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With a Sustainable Community Food System, the Circle is Complete

Garrett Ziegler heads MSU expansion.

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays. Circles.

Once again, West Michigan has upped the ante on healthy eating. You already know about GR’s new downtown farmer’s market, scheduled to open this summer -- a fabulous food hub that will bring local farmers and producers together with food distributors and the public.

But there’s another movement afoot, behind the scenes, out of the public eye, quietly doing good works in the healthcare community.

Keep an eye on Garrett Ziegler. Michigan State University Extension has hired Ziegler as its Community Food Systems Educator to promote and develop more sustainable food systems, with a focus on area hospitals and schools. It’s all part of MSUE’s Greening Michigan Institute’s Sustainable Food Systems initiative.

Ziegler’s job is to assess the way schools, healthcare facilities, and continuing care facilities view food, and to encourage West Michigan’s healthcare industry to buy and use local food and produce. That includes building a stronger, more sustainable local food system from smaller and medium-sized family farms.

“Organically grown, local, healthy food helps the local economy and the environment,” says Ziegler. “With a community-based food system, people see and experience the connection between food and the environment. When that connection is working well, consumers learn to recognize and value the environmental services provided by local farms.”

Water filtration and wildlife habitat are just two examples. Farmland preservation is another.

According to Food Connections, a publication prepared by The C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, Michigan State University, “At the heart of a community-based food system are relationships that build social capital, strengthen social networks, and form the basis of community identity. Food is a deep-rooted aspect of our social interactions. In fact, the Latin root of the words companion and company means ‘with bread.’ Food is an inclusive focal point for rebuilding community, in urban as well as rural settings, and especially between the two.”

A sustainable community food system integrates food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management to improve the social, environmental, and economic health of its people. Purchasing local produce saves time and cuts down on the fuel needed to ship elsewhere for processing -- healthy for us, yes, but also healthy for the planet. Plus, local food production and processing can create significant numbers of stable jobs.

“Our role is to act as facilitator for food service purchasers at hospitals and schools, and to connect them to local farms and producers,” says Ziegler, who was hired just five months after graduating from East Carolina University with a Master’s degree in sustainable tourism. He has a B.S. in Ecology from Penn State University and interned at Yellowstone National Park.

“Farmers, consumers, and communities partner to create a more locally based, self-reliant food economy,” says Ziegler. “That gives all community members access to an adequate, affordable, and nutritious diet.”

It’s a return to somewhat simpler times, before agriculture became so industrialized with processes that harm the environment. Fresh produce eaten in the Midwest travels an average of more than 1,500 miles, and the typical modern consumer is so far removed from his food source that he can’t imagine the plastic-wrapped, processed meat at the grocer’s came from a live animal. Further, he has no idea what the animal went through to become that delicious steak on the dinner plate.

And it’s no secret that nutrition is closely connected to human health and wellness. The epidemic of diabetes and obesity can be directly traced back to how the food system has changed over the years. Even so, Ziegler has his work cut out for him. It can be a tough sell to institutions to buy local, he says, because local food options may be more expensive. He hopes to help healthcare institutions focus on preventative health, diet, and the food we eat.

“It is very important for the healthcare industry to support local food growers, suppliers, the community, and the people they are trying to care for,” says Ziegler. “With their larger food purchasing power, healthcare institutions can help support a medium size farmer.”

Ziegler uses a variety of tools to accomplish his goal, including a general presentation illustrating the benefits of community food systems and food groups. The first step for hospitals wishing to participate in the initiative is to sign a voluntary “Healthy Health Care Pledge."

Success is measured by counting the number of people participating in presentations, using surveys, and documenting which institutions are buying local. He tracks the distribution supply chain, network, and focus on local farms and processes.

Originally from Lancaster County, Penn., Ziegler, 28, loves food and has always been interested in nature, environmental science, and the great outdoors. He lived for a time in Jackson Hole, WY, hiking the mountains and skiing. His girlfriend, Kristen Sievert, 30, an occupational therapy assistant, lives in Grand Rapids, and Ziegler is relocating here from Lansing for his new position.

Michigan State University Extension supports the development of community food systems throughout Michigan by providing resources, specialists, and educational programs to develop local food policy councils, farm to institutional purchasing, food hubs, and farmers markets. 

Victoria Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer, and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee, Wis.

Photographs by Adam Bird

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