Changing the Michigan food world one potato at a time

That bunch of carrots in your refrigerator—where did you get it? Fresh from your garden, clotted with earth? Or from the produce section at the local supermarket? Or the farmers market? Or directly from the farmer down the road? To consider what you eat and what you feed your family is to consider your health. To consider where you grow or buy your food is to consider the health of the Earth, yes, but also the economic health of your community. That bunch of carrots in your refrigerator can represent a lot more than a dose of carotene. 

How food reaches your table has become a growing concern for many, and for many reasons. While the corner grocery store or supermarkets have been the most popular choices for consumers in past decades, food hubs have become a fast-growing alternative. 

The Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems defines "food hubs" as businesses or organizations that actively manage the aggregation (gathering together), distribution and marketing of source-identified food products. 

Regional food hubs provide a market niche for small to mid-size farmers that the current conventional food distribution does not provide. In a 2013 survey of food hubs, the largest national survey of food hubs to date, MSU found that:

• Food hubs are financially viable businesses.

• Food hubs are creating jobs.

• Food hubs are growing to meet market demand.

• Food hubs are creating marketing opportunities and providing crucial services for small and mid-size producers.

• Food hubs are supplying food to their communities.

The MSU survey found that more than 95 percent of Michigan’s food hubs are experiencing an increase in demand of their products and services. The average food hub’s sales in 2012 exceeded $3.7 million, and their three most commonly reported customer types were restaurants, small grocery stores, and kindergarten through 12th-grade school food services. Among these food hubs, 74 percent reported that most of their customers were located within a 100-mile radius. The survey also demonstrated that the majority of food hubs helped increase access to healthy foods in underserved neighborhoods, thereby supporting a healthier population. About half of food hubs are equipped to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, federal food assistance) benefits.

Dotting the state of Michigan, the most active food hubs are: Upper Peninsula: U.P. Food Exchange; Northwest Michigan: Cherry Capital Foods, LLC; Central Michigan: Allen Market Place; Southeast Michigan: Washtenaw Food Hub; West Michigan: West Michigan FarmLink; and in Southwest Michigan: Sprout BC (formerly Sprout Urban Farms).

Teaching youth how to farm, sharing resources, and farming

Sprout BC dates back to 2009, when founder and executive director, Jeremy Andrews, was approached by residents in his Battle Creek community to begin a community garden. 

At the market in Battle Creek
"We became a food hub quite naturally, not necessarily intentionally," Andrews says. "We were a growing farm, teaching youth how to farm, sharing resources and labor with other farmers, and partnering with nearby farms. The food hub grew from that."

Andrews’ interest in growing and strengthening his own community went beyond the community garden to now provide distribution and marketing services to about 20 local farmers.

"We want to see the number and diversity of farmers in our area increase," Andrews says. "When you look around at what so many farmers are now producing for Big Ag, it’s wheat, corn, and soybeans. We’re not here to fight those farmers. We want to offer additional options while building the local economy. Our purpose is to help our farmers bring their produce to market."

Brennan Dougherty, Sprout BC food manager, adds:  "We realized, as most emerging food hubs do, that we have incredible producers and wide parts of our community in need of fresh, nutrient-dense food. In Battle Creek, we felt that Sprout was uniquely resourced to help bridge the gap between producers and consumers.  We began our food hub on very small scale exchanges, helping one or two restaurants get fresh, local produce from our farmer friends, and then grew from there."

The online food hub

Paul Quinn and Jerry Adams run West Michigan FarmLink, based in Grand Rapids. Adams founded the organization and Quinn oversees financial aspects of the food hub. 

"The largest economic impact is keeping locally spent dollars in the local economy," says Quinn. "It has a multiplier effect that resonates throughout the area. In other words, if a buyer in Kalamazoo spends $1 on spring mix from the mainstream supply chain, the unknown grower, on average, receives 12 cents. If that same buyer were to buy spring mix from a farm on the FarmLink system, the local grower would receive the lion's share of that dollar, around 95 cents. That grower would, in turn, have more to spend on labor, fuel and other things necessary to run their farm. The difference is driven by transportation and distribution costs associated with getting those goods to the buyer from a distant, often nebulous farm."

"My idea for FarmLink started from a trip to the farmers market," Adams says. "I looked at all the throngs of people at the market, and I wondered—where do they all go when the market closes? What do the farmers do with their produce? I talked to the farmers, and I thought about putting the farmers market online, designing a website that gives them access, listing the produce and prices they offer, and then connecting them to their customers. I wanted to help the farmers make more money by shrinking the margin and cutting down the people between them and their customer."

What makes West Michigan FarmLink unique is its easy-to-use website. Farmers post on one day, listing what produce they have available at what price, and the following day chefs and other foodies and buyers log in to look over the lists and make their purchases. Farmers invoice on their own business letterhead, packaging the produce specific to the buyer. 

