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Greentown:How healthy, local food factors into development (or not)

September 11, 2010

(This article is part of a series based on our reporting at the GreenTown conference in Grand Rapids on September 10.)

Greentown’s first afternoon session in the  “Healthy Food, Little Waste” track was titled, “Fields, Forks & Futures: How Healthy, Local Food Factors into Development.” The speakers presented solid ideas for increasing the use of more sustainable, locally grown  foods .

The three speakers were:  Kathryn Colasanti, Academic Specialist, C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University;  Denis Jennisch, produce category manager, SYSCO Food Service of Grand Rapids; and Jerry Adams, president, West Michigan Cooperative.

Adams started off with a recap of the Grand Rapids area food co-op that sees itself as an online farmer’s market. The all-volunter organization posts the month’s offerings on its website; members place orders and then pick up their food a week or so later. West Michigan Cooperative works with 40 producers who bring foods like free range eggs, locally grown produce and grass fed beef–items that are not readily available in area supermarkets.

“The co-op provides easy access for the kind of foods my wife was looking for for my kids,” Adams said.

The co-op has also developed software that eases operations and shares if for free with other co-ops around the country who want to do something similar. Adams is currently looking into the option of making the site and ordering items available by hand-held device, including cell phones, with the intention of making access to healthy whole foods available to a wider range of people.

Jennisch described in detail how local SYSCO Food Service of Grand Rapids is leading a nationwide  company program, Success for Family Farms, in distributing locally grown foods to the institutions it serves. Its definition of local is anything grown or produced within the state. SYSCO began the initiative because of customer demand. Jennisch noted that it was working out well because he takes a relationship approach not a profits-here-and-now approach when dealing with local producers. While SYSCO is to be commended for this philosophy, it does not necessarily follow that other large food distributors would be willing to follow suit. In the current system, profit is the motive of choice.

Jennisch also pointed out that local and sustainably produced foods were listed among six of the top ten food trends identified by a recent National Restaurant Association poll. So, another question remains. When local food is no longer trendy, will local farmers be cast to the side?

Last, and certainly most on top of the real issues, Kathryn Colasanti made a compelling case for the Michigan Good Food Charter. You can view or download the 36-page .pdf document online. Colasanti explained that  charter expands on the premise that good food is 1) HealthyIt provides nourishment and enables people to thrive; 2) GreenIt was produced in a manner that is environmentally sustainable; 3) FairNo one along the production line was exploited for its creation; and 4) AffordableAll people have access to it. “If we could move forward to these goals with our food system, Michigan would be the place to be,” she said.

To bring the ideals of the charter into effect within the current economic system, Colasanti said that Michigan would need to establish food business districts where buyers, sellers and processors can collaborate in one location. She mentioned that some locations could function as urban agri-tourism destinations. Second, she said the state should provide institutions such as prisons, schools and hospitals with incentives for purchasing locally produced foods. Third, she said the state needs to actively pursue the preservation of farmlands and provide current and new farmers incentives to keep vulnerable tracts as farms rather than developments.

“Access to healthy food should be available to everyone,” she said. “Cities take on issues like housing and transportation. They should take food on, too. They should allow and facilitate urban agriculture and use local food groups as a resource.”

Colasanti then invited the audience to visit the Michigan Good Food Charter web site to sign on as a supporter of the charter. Sad to say, chances that state government will adopt the charter are slim. She encouraged people to contact their legislators in support of the charter. “We might see adoption of policy issue by issue, ” she said. “But we don’t want to alienate wide-scale agriculture. There are concerns that we’re against big agriculture. The charter is a good educational piece, a guide for policy.”

And there lay the crux of the matter. Equitable access to good, sustainable food that’s produced without exploitation of workers will not happen as long as legislators represent the big-money food industry lobbyists who continue to control Michigan’s and US food policy.

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