The Chronicle arrived midway through Thursday’s day-long Local Food Summit 2009, and found evidence of the morning’s work plastered all over the walls of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens conference room: Colorful sticky notes on butcher paper, categorized by topics like “Food policy/legislation,” “Resources for young/new farmers,” “Distribution,” “Heritage” and “Community Self Reliance.”
Each note listed a resource, idea or goal, and together represented hundreds of ways to strengthen and expand this region’s local food system. About 120 people had gathered to focus on that topic, and organizers hope the momentum from Thursday’s event will transform the way our community thinks about food, and in turn transform the health of residents and our local economy.
The idea for the summit grew out of last fall’s HomeGrown Fest, which highlighted local farmers, restaurants using local products, and retailers selling products grown in this region. For the summit, organizers wanted to gather as many players as possible to make connections between farmers, businesses, nonprofits, educators and others interested in a sustainable food network, and to strategize about how to build on what already exists.
Part of the day was devoted to speakers, but much of the time involved brainstorming and discussions, with the promise that organizers would synthesize the work and make it public. (If you didn’t attend but you’d like to be on the list, send an email to email@example.com.) Here’s a much-condensed summary of ideas generated in just a few of the categories discussed at the summit:
- Resources for young/new farmers: Form mentorship programs, start a farm incubator (modeled after the more common tech business incubators), find land and funding for new growers, hold job training for unemployed or laid-off workers focused on agriculture.
- Bringing producers and purchasers together: Hold a community forum for food sharing, provide online resources to connect growers and buyers, create a barter system for food and services, develop a local currency for local food.
- Food processing: Deregulate the food-handling system, create a local USDA-approved processing plant, get more distributors to handle local foods and get local foods into more groceries/supermarkets, create mobile food-processing units.
- Education: Teach kids how to cook/shop/eat local foods, hold a Local Food Campaign to promote locally grown products, create incentives for attending cooking or food classes, hold training on how to farm.
- Accessibility/food security: Provide more food-stamp processing machines (Electronic Bridge Transactions, or EBTs) in farmers markets and other local food retailers, expand Project Fresh, have more places to sign up for food stamps, expand the Plant a Row for the Hungry program to encourage gardeners to donate extra produce to local food banks.
- Infrastructure/systems: Create a coordinated food network, form more community gardens and community greenhouses, plant an edible park, create a transit infrastructure for transporting local food from growers to buyers.
Speakers for the day picked up on many of these themes. Patty Cantrell of the Michigan Land Use Institute described several initiatives that the Traverse City group is leading, including an online local food exchange, and training classes for farmers.
Ann Arbor consultant Fran Alexander gave an overview of a study on food security for low-income residents of Washtenaw County, part of a broader food security initiative led by the nonprofit Food Gatherers. To lay the groundwork, she noted that nearly 50,000 people in Washtenaw County are living in poverty, and that food pantries are needed by hundreds of households as a regular way to keep food on the table.
Residents using local food pantries were surveyed in August 2008. Some of the findings include: only 12% said they eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day – people who didn’t said it was too expensive; 45.3% said they use the food pantry as a supplemental source of food on a regular basis, not just in an emergency; 41% of food pantries said they either usually don’t or never have fresh produce, a situation dubbed “canned compassion” by food activist Mark Winne.
Strategies for dealing with a crisis in food security include increasing advocacy and increasing the procurement of healthy foods, with a focus on local sources. In that latter category, the Food Gatherers board of directors is pursuing the idea of buying or leasing a local farm to produce food specifically for distribution to low-income households – they discussed it at their last board meeting, Alexander said. The full report of all these findings and strategies will be posted on the Food Gatherers website by the end of February.
The day’s final speaker was Chris Bedford, president of the Center for Economic Security. He told the group that our country is in a crisis of over-consumption, of spirit and of trust. It’s imperative that we “re-localize” our economy, he said, especially in the areas of food, finance and energy. It’s all about economic renewal and community resilience – if we’re to survive, he said, we need to “trust each other, know each other, work with each other and love each other in our communities.”
Bedford described some initiatives in the Muskegon area aiming to do just that, with a major focus on getting local food into the school system. But the challenges are many, including a federal commodity program that subsidizes megafarms to produce food for schools, and liability exposure that would cripple small growers if they were sued over food contamination. School boards – and thus, the community – have power to influence decisions, Bedford said. Muskegon Heights schools, for example, contract with Chartwells (which also holds a contract for Ann Arbor schools). Bedford believes that Chartwells is “scared witless” about the local food movement.
Bedford said neither the federal nor state governments support local food initiatives, and noted that the industrial food system is endorsed by Jim Byrum, the powerful president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association and an ally of Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Yet Bedford believes there’s a chance to change Michigan’s food policy, and that the 2010 elections will be crucial in that regard: “We need to at least bring up food policy in these elections.”
Someone in the audience asked Bedford how having a local currency might help develop a local food system. Bedford said it keeps money in the community, and also brands the community – he pointed people to the example of BerkShares, which is currency used in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. He held up a $10 BerkShares bill, with images of turnips on one side and on the other a picture of Robyn Van En, who started the country’s first community supported agriculture (CSA) project. [The Chronicle knows of only one group in the Ann Arbor area that has its own currency: The Dexter-Miller Community Co-op. If there are others, we'd be interested in hearing about it.]
Bedford is also a filmmaker, and is working on a new film about reinventing the local economy. Ann Arborite Jeff McCabe, who attended Thursday’s summit, is hosting a breakfast at his home on Feb. 15 to raise funds for the film. Details on the event – called Diner for a Day – are online here. [confirm date]
The day ended with small group work, organized by categories that had been determined in the morning’s brainstorming session. The idea is that the people in these groups will determine next steps, which will later be communicated with other summit participants and the general public. Amanda Edmonds of Growing Hope urged participants to keep the topic of accessibility, justice and food security top of mind, noting it was an issue that crossed all categories. [Earlier in the day, someone had noted that the summit wasn't as racially and socioeconomically diverse as it needed to be, and that those voices should be part of the local food system.]
Though many ideas being hatched at the summit are in the embryonic stage, one concrete effort is already being planned: the month of September this year will be designated Local Food Month, with several events in the works.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the role of food in Thursday’s summit. Zingerman’s provided coffee and bagels in the morning, and the lunch was catered by A Knife’s Work, using local ingredients:
Food Summit Lunch Menu
- Moorish Lamb, Chickpea and Kale Stew (Cinnamon and smoked paprika spiced lamb meatballs in a cumin scented chickpea and kale stew)
- Spicy Swiss Chard, Tomato, Garlic Soup (Roasted green chili and garlic tomato broth with sauteed swiss chard and white beans)
- Roasted Butternut Squash, Pear and Red Chili Salad (Pan roasted pears and butternut squash tossed with mixed greens and dressed with a sweet red chili vinaigrette)
- Fresh Baked Cinnamon Apple Cobbler with Vanilla Creme Anglaise (Fresh baked Michigan apple cobbler with cinamon, butter and brown sugar. Served with a vanilla bean custard)
And though they generally aren’t edible (or at least, The Chronicle didn’t see anyone eating them), fresh flowers were provided by Lisa Waud of Pot & Box.
The event wrapped up at 3 p.m., but for several folks it wasn’t quite over – they were headed to Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti, where owner Rene Greff had promised a tour and, quite possibly, a few beers.