New nonprofit Ruminate gathers food leaders around the table

When it comes to talking about food in West Michigan, we can’t seem to get enough. Whether discussing a new restaurant opening (we see you, Kingfisher) or the latest community effort to bring fresh food access to urban areas without grocery stores, West Michiganders have made food part of the fabric of our region.

Jumping into the lively food atmosphere is new nonprofit Ruminate. Billing themselves as “Part innovation lab. Part think tank,” Ruminate combines the efforts of married couple Executive Director Kara Kaminski-Killiany and Creative Director Ryan Kaminski-Killiany in the bringing together of food leaders across industries to interrupt, rearrange, or redefine food systems at the local level.

Ryan, a graphic designer who has made working with nonprofits the backbone of his career, and Kara, a passionate behavioral scientist, found that food was a common denominator in their passions and skill sets.

"No matter the project I was working on—conducting a household survey during an impact evaluation on microcredit in Kenya or discussing credit card debt with a single mother in Boston when designing messaging around the effects of compound interest—issues of food and food access always came up," says Kara. "I see rampant food systems and access issues as a perpetuator of inequality and the bedrock for a multitude of other social issues."

Ryan himself notes that he grew up in an a middle-class Italian family that fostered his love for food. "[My-great-grandmother] taught us to never compromise when it came to the quality of the food you were making for your family. I'm forever grateful that while I never had the fanciest clothes or the newest toys, I almost always had a balanced, home-cooked, meal."

Pooling their talents and putting together a team that includes community activist and advocate Sascha Anderson, Kara applied her experience in researching and developing new programs and methodologies in the past to a unique format that would bring the research subjects themselves into the conversation in a series called Ripe for Discussion.

"The unique part of what we’re doing at Ruminate with Ripe for Discussion is that we’re co-creating with food communities to concept solutions that are built off of all of our expertise and lived experience, not just how that experience is viewed through the lens of the researcher," she says. Their main goal of the nonprofit is to start and facilitate conversations among local food leaders in organized settings that eventually lead to tangible solutions and changed minds.

The group’s first Grand Rapids session entitled “Building Connections between Producers and Plates” took place on Sunday, June 23 in The Sovengard’s favorited biergarten, where food leaders from across the region met, snacked, and dove into Ruminate’s guided discussion format. 

After a short introduction by Ruminate staff, participants like James Berg, Managing Partner at Essence Restaurant Group, and Gerrianne Schuler, owner of Schuler Farms, began determining three to five different topics that they thought needed addressing in West Michigan’s current food systems. These topics then took the form of intentionally worded problem statements that would later be used to develop working solutions.

Berg, who as part of Essence oversees the group’s three local restaurants Grove, Greenwell, and Bistro Bella Vita, early on noted “Education is critical” in the movement toward slower, healthier food. But, as many other participants added, education is complex, taking the form of everything from traditional advertising, to one-on-one conversations at farmers markets, to graphic design and packaging. Plus, there’s big agriculture and the food producers who have monetized and perfected big food systems over time.

“The system is sort of rigged,” said Schuler. “Kraft doesn’t want anyone eating fresh food.” Many in the group shared this sentiment, and rallied around the ever-important need to fly the optimistic flag for fresh food. Howard Atsma, Director of Operations at Harvest Health Foods, a company for which he has worked for the past 15 years, has seen first-hand the impact of individuals and organizations stressing the importance of fresh, local, and sometimes organic foods.

“Don’t underestimate the affect you have serving high quality food…growing high quality food,” he encouraged his discussion-mates, citing a specific example of trend-making health-foods brand Kashi. He went on to explain that Kashi was an early producer in the market of whole grain and plant-based foods whose products are now so prolific they can be purchased at convenience stores and gas stations. “We’re moving the bar for the rest of the world,” added Atsma.

Many participants agreed that the fight for better food is a mission that requires contrasting with the larger culture in favor of human and environmental health. But to secure the success of this ongoing mission, these food leaders need to be savvy business people as well, experts in branding, retail, collaboration, standards, and the most up-to-date information in agriculture, grocery, and restaurants.

Problem statements that arose from this first round of discussions included: “It’s difficult to educate the end user about local/clean food” and “It’s difficult to produce local/clean food at a good price.”

These statements then led the group to the next phase of guided discussion: an exploration on solutions to these identified issues, like “how might we increase access to local/clean food?” Or “How do food producers identify gaps in the market?”

Groups then went on to develop and visually sketch more tangible solutions to their questions, and shared them with the larger group. What followed was a lively discussion among diverse food leaders from across industries—everyone from restaurateurs and bakers to farmers and marketers, leading to tangible projects ides like marketing campaigns, educational apps, and even an early childhood education program.

The next steps for this series involve continued research by Ruminate staff to make these solutions come to life, which involves ongoing communication and feedback from think tank participants. And as solutions evolve, the door has now been cracked wide open for cross-industry conversations, something that West Michiganders, with a passion for all-things food in a growing economy, can really get behind.

“I think it’s really important for the whole supply chain to be in the same room," says Atsma. "Being a retailer, it’s nice to have a farmer in the room and hear about some of their challenges. I enjoyed having that kind of interaction.”

To learn more about how to join the discussion, visit letsruminate.org.

Photographs by Jaimie Skriba Photography
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