I typically keep these letters short, but this year I thought I’d change it up and share a little more. If you are busy and only get to this first paragraph, that’s OK. Just know that Groundwork is as focused as ever, your donations keep us moving, we are deeply grateful, and I really hope you’ll continue your support.
But, if you have a few minutes, come with me on my personal tour of Groundwork’s Michigan and allow me to give you a few examples of how we are helping people and creating healthier, more resilient communities.
I’ll start in Kalamazoo with a story of how my daughter Aiden pitched in to help expand our 10 Cents a Meal program. As a Groundwork supporter, you are likely “dialed in” to 10 Cents and the model we have created that helps schools buy locally grown food for their cafeterias. We launched it here in northwest Michigan with a pilot project five years ago. Then we worked with the state legislature to fund a state pilot in northwest and west Michigan for the 2016–17 school year. It was such a huge success – farmers accessing new local markets, kids eating healthier food – we committed to the goal of making it statewide and eventually available to every student in Michigan.
That’s where Aiden comes in. She’s a motivated student at Kalamazoo College and a part of their Just Food Collective. 10 Cents had already expanded to include the west Michigan region, so Groundwork’s Diane Conners worked with Aiden to convene local school food service directors, farmers, and local food activists to gain the support of legislators to add the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek region. Similar outreach happened in the Flint area. I am pleased to report we succeeded! This spring the legislature expanded 10 Cents to include these two regions, which means 10 Cents serves nearly half of the Lower Peninsula. 134,000 students in 57 school districts across Michigan will have access to more fruits and vegetables.
While Diane and the Groundwork team have been leading the way, it’s grassroots support that made the difference. So many people and a committed network of strong partners joined together to create one of the best farm to cafeteria funding programs in the country – right here in Michigan!
Next, we’ll head over to Ann Arbor. This summer I was there visiting Rich Sheridan, owner of a software company called Menlo Innovations. The company embraces all kinds of creative business strategies; and Rich has a personal passion for modern rail transportation. So, when I updated him on our Ann Arbor to Traverse City passenger rail project, his face brightened and he hollered across the office (they do that at Menlo, they holler) to invite one of his many young employees over. “What do you think about catching a train up north?”
Without hesitating, the young man smiled wide and said, “I’m in!” I didn’t catch his name, but like lots of people in their 20s, the Menlo software developer doesn’t own a car and would love to get more places by rail. And Rich, he sees that rail connections to Ann Arbor will both attract the talent Menlo needs to thrive and create new business corridors to grow the economy.
The rail project, by the way, is “on track” (I couldn’t resist!). Groundwork managed a feasibility study that was completed this fall. And what did it find? The tracks are in great shape, we have strong support from communities along the corridor, and demonstration trains should be running in 2020. Stay tuned!
I had the chance recently to spend some time with Joe Short from Short’s Brewery in Bellaire. He’s quite a guy. In addition to making some of the best beer on the planet, Joe is fiercely committed to clean water and the Great Lakes, which comes from growing up in northern Michigan. He’s an active member of the Great Lakes Business Network, a group of 100 business owners who are making the economic case for shutting down the Line 5 oil pipeline under the Mackinac Straits. At a press event Groundwork organized on Mackinac Island this summer, Joe was eloquent. “I want you to think about what you do every day, how your enjoyment here in Michigan is connected to the health of our ecology and the preservation of the Great Lakes,” he said. “It’s all of our responsibility. Let’s shut down Line 5.”
That’s a powerful and widely shared sentiment these days, and it really carries extra weight from Joe, who employs 150 people and whose business depends on clean water. Groundwork and our friends at the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor launched the Business Network two years ago, and it has become an influential voice in the public debate. This summer we released a well-researched report documenting that most of the Line 5 oil flows to markets in Canada, and Michigan’s economy will be fine if it is shut down. A long journey it’s been, but we are close to a resolution that permanently protects the Great Lakes – and we will keep pushing until that goal is achieved.
And, here in Traverse City, I had the chance to participate in a meeting with Patti Poppe, the new CEO of Consumers Energy who is making big waves with her commitment to renewable energy and a plan to decommission all of Consumers’ coal plants. That’s a major commitment – and I was truly impressed with her leadership.
It struck me how Patti’s eyes lit up when she described how she knew all about Traverse City’s recent commitment to power the city with 100% renewable energy. It’s big news of course; TC is the first city in the state to make this commitment. But to see how it made a positive impression on the CEO of one of the largest utilities in the country somehow made it feel even bigger. Along with our local partners, Groundwork worked hard to make that 100% goal possible. Traverse City’s first one-megawatt solar project went up last year, TC Central High School just added a solar array, and Groundwork staff are working on an exciting new project to help more schools, churches, and nonprofit groups transition to 100% renewable energy. Meanwhile, Consumers is planning 6,000 megawatts of new solar projects in Michigan. It’s a truly incredible moment. What once was a lofty clean energy vision is within reach of becoming reality – and as a Groundwork supporter, you should know that we are fully committed to seeing it through.
I have one more for you: The story of Jen Schaap. You may know Jen because she is the Groundwork staffer who has been leading our Petoskey office for just over a year. Jen grew up in Grand Rapids, but she’s been up north for over a decade now, farming, and actively working on a number of fronts in the community. Under Jen’s leadership, our work in the Petoskey area is absolutely taking off. We had been advancing farm to school there, but Jen has strengthened community support and brought even more schools on board. Now, we are working in Pellston, Boyne Falls, Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Beaver Island, and East Jordan public schools, we are increasing access to local food for people on tight budgets, and we are helping farmers access more local markets. We’re seeing healthier outcomes for more families and a stronger local food economy.
You know how inspiring it is to meet people who seem to be doing exactly what they should be doing? People who have found their niche, and whose work is aligned with their passion and values? That’s Jen Schaap. Fully aligned. And, it really describes the whole staff at Groundwork. We have such an extraordinary, committed and passionate team. I am proud of all of them and all that we are achieving. This is a pretty special time to be advancing community resilience, and I, frankly, feel lucky to be a part of it.
And none of this happens by chance. It’s the result of a carefully crafted strategy that we have been advancing for over two decades. It’s based on the principle that good ideas that benefit the environment, the economy, and communities can take off when you paint a clear picture of what’s possible and build a diverse constituency of support. By diverse, I mean people from all walks of life: elected officials, business leaders, environmentalists, farmers, nonprofit partners, and just plain old regular people who want the best for their families and their community. It’s my daughter Aiden; it’s Rich Sheridan; Joe Short; Patti Poppe; Jen Schaap – and it’s thousands of good people across Michigan who share our passion for practical solutions.
There’s one more crucial part of the Groundwork constituency: YOU! I mean that. In the end, it is you and our other committed members who truly make all of this happen. You put your hard-earned dollars into Groundwork to give us the capacity to push forward. At this year’s end, I ask you to consider making an even bigger impact by considering a gift. Increasing what you give will ensure that our staff will put even more resiliency into action.
I appreciate that you took the time to read this – and thanks so much for being a part of it all.