Tricia Phelps

Phelps Leads Taste the Local Difference on Local Food Expansion Statewide

November 15, 2017 |

Tricia Phelps’ relationship with local food began the first time she tasted a butternut squash. It was the fall of 2009—harvest season—and she was a junior at Michigan State University (MSU). A co-worker at MSU’s Residential Hospitality Services’ sustainability office had left town and offered Phelps her weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share from the MSU Student Organic Farm.

“I had never been to a working farm before, and I had no idea what a CSA was,” said Phelps. “But being a poor college student, I wasn’t going to turn down free food. I was curious. I got to pick up all these strange vegetables I’d never heard of.”

The thing was, Phelps didn’t know how to cut up or prepare a butternut squash. She had grown up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by freeways, big box stores, hay and cornfields, and she had zero relationship to local food. The majority of her meals growing up were frozen pizza or packaged foods like macaroni & cheese and Hamburger Helper. She knew she wanted to start fresh after high school, and chose to matriculate in East Lansing (both of her parents were MSU alumni), though she had no idea where that path would lead.

Ultimately, it led her to Taste the Local Difference (TLD), Michigan’s local food marketing agency and a social enterprise of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. TLD was launched by the Groundwork Center (then called the Michigan Land Use Institute) in 2004 as a print and online guide that helped match farmers with customers and was an early promoter of consuming locally grown food. Phelps became CEO on Oct. 1 2017 and is leading the thriving business forward as TLD expands to impact local food economies statewide.

Back in East Lansing in 2009 after her trip to the farm, Phelps and her college roommate were ambitious and decided to make a labor-intensive risotto with that first butternut squash. Many more home-cooked meals would follow, with friends and family at the table including Alex, Phelps’ partner whom she had met during her freshman year.

That first experience with local food was formative. Phelps’ bond with local produce, and her relationship with Alex, would lead her after graduation from MSU to his native Traverse City, home to a budding local food movement. Phelps worked initially for the nonprofit SEEDS as a manager at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market, then as a project assistant and communications manager for The Minervini Group (Redevelopers of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons) where she also managed their indoor market in the Mercado.

“What I love most about farmers markets is connecting and talking with people who grow your food, understanding the farmers as people and knowing their stories,” said Phelps. “I’m very curious about the farmers, themselves, and how they came into the work they’re doing now.”

Though she was already working 6 days a week, Phelps felt the itch to write about local food and farming, so in 2014 she contacted then CEO of Taste the Local Difference Bill Palladino and offered to help as an unpaid intern. Phelps was later hired in 2015 as TLD’s first employee over 75 other applicants. Her job as Project Coordinator was to connect farmers with new markets, sign them up for TLD partnerships, and promote them in the annual guide. Her passion for food and farming continued to germinate at TLD, and this fall Phelps took over the reigns.

“I find Tricia to be one of the most thoughtful people I’ve met,” said Diane Conners, Groundwork’s senior food and farming policy specialist who led TLD when it launched in 2004. “She is passionate about building local food systems in ways that benefit the bottom line of farms and other local food businesses and at the same time increases the quality of life for people in their communities. She is ever-sensitive to wanting to serve farmers and other local food businesses and at the same time keep TLD sustainable so that it can serve them.”

From grant-funded guide to sustainable social enterprise

Groundwork (then MLUI) first launched TLD as a print and online guide in 2004, said Conners, with a goal of making the entrepreneurial farms in northwest Michigan more visible to a wide variety of potential buyers, whether they were families who buy directly, or wholesale buyers such as schools and grocery stores. Groundwork recognized local farmers as an important, though underappreciated, economic opportunity and even produced a report in 2002 to that effect, called The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture, written by Jim Lively and Patty Cantrell.

In those days, the Grand Traverse region didn’t yet have the local food infrastructure that we have now, including the food distributor Cherry Capital Foods.

“We often played matchmaker between wholesale buyers and farmers because we knew the different capacities of farmers to meet the needs of different buyers—for example, small restaurants versus large schools,” said Conners. “I still remember Cook’s House Chef Eric Patterson calling Janice Benson, who took over Taste the Local Difference after me, frantically asking if she knew where he could buy local quail’s eggs.