"We take only five percent from that transaction," Quinn says. "The farmer makes 95 percent. We encourage our farmers to talk about their product ... and then we check back from time to time to make sure everyone stays honest and transparent. We give farmers the platform, the conduit, to get their product to the market, and the buyer knows exactly where the food he or she buys is sourced."

"We’re no Sysco kid!" Adams laughs, referring to one of North America’s largest food distributors and marketers. 

Quinn nods. "We’re changing the world one potato at a time."

Teaching skills to farmers

Michelle Walk is the extension educator for community food systems and tourism at the Michigan State University extension in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She talks about the U.P. Food Exchange, a food hub led by the Marquette Food Co-op and MSU Extension in conjunction with the Western U.P. Health Department, coordinating and supporting local food activities in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

"The U.P. Food Exchange provides easier access for buyers to more farms to be able to purchase more local products," she says.  "We are also working to improve the distribution system itself so we can get more product across the U.P. rather than just within the immediate region. We have consistently worked with farms to improve on-farm food safety as it relates to pre- and post-harvest handling and storage of the product.  In 2016, we partnered with several entities, including Marquette County, to conduct a meat-processing feasibility study to improve access to USDA-processed meat products across the Upper Peninsula.  We will be looking at produce processing next."

The U.P. Food Exchange offers workshops to build skills on a variety of topics, including marketing, communication, procurement, and food safety.  The main system issues identified by both institutions and farmers were the lack of aggregation and distribution, the challenge of identifying when and where products were available, and being able to place orders for products in a consistent way.  

"As we developed the U.P. Food Exchange, it was with the intent to address the larger system issues that individual farms or buyers would have a hard time addressing by themselves," Walk says.

Based in Okemos, Kelly Lively, policy and outreach partner and food safety team leader for Cherry Capital Foods, talks about what makes their food hub unique: "As many food hubs as there are, there are as many designs. Cherry Capital Foods is a privately-owned company, started when local food was just not an option for many, and diversified farmers and small producers didn’t have a way to get their goods to many outlets.

"In the beginning, our focus was on schools, and today we have built a farm-to-school program to get local, whole foods into school meals. We provide marketing materials and encourage our schools to not only put up farmer/producer profiles in the cafeteria but all around their buildings. If kids are seeing farmers all around the school, they will grow to value those people and begin to look for their produce in the cafeteria."

Today, Cherry Capital Foods also delivers local whole foods to restaurants, grocery stores and specialty food shops in addition to schools, colleges, and universities, hospitals, retirement homes and pre-school programs. 

"We not only supply the food and materials, but we actively advocate for change," Lively says. "Our policy team is busy working with organizations locally and nationally to make better food a reality. Changing the food system is no easy or fast task, we are in it for the long haul."

Also in the mid-Michigan area, based in Lansing, is Allen Market Place. The Allen Market Place is an enterprise of the Allen Neighborhood Center, a non-profit organization working to strengthen mid-Michigan’s local food system since 1999. It houses an online wholesale market for local goods, a licensed incubator kitchen, and a year-round farmers market. 

Their online market, similar to other hubs, allows farmers and food producers to post their product online, and registered buyers later log on to make their purchases. Purchases are quickly delivered to The Allen Market Place, where buyers can pick them up or choose to have their purchases delivered by Go Green Trikes, a local tricycle and cargo bike delivery service. Buyers include schools, hospitals, grocers, restaurants, and buyer clubs. 

"Our goal is to strengthen the relationship between our community and our farmers and food producers," says John McCarthy, exchange manager. "We provide full transparency and traceability, sharing the stories of local farms and processors. We offer farmers additional markets for their products, fair pricing, and a wide range of educational opportunities including ongoing technical assistance, marketing, and business development."

On the east side of Michigan, Ann Arbor-based Washtenaw Food Hub was developed in 2011 by local organic farmers, along with food service, project management, and real estate professionals. They restored a 16-acre historic farm to serve a public and institutional demand for local foods. The farm includes three commercial kitchens and provides storage and distribution services, both wholesale and retail, for local farmers. Washtenaw Food Hub also offers and supports education and research on sustainable agriculture and agro-ecology principles.

Yet another benefit of all of these food hubs is the creation of new job opportunities. Each supports (and some train) new farmers, but each hub also employs staff. According to the MSU survey, food hubs in Michigan employ, on average, 19 paid positions. 

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and its partner, the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU, are convening a network of regional food hubs to create and expand markets for local and regionally grown agricultural products. MDARD calls the network the Michigan Food Hub Community of Practice.

The Michigan Food Hub Community of Practice seeks funding for a grant program to create new food hubs and support the success of the food hubs already named here. They support food hub efforts in both rural and urban areas, conduct research on food hub profitability and economic impact, coordinate best practices and training opportunities for a state food hub collaborative, and link to the National Food Hub Community of Practice, sharing experiences, and learning from other food hubs across the country.   

Any food hub member will tell you: one of the most valuable "additives" of a Michigan food hub is connection. When you extend your hand to pick up a bunch of carrots, you may just be touching the hand who grew them, pulled them from the ground, and harvested them just for you.  

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Read the rest of the series here
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