Above: At Second Spring Farm, the first bin of produce purchased with Local Food Relief Fund donations. Photo: Taylor Moore, Goodwill Northern Michigan’s Food Rescue.
Our Regional Food System: Let’s Celebrate What We Have, Let’s Look Where We Need to Go
As I begin writing this, it’s springtime in northwestern Michigan. At first glance, it looks like a typical spring. Bikes whiz down the wheelway, children splash in Lake Michigan’s cold waters, and the scent of fudge blankets downtown streets. But a second glance reveals that this is not a typical spring.
People tiptoe around each other, sometimes even stepping onto the street to maintain six feet of distance between them and a stranger. Smiles are hidden behind masks, giving new meaning to the phrase “smile with your eyes.” Shops and restaurants, usually packed to the brim, look bare as they operate at lower capacities than normal. So, although flowers are blooming and the sun is shining, it’s impossible to forget that 2020 has brought us a spring like no other.
Our world feels different now, and it’s not only because of physical distancing, masks, and restrictions on building occupancy. In March, supermarket shelves across the nation were stripped bare as demand for food skyrocketed, but distribution slowed. Schools and food pantries, both crucial sites for food access, reported limited product options and backlogged orders. The shortages appeared to be at odds with stories of farmers letting crops rot in fields and dairies dumping milk down drains. For a few tense weeks, it seemed as though the food system was going to collapse. Yet, officials assured us that the problem wasn’t that the food didn’t exist, it was just that the food wasn’t getting distributed quickly enough. Unsurprisingly, it was small comfort to know that the food we needed sat in a warehouse, not in our cupboard.
Many authors have written about the effects of the pandemic on our food system. Links to several pieces are included below. The purpose of this article is not to restate what has been written, but to celebrate the ways in which northwest Lower Michigan’s food system is already resilient, how that resilience helped our communities during the pandemic, and to look at future possibilities to continue building resilience in our food system.
The first thing I feel we should celebrate is how much our communities care about local farms. Let’s take a moment to revel in that. Yeah, that’s it! Hip, hip, hooray! When asked what is great about our regional food system, Paula Martin, Groundwork’s Food and Farming Policy Specialist, immediately replied, “Our community values and supports the work that local farmers do. Our farmers markets are supported and people want them. We have small farms that want to be seen and respected as a part of the community. Farms are not an afterthought here. It’s not surprising to see local retail stores buying directly from farmers.”
It’s true that local agriculture is woven into our region’s identity, with hundreds of farms providing food for our markets, restaurants, pantries, schools, events, and more. In a national food system where large-scale monocultures are the norm, it is comforting to be surrounded by farms that collectively produce the five food groups: vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains, and dairy. It would have been much less comforting to be surrounded by endless fields of soybeans or corn when supermarket shelves went bare.
Christina Barkel, Groundwork’s Food Equity Specialist, commented on this, stating, “We support lots of small, diverse farms and provide a lot of different revenue streams. There are strong CSAs, market sales, institutional sales, even sales to food pantries. This is unique.”
Our farmers’ flexibility, ingenuity, and collaborative spirit has also shone through during the pandemic. When restaurants, markets, and schools closed, farmers adapted. Rosebud Bear Schneider of Ziibimijwang Farm said, “If farmers are used to anything, we’re used to adapting to changes pretty quickly. This pandemic has proven that being a farmer is definitely essential. The amount of support from not only our community partners but new customers has been so comforting. In the early days we were able to lean on our wholesale accounts to move produce. That really helped us stay afloat. As we adapted to the changes by offering pre-orders and deliveries, we saw a rapid increase. People want to know where their food is coming from and we want to be their trustworthy, reliable and healthy source.”
Local farms also responded by increasing their number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, joined together to form co-ops, applied for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farms to Families Box Program, converted to online sales platforms, opened farm stands, and more. Even in the face of uncertainty, farmers continued to put plants in the ground, hoping that the community would continue to support them. Now in August, months into the pandemic, I think it is fair to say that the community has come through. Mary Brower, owner of Bluestem Farm, shared, “We have felt really well supported by our community this year at Bluestem Farm. Having the trust of our customers in strange times is an incredible gift that we don’t take lightly.”
Bob Schiel, a cattle rancher in Alanson, estimated that he could have sold twice the usual amount of beef this season given meat shortages in the supermarket. A common sentiment voiced by customers of local farms is “Thank goodness you’re here!” The local effort to support farms was supplemented by the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, offering $19 billion immediate relief funding for the purchase of crops from farmers that have seen a decline of 5% or greater in revenue as a result of the pandemic.
Beyond making personal purchases from local farms, the community stepped forward to make sure its members who are food insecure continued to have access to food. As unemployment rose during the pandemic, it became more important than ever to keep food pantries well stocked. Yet, food pantries faced the same challenges supermarkets did when their shelves went bare. Some pantry managers reported orders that usually took a few days to arrive were backlogged up to a month. Rather than becoming paralyzed with concern, our community took action. Over the course of just a few weeks, the community raised $185,000 for Groundwork’s Local Food Relief Fund, far exceeding the initial $30,000 goal. The funds will be used by the Northwest Food Coalition and Manna Food Project to procure local food for their clients, granting our farmers another sure market and food pantry clients delicious, local food.
A large part of the success farmers had in finding new sales avenues can be attributed to existing relationships with local businesses, organizations, and community members. So much was possible because people were able to pick up the phone and call each other to ask, “What do you need? How can I help?” Jen Schaap, Groundwork’s Local Food Policy Specialist, shared that, “We have a close-knit community, and even while we are social distancing, we’re still communicating and sharing. Even competitors are talking and sharing.”
We were lucky that the pandemic started as winter turned to spring, not summer to fall. There would have been no opportunity to adjust growing plans, no chance to put new seeds in the ground. Bare supermarket shelves may have felt scarier if we’d known there wouldn’t soon be an abundance of local produce. There is no escaping the fact that we are limited by a short growing season. Greenhouses, grow-lights, and cold-tolerant crops help fill in the gaps, but our options are limited. Most of the fruits and vegetables our farmers grow is for immediate consumption. That is why, when asked what key steps our community could take to strengthen the regional food system, Groundwork’s Paula Martin, Christina Barkel, Diane Conners, and Jen Schaap all agreed that local food processing and storage facilities are essential.
The term, “processed food,” might set off alarm bells in some people’s minds. Isn’t processed food bad for you? Not always. Processed foods exist on a spectrum, from minimally processed foods, like shredded carrots and frozen berries, to highly processed foods, like Twinkies and chicken nuggets. The more minimally processed a food is, the less likely it is to contain excess sugar, salt, fat, or other harmful additives, and therefore more likely to be better for your body. Food processing can be a tool to make food last longer, meaning processing facilities could stretch local food availability into the colder months. Local storage facilities would reduce the likelihood of our food getting stuck in a warehouse thousands of miles away, as we saw during the start of the pandemic.
Beyond that, processing and storage facilities could give our region more autonomy over our food supply, as well as create jobs, offer farmers additional sales avenue