Above: At Second Spring Farm, the first bin of produce purchased with Local Food Relief Fund donations. Photo: Taylor Moore, Goodwill Northern Michigan’s Food Rescue.
Our Regional Food System: Let’s Celebrate What We Have, Let’s Look Where We Need to Go
As I begin writing this, it’s springtime in northwestern Michigan. At first glance, it looks like a typical spring. Bikes whiz down the wheelway, children splash in Lake Michigan’s cold waters, and the scent of fudge blankets downtown streets. But a second glance reveals that this is not a typical spring.
People tiptoe around each other, sometimes even stepping onto the street to maintain six feet of distance between them and a stranger. Smiles are hidden behind masks, giving new meaning to the phrase “smile with your eyes.” Shops and restaurants, usually packed to the brim, look bare as they operate at lower capacities than normal. So, although flowers are blooming and the sun is shining, it’s impossible to forget that 2020 has brought us a spring like no other.
Our world feels different now, and it’s not only because of physical distancing, masks, and restrictions on building occupancy. In March, supermarket shelves across the nation were stripped bare as demand for food skyrocketed, but distribution slowed. Schools and food pantries, both crucial sites for food access, reported limited product options and backlogged orders. The shortages appeared to be at odds with stories of farmers letting crops rot in fields and dairies dumping milk down drains. For a few tense weeks, it seemed as though the food system was going to collapse. Yet, officials assured us that the problem wasn’t that the food didn’t exist, it was just that the food wasn’t getting distributed quickly enough. Unsurprisingly, it was small comfort to know that the food we needed sat in a warehouse, not in our cupboard.
Many authors have written about the effects of the pandemic on our food system. Links to several pieces are included below. The purpose of this article is not to restate what has been written, but to celebrate the ways in which northwest Lower Michigan’s food system is already resilient, how that resilience helped our communities during the pandemic, and to look at future possibilities to continue building resilience in our food system.
The first thing I feel we should celebrate is how much our communities care about local farms. Let’s take a moment to revel in that. Yeah, that’s it! Hip, hip, hooray! When asked what is great about our regional food system, Paula Martin, Groundwork’s Food and Farming Policy Specialist, immediately replied, “Our community values and supports the work that local farmers do. Our farmers markets are supported and people want them. We have small farms that want to be seen and respected as a part of the community. Farms are not an afterthought here. It’s not surprising to see local retail stores buying directly from farmers.”
It’s true that local agriculture is woven into our region’s identity, with hundreds of farms providing food for our markets, restaurants, pantries, schools, events, and more. In a national food system where large-scale monocultures are the norm, it is comforting to be surrounded by farms that collectively produce the five food groups: vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains, and dairy. It would have been much less comforting to be surrounded by endless fields of soybeans or corn when supermarket shelves went bare.
Christina Barkel, Groundwork’s Food Equity Specialist, commented on this, stating, “We support lots of small, diverse farms and provide a lot of different revenue streams. There are strong CSAs, market sales, institutional sales, even sales to food pantries. This is unique.”
Our farmers’ flexibility, ingenuity, and collaborative spirit has also shone through during the pandemic. When restaurants, markets, and schools closed, farmers adapted. Rosebud Bear Schneider of Ziibimijwang Farm said, “If farmers are used to anything, we’re used to adapting to changes pretty quickly. This pandemic has proven that being a farmer is definitely essential. The amount of support from not only our community partners but new customers has been so comforting. In the early days we were able to lean on our wholesale accounts to move produce. That really helped us stay afloat. As we adapted to the changes by offering pre-orders and deliveries, we saw a rapid increase. People want to know where their food is coming from and we want to be their trustworthy, reliable and healthy source.”
Local farms also responded by increasing their number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, joined together to form co-ops, applied for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farms to Families Box Program, converted to online sales platforms, opened farm stands, and more. Even in the face of uncertainty, farmers continued to put plants in the ground, hoping that the community would continue to support them. Now in August, months into the pandemic, I think it is fair to say that the community has come through. Mary Brower, owner of Bluestem Farm, shared, “We have felt really well supported by our community this year at Bluestem Farm. Having the trust of our customers in strange times is an incredible gift that we don’t take lightly.”
Bob Schiel, a cattle rancher in Alanson, estimated that he could have sold twice the usual amount of beef this season given meat shortages in the supermarket. A common sentiment voiced by customers of local farms is “Thank goodness you’re here!” The local effort to support farms was supplemented by the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, offering $19 billion immediate relief funding for the purchase of crops from farmers that have seen a decline of 5% or greater in revenue as a result of the pandemic.
