn’t stay here. So there are a lot of parts in the city where neighborhood residents are pretty dependent upon corner stores and convenience stores. We think that no matter how swell the market is, Detroit is such a big city, we try take a lot of our food into it, through a variety of programs.

Food access is as much a demand as a supply problem. On the demand side, we work with another Michigan nonprofit, the Fair Food Network, trying to encourage the use of food-stamp benefits (to buy fresh food) and also Double Up Food Bucks, which is a voucher, a matching grant. Since 2007, we’ve put about $1.2 million into farmer’s pockets, via (these programs).

Bridge: You have a lot of accomplishments behind you, and a lot of projects ahead of you. Are you sticking around?

A: Yes. This is the cutting edge of this work in this country. It’s not just the Eastern Market, it’s the rich galaxy of people working around food systems’ reinvention, from Michigan State to Detroit Black Community Food Security Network to Greening of Detroit to Recovery Park. It’s not just Detroit, it’s Michigan. The stars are lining up.

The way I like to phrase it is, it’s not about replacing our current food system, but trying to build a more bifurcated system, one that has this healthy, 20 percent-ish base of regionally grown food to supply our system that’s healthy and financially viable. If you can do that, it generates a bunch of local jobs.

Is it possible to imagine a world in which this 20 percent of small-scale producers can compete with large-scale producers? Yes, it’s already happening, with beer. In 1980, we had 101 breweries, and microbreweries were less than 1 percent of American consumption. In 2012, we went past 2,000 breweries for the first time since the 1880s, and microbreweries are just under 10 percent of market share by value. The only growing part of the American beer economy is microbreweries, and what’s especially impressive is, it’s consumer-driven demand, not government regulation. And despite massive advertising budgets, (big corporate brewers) haven’t been able to stop losing market share. That’s inspirational.

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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