The Chronicle recently reported an amicable resolution between local government officials and organizers of an event in an arguably unorthodox location: An art show in an industrial park.
Many of the same elements were a part of the saga of Friday Mornings @SELMA: An event in an unorthodox location, a spike of concern from local officials that raised the specter of shutting it down, compromise, and an ultimate resolution that satisfies regulatory issues while keeping this fundraising event alive.
“It’s always cool when the government does something that makes sense,” said Lisa Gottlieb, who runs Friday Mornings @SELMA with her husband, Jeff McCabe, and a corps of volunteers.
What exactly is Friday Mornings @SELMA? Why did the government get involved, and what did they do that “makes sense”? And how is all of this related to the local food movement? We tell the tale after the break.
“Local Foods Breakfast Salon”
On their website Repasts, Present & Future, Gottlieb and McCabe describe their venture as a “local foods breakfast salon, offering a gathering place of friends and community that imagine a new, growing, vital, regional food economy – every Friday morning on the Westside of Ann Arbor.” The acronym SELMA stands for Soule, Eberwhite, Lutz, Liberty, Madison Affiliation, a neighborhood group loosely bounded by those streets on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side. While neighbors are a large part of the Friday morning breakfasts, the gatherings in the past have included a broader mix of people as well – friends from outside the neighborhood, friends of friends, and people interested in the local food movement.
Gottlieb and McCabe are deeply engaged in supporting locally grown and produced food, and their breakfasts – originally called the SELMA Café – evolved from a fundraiser they held on Feb. 15 for filmmaker and food activist Chris Bedford, which raised about $2,500. The Chronicle heard about that fundraiser from McCabe at a Local Food Summit we covered in January.
The event for Bedford was held on a Sunday, and worked so well (and had enough leftovers) that Gottlieb and McCabe decided to hold another breakfast on the following Friday, Feb. 20 – McCabe’s birthday. Friends who attended encouraged the couple to make it a regular happening, and they did, with the goal of raising money to support hoop-house construction and other local food initiatives.
Each week features a different chef – over the months, chefs passing through SELMA have included Max Sussman, Janea Mikowski from Carson’s American Bistro, and Silvio Medoro of Silvio’s Organic Pizza, among others. The chefs generally prepare two menu choices: Most recently, Eve Aronoff of eve the restaurant made chilaquiles with salsa verde, and eggs scrambled with basil-walnut pesto and sausage. John Roos of Roos Roast provides the coffee, and the tea is from Arbor Teas – owners Jeremy and Aubrey Lopatin live around the corner.
The chefs use local ingredients as much as possible, and cook in the spacious kitchen at the home of Gottlieb and McCabe, just down the street from Eberwhite Elementary School on Soule Boulevard. Many weeks, well over 100 people come to eat, chat and donate money. To date, they’ve raised about $15,000, according to McCabe.
A Nuisance and Safety Hazard?
Despite its popularity, not everyone was enamored of the venture. In April, an anonymous letter – signed from “an Eberwhite Elementary School parent” and complaining about the Friday breakfasts – was sent to the Washtenaw County Environmental Health Division, Ann Arbor clerk Jackie Beaudry, and Eberwhite Elementary principal Deb Wagner. Specifically, the letter outlined what the writer believed were various possible city and county code violations occurring at the home. The issues related to the city dealt primarily with the fact that there were live chickens on the property with no permit, as required by Ann Arbor’s chicken ordinance. (That issue has since been resolved.)
But more critical questions – falling under the county’s jurisdiction – concerned whether or not the Friday gatherings meant that Gottlieb and McCabe were operating a restaurant in a residential area, without licensing and inspection.
That complaint began a series of exchanges between county officials and Gottlieb and McCabe, who enlisted local attorney Kurt Berggren to help sort things out. The county contended that the couple was operating a food service establishment – if that were the case, they’d be subject to the same regulations as a restaurant.
To address the complaint and make clear that it wasn’t a restaurant, Gottlieb and McCabe quickly changed the name from SELMA Café to Friday Mornings @SELMA, and after conversations with the county, they made several other modifications: They took down signs around their house related to the breakfasts, changed their website to indicate that the meals were private, invitation-only events, and stopped posting the hours they’d be serving food.
But county officials were still convinced that Gottlieb and McCabe were marketing to the general public. Gottlieb addressed that issue in a letter she sent to Kristen Schweighoefer, the county’s environmental health supervisor, in mid-June:
There is a distinct difference in definition between general public and community. The definition of community, in terms of our activities, is a group made up of our family and friends, and their family and friends, who are interested and involved in creating sustainable farming and gardening practices that support our local, healthy food economy while educating and encouraging long term positive changes to how we grow, prepare and eat food. This community comes together to work towards our mission, while sharing a meal together in the confines of a private party within our home.
