Eating Thin Mints recently got me thinking about locally produced food.
It’s Girl Scout cookie season, and on Saturday – after swinging through the Ann Arbor Farmers Market – I encountered a Brownie and her dad set up at the corner of Main and Liberty, their table loaded with boxes of Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs and an assortment of other cookies that I remember selling too, back in the day. I bought three boxes.
At $3.50 per box, the cookies aren’t outrageously priced – though the boxes seem to get smaller every year. But later, in doing a quick calculation of all the food I’d bought that day, I realized that in buying those cookies, I’d failed to meet a challenge I’d heard earlier in the week: Spend 10% of your food budget on locally produced food.
The “10% Washtenaw” challenge was issued at the Homegrown Local Food Summit, a day-long event on March 2 that drew over 200 people to the Dana Building on the University of Michigan campus. Many of the people at the summit already surpass that goal in a fairly dramatic way. The real challenge, organizers acknowledge, is how to convince the rest of us to do the same.
There’s reason to think they can – 2009 was a pretty good year for the local food movement. The March 2 summit was about twice as large as the first one, held just over a year ago at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The Homegrown Festival in September drew far larger crowds than the first one held in 2008 – the more recent one was packed, with several thousand people attending.
Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program is starting to focus on supporting small farms, more restaurants are highlighting locally produced food, and community-building ventures like Friday Mornings @ SELMA, which raises money for hoop houses and other farming needs, are thriving.
The economic argument that local food activists make is powerful. They calculate that residents of Washtenaw County spend $1 billion annually on food, but less than 1% of that is spent on food grown locally. If, over the next decade, that amount increases to 10%, the dollars spent in this region could have a dramatic multiplier effect. Hundreds of small farms would be needed to meet demand, they argue, creating thousands of new jobs.
The 10% Washtenaw campaign is primarily aimed at individuals, but it’s clear that institutional change is needed as well to reach that goal
In that regard, organizers of the March 2 food summit were heartened by some of the connections being made during the day, and at a kickoff reception held the previous night at the Kerrytown restaurant eve. The events were attended by a few elected officials, some University of Michigan folks, farmers, restaurateurs, food entrepreneurs, nonprofits, members of faith-based initiatives and others who are keen to make some significant changes in how we get our food to the table locally.
Educational institutions hold perhaps the most promise, in terms of efficiently finding large customers for locally produced food. At UM, chef Nelson “Buzz” Cummings has been instrumental in pushing the university’s food system to incorporate more locally grown food into their supply chain – this video from July 2008 sheds some insight into that effort.
Kim Bayer, a leader in the nonprofit Slow Food Huron Valley and one of the summit’s organizers, said that making connections was one of the main goals of the March 2 event. It’s about finding common ground, she said, and understanding that it’s possible “to do more together than we can do alone.”
Policy Initiatives: Local and State
“Doing more together” involves state and local government as well. In Ann Arbor, local food sufficiency is one of 10 environmental indicators tracked by the city. The primary objective of that indicator is to “conserve, protect, and restore local agriculture and aquaculture resources.”
Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator, attended last week’s local food summit, and said he was impressed by the efforts already underway by a wide range of groups and individuals.
While noting that local food sufficiency is one of Ann Arbor’s environmental indicators, Naud also told me that it hasn’t been one that’s received a lot of attention. [Under the category of "What is the city doing?" on the food sufficiency website, two items are listed: the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the Project Grow gardens, which the city previously helped fund.]
To track its efforts in achieving the local food sufficiency goal, the city looks at two measurements – the amount of greenbelt land preserved, and the diversity of farmers market vendors. By comparison, the “clean air” indicator tracks seven different measures, “clean water” has eight, and “efficient mobility” has 11.
Greenbelt land isn’t always connected to the production of food for the local market. But in the past year, the link between greenbelt land and local food sufficiency has been strengthened. The Greenbelt Advisory Commission, which oversees the city’s 30-year millage that funds the greenbelt, is putting more emphasis on small farms when it considers the purchase of development rights. The commission discussed these efforts at length at their November 2009 meeting.
At the state level, food activists are hopeful about legislation introduced earlier this year by state Rep. Pam Byrnes, who represents the 52nd District, covering the mostly rural western side of Washtenaw County. The bill [HB 5837], which was introduced in February, would make it easier for owners of certain “cottage food” businesses to operate from their homes, rather than requiring them to use commercially licensed kitchens, as is currently the case.
The challenge of finding affordable, available and acceptable-to-the-task kitchen space is critical to local food entrepreneurs – The Chronicle has reported on two ventures that had difficulty with this: Maite Zubia, who makes homemade cookies called Maitelates Alfajores, and Mary Wessel Walker, who recently renamed her Community Farm Kitchen business as Harvest Kitchen. If passed into law, the legislation could eliminate a barrier for start-up food businesses – or for the success of those that intentionally remain small.
Other state-level efforts are underway. At the March 2 summit, Jennifer Fike, executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Food System Economic Partnership, gave a report on the Michigan Good Food Summit, held last month in Lansing. That gathering focused on statewide initiatives for the food industry, from advocating for regulatory reform to encouraging the institutional purchasing of locally grown food.
Getting the Word Out
I covered last year’s food summit for The Ann Arbor Chronicle, and the most notable difference between this year and last – aside from the larger turnout – was the very specific call to action made to participants during the March 2 event.
The 10% Washtenaw initiative was the cornerstone of the day. In the morning, participants broke into small groups to design marketing campaigns for it – the results are featured in video clips on the summit’s website.
At the end of the day, organizers gave each participant a piece of paper and envelope – they were asked to write letters to themselves, setting goals and making commitments to support the local food network. Those letters – put into self-addressed, sealed envelopes – were collected and will be mailed back to the writers in five months, as a reminder of their goals.
Five months from now, I’m guessing most people in the room will have chipped away at those goals, even the really ambitious ones.
And the rest of us? That will be a tougher sell. I had lunch recently with a friend who lives in the outskirts of Ann Arbor, and who noted that within her circle of friends – at church, at work, in the neighborhood, and socially – conversations about buying more local food just don’t happen. It’s not even on the radar.
I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by the 10% effort – modest though it is. But it’s conceivable that I could do it: Organizers were smart in making it both concrete and attainable, even for those of us who would need to change our habits to reach it.
I have tremendous admiration for people like Linda Diane Feldt, who attended the summit with a plastic jug full of maple sap that she’d tapped recently from trees in the neighborhood – she was passing out samples, and the clear, slightly sweet liquid tasted like pure spring. And for Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe, who helped organize the summit and who’ve turned Friday Mornings @ SELMA into a powerful community gathering, showing how a celebration of local food can be a rip-roaring good time, too.
And for the folks at Slow Food Huron Valley, who’ve been pushing these local food efforts for years. Their more ambitious goals include forming a farm incubator program and a community credit union specifically to finance local food-related ventures.
Meanwhile, I’ll try to be more thoughtful about my own food consumption, day by day. Thin Mints are available just once a year, and I like them. I’m going to keep buying them, even though they’re “manufactured,” according to the box, in Louisville, Kentucky.
But just a few blocks away from the Main Street Thin Mint stand, over at the Farmers Market, is where Maite Zubia sells her amazing cookies. And I’ve watched her make them right here in Ann Arbor. So for the rest of the year, it’ll be Maitelates Alfajores for me.