Michigan’s pantries and small farms sow seeds of health equity

Within Michigan’s income-challenged neighborhoods, especially those where people of color live, researchers have found that a lack of access to nutrient-rich foods has caused an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, amputations, heart disease, behavioral issues, and death. This shared experience of food insecurity is not about people making bad diet choices. It’s the result of an industrialized food system that profits on junk and convenience foods sold in neighborhoods with little access to fresh and whole foods. Hence, many in the food justice movement use the term “food apartheid.” And it’s not about people choosing not to work. Scarcity of living wage jobs and rising housing costs have invited food insecurity into the kitchens of thousands of Michiganders working forty or more hours a week.

When the food pantry model first emerged, its purpose was to provide emergency food to people experiencing acute hunger. Today, while fewer people may experience actual hunger, many are harmed by the effects of under-nutrition. Families and individuals with income challenges are force-fed nutrient-poor junk foods, fast foods, and packaged foods. In neighborhoods where no healthy, fresh foods can be found, corner stores and some fast-food restaurants profit from food assistance dollars, perhaps even to a greater extent than if they offered fresh, whole, and healthy foods. Meanwhile, food corporations profit from reduced waste management costs and tax write-offs for charitable donations of sugary, processed, chemical-laden foods to food pantries.

Transforming charitable food

Access of West Michigan, a Grand Rapids-based food justice and equity nonprofit, works with many of those pantries. “Access has been around since the 80s. At the time, it was a great response to an emergency need,” says Erin Skidmore, Access Good Food Systems coordinator. “Forty years later, we’re doing the same things and have seen significant changes in health outcomes in low income populations. This charity model is not working. It’s time to think differently.”

Erin Skidmore is Good Food Systems coordinator at Access of West Michigan.

In the last six years, Access has been on a journey of learning and engaging with national and regional leaders, learning how other communities are working for food equity. In its work with West Michigan food pantries, Access has helped pantries to establish fresh markets featuring local produce, offer CSA shares, and learn about food justice as an alternative to food charity. Its annual “Hunger Walk” celebrated its 40th anniversary with a name change to the “Walk for Good Food.”

“The charity food system, while created with good intent, has had an impact that is less than desirable. When you think of a traditional food pantry, you think of shelves of canned goods, white bread left over from bakeries, and boxed foods. If this is what we are offering individuals and families, obviously we are going to have poor health outcomes,” Skidmore says. “Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the US. Access has been shaped by, and is leaning on, the Michigan Good Food Charter.”

The Michigan Good Food Charter seeks to create a food system “that is rooted in local communities and centered on good food.” It defines good food as being local, fair, healthy, and sustainable. 

“We need to come together to address what’s going on. We need to take care of one another, our farmers, farm workers, restaurant workers, and families,” Skidmore says. “If we eat, we’re part of the food system. It really is all of our responsibility to be addressing this conversation of food insecurity.”

Building a local foods economy

In Battle Creek, Sprout is making that case with programs that support local farmers and food businesses. The Sprout Food Hub sells local produce and meats sourced from more than 45 local farms to institutions, schools, restaurants, and hospitals.

Case Visser of Visser Farm.

“We’re bringing ourselves back to our roots, decentralizing the food system. We don’t want to be so reliant on the big system, big people making lots of money and little people making nothing,” says Jeremy Andrews, Sprout’s founder. “We’re helping to change the food system back to what it was when our great grandparents were alive — owned by more people. We’re redistributing food wealth not by government mandate but by supporting small food businesses.”

Sprout’s incubator kitchen gives small food businesses a chance to grow while its incubator farm lets would-be farmers try their hand before making a big investment in land or equipment. Sprout also runs a grocery store selling local produce, baked goods, frozen meat, dairy, and shelf stable items like coffee, honey, snacks and a few select canned goods. Expanding on the CSA model, The Sprout Box can be purchased with weekly payments instead of a one-time, up-front fee. Sprout welcomes people paying with EBT, Double Up Food Bucks and other food assistance dollars.

“We wanted to figure out how to get more local groceries to more people regardless of their income, making local food more accessible,” Andrews says. “Our hope is to build a local economy around food so there is more food sovereignty.”

Creating alternatives at the systems level

Those working to alleviate food insecurity realize that only a systems change can truly reduce food insecurity and create food equity. Remi Harrington is creating such change in Kalamazoo.

“We live in a capitalist, free-market system that was fueled on the backs of slavery,” she says. “Why would we ever think that there would not still be disparities? To mitigate that will require an institutional recovery, to recover all those things that have been broken down.”

Green Wagon Farm produce stand at Fulton Street Farmers Market in Grand Rapids.

In her own work, Harrington is making change happen within two institutions: agriculture and education. She grows food at her own urban community farm, “Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden,” and empowers others to plant their own urban food gardens through her work as community farms coordinator for Kalamazoo Valley Community College Food Innovation Center. As momentum builds, she sees local urban farmers taking a lead in establishing Kalamazoo’s local food economy.

“If we can create a collective consciousness about what local foods can mean to us as a people … being really intentional about what we want to put in our bodies, biodynamic agriculture, eating seasonally and locally, that would create wellness, that would create health, that would create community, that would rebuild us as a people group,” Harrington concludes.

“That would bring peace and love and trust and that whole granola stuff. The case is good for business all around, not just for black folks, but for all of us.”

This story is part of “Michigan Good Food Stories” a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

A freelance writer and editor, Estelle is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Photos by Adam Bird.