Reached by phone this week, Schweighoefer said that if the county had determined that the operation was a food service establishment, then Gottlieb and McCabe would have been required to comply with the 2005 U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s food code. Among other things, the code prohibits serving food to the public out of your home. They would have needed to move the event into a licensed facility, Schweighoefer said, or to remodel their home to separate the kitchen from their living space.
Reaching Resolution: Slow Food Huron Valley
It didn’t come to that. On July 2, Gottlieb and Berggren met with county officials, including Schweighoefer, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger, and Dick Fleece, director of the county’s public health/environmental health department. Gottlieb described the conversation as thoughtful, and said the officials “wanted to make it work.” They initially suggested that Gottlieb and McCabe form a nonprofit 501(c)(3), which would give them exemption from the definition of “food service establishment.”
When Gottlieb said they didn’t want to invest that level of time and energy into setting up a formal organization, county officials countered by suggesting that an affiliation with an existing nonprofit would suffice.
In fact, many people involved in the local food movement are already regulars at the breakfasts. Kim Bayer, president of the nonprofit Slow Food Huron Valley, has been doing weekly podcasts from the event, interviewing people there – like chef Brandon Johns, and Sarah Smith of the Ypsilanti Farmers Market – about local food issues. So when Gottlieb and McCabe started thinking about which nonprofit would be a good fit for them, Slow Food Huron Valley came to mind.
Slow Food Huron Valley, which has about 70 members and a mailing list of around 400, has a mission that dovetails with Friday Mornings @SELMA. The nonprofit is interested in promoting community food security, Bayer told The Chronicle, and making sure that good, clean food is accessible to everyone. Gottlieb and McCabe are taking concrete actions toward that goal with their hoop houses project, she said.
As part of their relationship, Gottlieb has joined Slow Food’s leadership team, and will serve as the nonprofit’s secretary. The money raised from the weekly breakfasts will be deposited in Slow Food’s Bank of Ann Arbor account, which includes funds for other agricultural initiatives that support the group’s food security goals.
Bayer said that county officials did what they needed to do to follow the processes and regulations they have in place. But the context is larger, she said: Our nation’s food system is broken, and the larger population needs to be more aware of that.
The formal affiliation with Slow Food Huron Valley ended this saga. A letter dated July 24, 2009 from Kristen Schweighoefer, the county’s environmental health supervisor, states that because of that relationship, “this operation no longer meets the definition of food establishment. As such, Fridays at Selma is not subject to licensure by this department.”
The relevant exemption is this, excerpted from the Michigan Food Law of 2000, Section 289.1107:
(j) “Food establishment” means an operation where food is processed, packed, canned, preserved, frozen, fabricated, stored, prepared, served, sold, or offered for sale. Food establishment includes a food processing plant, a food service establishment, and a retail grocery. Food establishment does not include any of the following:
(i) A charitable, religious, fraternal, or other nonprofit organization operating a home-prepared baked goods sale or serving only home-prepared food in connection with its meetings or as part of a fund-raising event.
Schweighoefer said that county officials must enforce the law, but on a personal level they are supportive of the local food movement. Following the formal affiliation with Slow Food Huron Valley, she said, “the complaint is closed.”
Gottlieb praised the officials who worked to find a solution to this atypical situation. “The county was asked to step up and think differently about something, and they did,” she said. “That’s how government should work.”
Saying they’re relieved to put this behind them, Gottlieb said they can now focus on what they’ve been trying to support all along: Local farmers and local food production.
Their hoop house project aims to build enclosures around the region that will allow farmers to grow produce year-round. Through a micro-loan program, farmers will be able to buy materials for the hoop house, which will be constructed by volunteers. On Aug. 1, they’ll be building a hoop house for Brother Nature Farm in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. In the Ann Arbor area, an Aug. 15 hoop house-raising is set for Tomm Becker’s farm off of Joy Road, northwest of the city. (Becker also is production manager for Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm, near East Lansing.)
And in September, a series of events will highlight local food. Slow Food Huron Valley will announce its Local Food Action Hero Awards on Sept. 3 at a screening of Chris Bedford‘s new film, “Coming Home: E.F. Schumacher and the Reinvention of the Local Economy” – the event includes an after-party at the Grange Kitchen and Bar, which is expected to open next month at the location of the former Bella Ciao on West Liberty. On Labor Day, Sept. 7, Slow Food is hosting a potluck at Mitchell Elementary, part of a national effort to support reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act and to urge Congress to fund healthy food in schools.
And on Sept. 12, the Homegrown Festival at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market features locally grown and produced food, as well as chef demonstrations, kids activities and live music.
Meanwhile, Gottlieb and McCabe will be continuing their weekly breakfasts – not in a restaurant, or bistro, or public eatery of any kind – but in their home. Because those are the rules.