Food Summit grows connections to support a just West Michigan food system

A collaboration between students from all majors, faculty, and staff, the GVSU Sustainable Agriculture Project grows food for students in organic gardens on GVSU’s campus while growing awareness of sustainable food systems through initiatives like its Jan. 31, 2020 Growing Connections Food Summit, which was sponsored by Grand Valley's Office of Sustainability Practices.

The summit brought more than 100 people together at GVSU’s downtown campus to discuss growing a healthy food system for all. The audience was comprised of students, local small farmers, and representatives from nonprofits like the Community Food Club and Migrant Legal Aid, Kent and Ottawa county food councils, and the Michigan League for Public Policy.

“This summit brought people together from across the food system, many of whom met for the first time and now see a shared vision towards a healthy food system,” says Youssef Darwich, farm manager and educator for the GVSU Sustainable Agriculture Project.

The first speaker at the podium, Lance Kraai, director of New City Farm, shared that while this urban CSA farm program has succeeded in its primary goal of providing youth employment within the Creston neighborhood, challenges remain in that most CSA members are not its income-challenged neighbors and people of color who lack access to health foods. He admits that addressing the “isms” that are inherent in the food system, especially racism, is slow and difficult work.

He also shared that, despite its nonprofit status, the program struggles to pay its youth workers a living wage. And, he related an anecdote. He and some other local small farmers got together to figure out how much they made an hour. The figure came out to $6.66, with most of them working 15 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. He also expressed dismay that corporate retailers and restaurant chains have co-opted the “farm to table” movement that small local farmers have worked so hard to promote.

“What can’t be co-opted is real people eating real food and making a real, genuine connection,” Kraai said. “That is the beauty, the diversity, of good food. When you are doing these three things [real people, real food, real connections], health will follow.”

The next to speak, Eleanor Moreno, director of community engagement for The Other Way Ministries, and her colleague, Wendy McFarland, explained racism’s role in US food history — how today’s food system has its roots in stealing lands from indigenous peoples, enslaving African men, women, and children to work those lands, and, even today, exploiting immigrant migrant workers of color in the fields.

“Food is a catalyst,” Moreno said. “Make relationships … don’t work in isolation. Caring is part of our work — the health and happiness of our neighbors, kindness to one another and the environment. We need to root ourselves [in that] so we can do things differently.”

After Darwich concluded presentations with information about GVSU’s farm and how it involves and feeds students at the university, the group engaged in round table discussions about access to land, food and medicine, migrant workers, climate-conscious practices, urban agriculture, education and agriculture, food safety and food systems, and animal agriculture. As tables reported out, a common theme was the need for addressing institutional racism and living wages as a means to ensure just food production and access.

As Darwich said, “We need to follow the inclination to do what is beautiful. Follow that, and health will follow.”


Q & A with Eleanor Moreno and Wendy McFarland

RGM: Is food access in Grand Rapids equitable? Why not?

Moreno: Food access in Grand Rapids isn't equitable. The people who need it rarely seem to have access to it consistently. Especially if we keep in mind the types of food they do have access to.

RGM: What kinds of change do we need to see to make it equitable?

Moreno: It seems more creative community collaboration needs to happen. Creating space(s) to connect with people mentally, emotionally, physically, and on an even higher level. Connection and authenticity are the starting points of evoking change. Typically, one would think to start at a systematic level, but we need to start at a heart level with real people who are on the injustice side of this. If we can connect with them, they will be the face and energy to push forward food access equity in the communities it really matters to. Also, if people do not come to these spaces, perhaps that means taking these spaces to them, making it convenient, showing care, and willing to step out of the normal workday schedule and meet people where they are even if it’s on their front porch. Build relationships before trying to build solutions. The people have the solutions!

RGM: Our area has so many wonderful food charities. Aren't they enough to fill the need?

Moreno: If there were enough to fill the need, the need wouldn’t be growing on a steady basis.

RGM: How did the Food Summit help address inequity?

Moreno: The Food Summit showed that there are not enough people who live in the community in the space.

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy Margaux Sellnau and Valerie Wojciechowski, Grand Valley State University


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