Beyond making personal purchases from local farms, the community stepped forward to make sure its members who are food insecure continued to have access to food. As unemployment rose during the pandemic, it became more important than ever to keep food pantries well stocked. Yet, food pantries faced the same challenges supermarkets did when their shelves went bare. Some pantry managers reported orders that usually took a few days to arrive were backlogged up to a month. Rather than becoming paralyzed with concern, our community took action. Over the course of just a few weeks, the community raised $185,000 for Groundwork’s Local Food Relief Fund, far exceeding the initial $30,000 goal. The funds will be used by the Northwest Food Coalition and Manna Food Project to procure local food for their clients, granting our farmers another sure market and food pantry clients delicious, local food.
A large part of the success farmers had in finding new sales avenues can be attributed to existing relationships with local businesses, organizations, and community members. So much was possible because people were able to pick up the phone and call each other to ask, “What do you need? How can I help?” Jen Schaap, Groundwork’s Local Food Policy Specialist, shared that, “We have a close-knit community, and even while we are social distancing, we’re still communicating and sharing. Even competitors are talking and sharing.”
We were lucky that the pandemic started as winter turned to spring, not summer to fall. There would have been no opportunity to adjust growing plans, no chance to put new seeds in the ground. Bare supermarket shelves may have felt scarier if we’d known there wouldn’t soon be an abundance of local produce. There is no escaping the fact that we are limited by a short growing season. Greenhouses, grow-lights, and cold-tolerant crops help fill in the gaps, but our options are limited. Most of the fruits and vegetables our farmers grow is for immediate consumption. That is why, when asked what key steps our community could take to strengthen the regional food system, Groundwork’s Paula Martin, Christina Barkel, Diane Conners, and Jen Schaap all agreed that local food processing and storage facilities are essential.
The term, “processed food,” might set off alarm bells in some people’s minds. Isn’t processed food bad for you? Not always. Processed foods exist on a spectrum, from minimally processed foods, like shredded carrots and frozen berries, to highly processed foods, like Twinkies and chicken nuggets. The more minimally processed a food is, the less likely it is to contain excess sugar, salt, fat, or other harmful additives, and therefore more likely to be better for your body. Food processing can be a tool to make food last longer, meaning processing facilities could stretch local food availability into the colder months. Local storage facilities would reduce the likelihood of our food getting stuck in a warehouse thousands of miles away, as we saw during the start of the pandemic.
Beyond that, processing and storage facilities could give our region more autonomy over our food supply, as well as create jobs, offer farmers additional sales avenues, and provide consumers with a wider variety of local foods to enjoy in the winter. Local processing facilities may also help reduce food waste, as farmers could send blemished or “ugly” produce to processing rather than having to throw it into the compost.
Local food processing may also give our communities more say on what is added to food during processing, perhaps leading to processed food that is not too high in salt, sugar, fat, or other additives commonly found in highly processed food. If you want to learn more about the economic impact of our local and regional food system, check out Michigan State University Extension’s Center for Regional Food Systems’ 2019 Workforce Assessment of Michigan’s Local and Regional Food System report. It is enlightening and demonstrates what a force this sector is!
The consumer would also benefit from local food processing facilities. Processed foods are often quicker and easier to prepare than cooking from scratch. For many families, heating frozen or canned food is a convenient, time-saving option for mealtime. For schools, hospitals, and other large dining institutions, being able to prepare meals cheaply and quickly is more than a matter of convenience, it’s a matter of making or breaking their budget. Although several area schools purchase whole, local foods and vegetables, it remains a challenge to fully integrate local food into their entire meal, since whole foods require a high degree of labor to cook. Labor is the highest cost in food service, and many institutions’ budgets do not allow food service staff to spend the time cooking from scratch. Instead, heat-and-serve meals are a more realistic option since they do not require as much time to prepare. Local food processing facilities may be able to provide institutions with heat-and-serve meal options that are just as easy to prepare, but are entirely made of local ingredients.
