*This column first appeared in the July 29 Traverse City Record-Eagle.
Lake Michigan, cherry blossoms, rolling hills — just a few of the things that make Northwest Michigan great. Here is another one: The region, and all of Michigan, is one of the most agriculturally diverse in the nation, which is why so many residents enjoy local restaurants and other food businesses that thrive on “going local.”
Local farms also offer health benefits to our community, because they allow people to “make healthy food choices” — a favorite adage among health professionals, served up as an elusive magic bullet cure to obesity and chronic disease. But that good advice isn’t always realistic when so many people in our region and state can't afford those healthy choices.
How can it be that we are simultaneously home to a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, yet 31 percent of our adults and 17 percent of our children are obese? That puts Michigan in the top third nationally when it comes to excess weight.
The sad fact is that many of our neighbors face significant barriers in buying healthy foods. Those barriers often include having little knowledge or time to prepare fresh ingredients, or living in an area that lacks venues for purchasing fresh produce. But, more significantly, many people simply cannot afford to purchase healthy, local food because it costs more than food that is unhealthy and heavily processed.
What is being done locally to solve this serious problem? A lot, as it turns out, thanks to organizations, agencies and programs that strive to make healthy food affordable for low-income families.
The Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, Taste the Local Difference and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan are leading a program funded by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services called, "Building Healthy Communities." The program increases access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables at food pantries, hospitals, local retailers and area schools. It is also promoting local produce through education, communication and kitchen equipment upgrades.
Others are doing similar projects. Munson Medical Center has a new fruit and vegetable prescription program, also funded by the MDHHS, that provides nutrition education and vouchers of up to $100 to buy food at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons Farmer’s Market.
Farmers markets throughout the state, including many in our region, are welcoming state and federally funded initiatives like Double Up Food Bucks that help low-income families purchase fresh, local produce and boost sales for local farmers.
Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan launched Food Rescue in an effort to reduce waste while increasing access to local produce. The project connects retailers and farmers that have surplus and about-to-expire foods to food pantries and meal sites across the Grand Traverse area. It rescued more than 150,000 pounds of produce from 39 farm donors in 2015 and tripled donations of local produce over the last five years.
Those are just four of the region's programs that are increasing access to fresh, local foods. There is still much work to be done in curbing the alarming rates of obesity and chronic disease here in Michigan. What makes these efforts so important is that they not only tout healthy food as a good idea, but also make access to it possible for those living in difficult circumstances. Thankfully, the presence of diverse, local farms within our community makes connecting families to the nutritious food they need just a little bit easier.
Sean Walsh, a Groundwork summer Fellow working with the Food & Farming team, is a rising senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he is a double major studying nutrition and anthropology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.