Food access critical part of a local food system

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by Sam Henke

Where does a food system start?  It’s true that a plant’s roots are nourished by the soil it is grown in, but doesn’t the condition of the soil start with the land’s history?  If a farm is sited on an historic farm that’s been maintained, much of the work of the farmer is already done. On the other hand, if you’re looking to start a farm on a brownfield or on top of a demolished building, there’s much work to be done to develop the soil before you can even put seeds in the ground.

In much the same way, a community’s relationship with the buying, selling and consuming of food is determined by the historical context of the area. We’re lucky in Michigan and in the U.P.  Farming, gardening and foraging have always been part of the lives of U.P. residents, and this storied history is a key factor in the robust and growing local food culture we enjoy today.

 Despite the geographic isolation, short growing season and relatively sparse population of the U.P., we generally enjoy exceptional access to excellent local food.  Look through the U.P. Local Farm and Food Guide—for years compiled and produced by the U.P. Food Exchange, and now offered by Taste The Local Difference of Traverse City—and you’ll see dozens of farms offering a wide array of produce and value-added food items, many local farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) programs, and plenty of seasonal roadside stands. However, many communities do not have such deep roots in the land and subsequently have less consistent access to good, locally produced food.

According to Feeding America, the nation’s leading food security non-profit organization, over 48 million Americans were considered food insecure in 2014. That’s almost 1 in 6 people, (and more than 1 in 5 children). There are many national non-profit organizations that work to increase food access, such as Feeding America, which partner with local and regional food pantries such as the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul and other faith-based groups. Feeding America defines food security in this way:

 “Food security means all people at all times can access enough food for an active, healthy life. The US Department of Agriculture (http://www.usda.gov) defines four levels of food security. High food security indicates no reported food-access problems. Marginal food security indicates reported problems that are typically anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house, but with little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake. Low food security indicates reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet and little or no reduced food intake. Very low food security indicates reports of multiple disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. The food security measure used in HIA 2014 combines high and marginal food security into one category (food secure) and low and very low food security into another category (food insecure).”

 The Upper Peninsula generally falls into line with the national average, with Chippewa and Baraga counties on the high end with a rate of about 16.7 percent food insecure.  Sarah Monte, education coordinator at the Marquette Food Co-op to said much is being done to improve access to food in the U.P.

“Food Access comes down to a few factors,” Monte said. “The distance one’s home is from a grocery store is one aspect. The next is having the funds to acquire healthy food, which is to say enough money to buy food that has adequate nutrition, not food that just drives away hunger. The third part comes from knowledge—knowing which foods to buy, and how to process and prepare them.”

Breaking food access in these three components gives some insight into where the U.P.’s strong points are, and where we can work as a community to improve.

“Having a strong history of rural living and self-dependence means the food-prep knowledge is pretty good in the U.P.  On a national level, knowledge of food preparation is pretty lacking. On the other hand, the U.P. has ‘rural food deserts,’ communities that are 30-plus miles from a real grocery store, and that can be a hard distance to traverse in our winter months, even with a car.”

Monte offers free cooking classes and farmers market demonstrations, with the support of the USDA:

“The Specialty Crop Block Grant is a grant which is intended to support the sale of specialty crops,” Monte said.

“Specialty” to the USDA means basically everything but commodity foods like corn, soy and wheat. In other words, anything we’re supposed to be eating a lot of is considered specialty.

Monte’s classes included working with garlic and onions, spring greens like baby spinach and kale, fresh herbs, potatoes, tomatoes and others.

“There are few ways the grant is applied” she said. “It can be used to do research on these specialty crops, it can be used to pay for promotional campaigns for entire industries like Michigan apples, or in our case, we argue that by informing more folks about how to prepare these foods, this will increase sales.  We have set up free classes which include farmers market demonstrations and a series of free classes at the food co-op.”

The cooking classes were advertised around town and targeted at folks who weren’t necessarily co-op owners or shoppers.  Introducing people to the preparation of fresh foods is a great way to broaden their skill set and open the door to eating healthier as well as saving money by shopping fresh, instead of going for frozen or processed items.  As Monte put it, “If people don’t know how to prepare fennel, they’re never going to eat it.”

 She also mentioned another great way to stay on top of healthy eating under a tight budget:

“The ‘green grocer’ type stores … emphasize their ‘Fresh’ sections with big beautiful displays of produce to draw the focus of shoppers to the fresh healthy stuff, which makes it a bit easier to walk out with a lot of healthy food.”

In areas with good access to a bounty of produce-forward groceries, even in communities that are not particularly affluent, the rate of food security improves.

Another initiative meant to improve food access and security in Michigan is the Double Up Food Bucks program. Double Up Food Bucks is a national, grant-funded food access program administered by the Fair Food Network, a food justice and sustainability non-profit. Simply put, the program allows Bridge Card holders to double the amount of produce they can buy with their SNAP benefits.  The program has been offered at several participating farmers markets across the U.P. for a few years, but for the first time for a grocery store in the U.P., the co-op is now able to offer the program.

“We’re really excited to be partnering with the Fair Food Network to be able to bring this beneficial program to the U.P. seven days a week for the first time,” Monte said.  “It’s also good for local farmers, since half of the produce has to be grown in Michigan, and pretty much all of our Michigan produce at the co-op is grown in the U.P.”

 Even with the various levels of local, state and federal programming and efforts, we still fall short as a community of providing each and every person with sufficient sustenance. A complete and consistent source of nutritious food is a key component of the soil in which our community stakes its roots.

It will be easier to nurture Marquette County and the U.P. as it grows into the 21st century if we double down on our healthy traditions of eating and growing locally, and fortify the soil we plant ourselves in.

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