Unlike commercially produced foods that have their true cost hidden by a tangled net of subsidies and unjust labor, local food is unable to mask its true cost. This is good because the full value of labor, land, and input is present in the price of each local broccoli, spinach, and carrot, but unfortunately, it also means that local food is an expense not everyone can afford. It seems counterintuitive that local food tends to be more expensive than mass produced food, despite being grown in our community, while most of what stocks our supermarket shelves is grown thousands of miles away. Fortunately, there are initiatives in place that improve local food accessibility. For individuals, Double Up Food Bucks, a program that doubles the purchasing power for fruits and vegetables, is accepted at grocery stores and several farmers markets throughout the state. With SNAP benefits, individuals can purchase food at the farmers market. The Northwest Food Coalition’s Farm2Neighbor program has been a long-lasting, donor-funded program that purchases local fruits and vegetables to distribute through food pantries and meal sites. The Health Department of Northwest Michigan, Blue Plate Project, and Bluestem Organic Farm partner to provide CSA shares to families who are food insecure. The Health Department of Northwest Michigan, in partnership with Manna Food Project and Groundwork Center, also has provided free cooking lessons and nutrition programs, sending participants home with kitchen supplies, recipes, and skills to cook with whole foods.
For institutions, programs like Hoop-Houses for Health, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services WIC Project FRESH, and Senior Nutrition Programs help fill in the gaps. Michigan’s 10 Cents a Meal program, inspired by a pilot project that Groundwork launched first in northwest Michigan, also supports schools’ ability to purchase local food. It does this by reimbursing schools a match of up to 10 cents per meal that schools spend on Michigan fruits, vegetables and/or legumes. This provides schools with needed funds and flexibility to try new foods with their children, and because it is a matching grant it doubles the money invested in our local food supply. And because schools use existing food purchasing dollars provided by the federal government for the match funds, the program keeps more federal dollars in Michigan communities.
Because of budget cuts, 10 Cents did not make it into the state budget this year until the fiscal year was near its end. Incredibly, this did not stop Alanson Public School, Benzie Central, Boyne Falls Public School, East Jordan Public School, Frankfort Public School, Pellston Public School, and Petoskey Public School from continuing to purchase from local sources throughout the 2019-20 school year. “It’s just the right thing to do,” Nathan Bates, the food service director at Boyne Falls Public School, answered when asked why he continued to buy local food even without 10 Cents. Good relationships between farms and schools almost certainly played a role, as well as food service directors recognizing that kids love farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. During a carrot tasting at Pellston Public School, a fifth grader said, “Normally I don’t like carrots, but I love this carrot because it’s from Michigan!”
The last-minute funding of 10 Cents this year was a huge boost for schools, but it is also imperative that 10 Cents be funded for school year 2020-21, too. Due to the pandemic, schools are facing record budget cuts, leaving food service departments scrambling to come up with a plan to safely feed students nutritious food on a tighter budget. If you want to learn more about how you can support 10 Cents—and the Michigan farms, schools, and kids it benefits—visit tencentsmichigan.org.
The pandemic has given us cause to appreciate several aspects of our regional food system. Our 10-county food system is composed of 338 diverse farms that grow all five food groups. Our region is passionate about local food, and the people within it are infused with a strongly collaborative spirit. Our farmers are resilient and clever, and support the community as much as the community supports them. Individuals and institutions utilize existing programs and dream up new initiatives to make local food more accessible to themselves and others.
Yet, the pandemic has also shown us where we could improve. Local food processing and storage facilities would increase the longevity, variety, and convenience of local food, as well as create jobs. Local food storage would also increase regional food security, protecting our community from disruptions to the national and global supply chain. We also know that the programs supporting local food access, such as 10 Cents a Meal, are always at risk of budget cuts.
So what can we do? If you can buy local, do it! According to food systems expert Dr. Christine Bergmark, if all 126 million households across the United States spent just $8 a week at their local farmers market for 12 weeks, that would amount to $12 billion going right back to our farmers. If you run large-scale dining institutions, figure out how much local food you can include in your meals. Let’s demonstrate that there is high demand for local products, and therefore that there is a need for local food processing and storage facilities. If you have the financial ability to do so, you can also lend your support to donor-supported programs, like Farm2Neighbor or Blue Plate Project. We can also all raise our voices to let our elected officials know that we support programs that improve local food access, like Double Up Food Bucks, WIC Project FRESH, and 10 Cents a Meal. Above all, we must always be aware of what is happening within our regional food system so that we can lend support when it is needed and celebrate victories as they come. Through personal purchasing, donating, and advocacy, let’s continue supporting our local farmers. Because if there’s anything that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that what is good for local farmers is good for us all.
Casey Haggerty recently completed a two-year term as a FoodCorps/AmeriCorps service member based in our Petoskey office and has signed on as a contractor to support our community outreach and food access work in the Tip of the Mitt.
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