Blog: Kami Pothukuchi

Healthy bodies grow healthy minds. SEED Wayne Director Kami Pothukuchi, a WSU professor of urban planning and manager of one of the few university-run farmers markets in the nation, will discuss the campus market and why educators and urban planners should pay close attention to local, nutritious, and affordable food systems.

Post 2: Why Should Universities Host Farmers Markets? The Wayne State Example

Besides education and research, universities have other social and civic missions.  These missions are articulated in different ways and take different forms.  Whatever their forms, the missions outline an institutional commitment and a sense of responsibility to the different communities they serve—the local community and the broader region in which the university is located, to disadvantaged groups in society, to alumni and their families, and to future generations.  

Wayne State University has an explicit urban mission.  This mission recognizes the economic stresses that the city and the state experience and highlights the importance of enhancing the economy, education, and transportation directly as well as indirectly, by cultivating citizenship and civic-mindedness among students.  This suggests that the university takes seriously its role in contributing to the improvement of the quality of urban communities (including its own neighborhood) in all its activities—research, teaching, and community engagement.  

Not explicitly stated, but implicit in the urban mission, is the role of the university as a civic institution, as a large employer, and as a buyer of resources and services.  I would argue that universities need to take a look at their own operations especially as they relate to their facilities, business operations, and the food they serve on campus, and how these connect to the quality of the region.  

The university could start by looking at its immediate neighborhood and the paucity of retail outlets at which affordable fresh and healthy choices may be available.  If the city is a food desert, perhaps the university, as part of its urban mission, could conceive of itself as a food oasis?!  Likewise, the university may look at its own purchasing decisions related to fresh food, which Michigan is eminently capable of producing (in fact, Michigan is second only to California in its agricultural diversity, and unlike Michigan, California relies on borrowed water!).  In these times of crisis, and even as it despairs of fewer dollars flowing from the state to its own coffers, perhaps Wayne State, as should other state universities, consider how they could direct their food spending back to the state's producers and thereby help create related multipliers and economic vitality.

The amount of money the university spends on food is not trivial.  AVI Foodsystems, Wayne State's food service contractor, works with a budget of between $1.3 to nearly $2 million for the meals it provides on campus.  Add to this the dollars spent in food franchises and other businesses that sell prepared foods on campus.  If a majority of those food dollars are spent on Michigan sources, would that not be a great contribution to the state's economy from the University?  Incidentally, these dollars are yours—you, who study at WSU, who send your child to WSU, and who work at WSU!  Why not insist that most of it be spent in Michigan farms and processing facilities that are independently owned?

How, you may ask, is all this discussion answering the question about universities and farmers markets?

Well, for one, if a university cannot guarantee that all meals served on campus are healthy and balanced, and if it continues to offer junk food through its business relationships, then, the least it could do to rectify the imbalance is by offering a farmers market from which fresh fruits and vegetables can be eaten as snacks or prepared at home.  Research shows that meals prepared at home tend to be healthier than ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores and those eaten at food outlets.  

Second, a farmers market on campus would tap into the dollars that staff, faculty, and students ordinarily spend on fresh food in grocery stores.  Because all the fresh foods sold at the market (and many of the ingredients in prepared foods) are sourced from the surrounding region—the vast majority from Michigan—all that money spent at the market would go to local growers and businesses, creating varied multiplier effects in their communities.  A campus market thereby leverages the market constituted by its day-time population to benefit the surrounding community in increasing access to fresh and healthy food to residents in nearby neighborhoods.  And if the market accepts food stamps—as the Wayne State farmers market does—then the benefit is even greater because our tax dollars are not only being spent on good, healthy food, they also benefit Michigan farmers. (The federal Food Stamp Program is now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.)

Third, the university offers its staff and faculty a range of employment benefits, including matching dollars for health insurance premiums, and related services.  The university hosts a variety of health events such as flu shots and diabetes screening, and offers staff incentives to participate in physical fitness activities.  A weekly market would encourage employees and administrators to buy more fresh foods and prepare foods at home rather than buy ready-to-eat foods on the way home.  Students may snack on an apple or a pear and a cider, instead of a bag of chips and a soda.  Why not see a farmers market as a preventive health service?  Why not act to prevent diabetes rather than just provide a free-screening or subsidize its cure?

In fact, why not work with the health care providers to encourage more staff and faculty members to purchase their fresh foods from local farmers markets (including the WSU market)? This is in line with the approach taken by hospitals participating in the 'Health Care without Harm' movement, which sees health care in a broader context than just as a set of medical services.  This movement recognizes the interconnections between the health of individuals and the health of local communities and regions.  Its food message is: eat healthfully, buy food from local producers, contribute to your region's agricultural vitality as much as your own health!  In planning, we call these win-win solutions.

Not yet convinced that the university should host a farmers market?  Well, come down to Wayne State's market during the lunch hour this summer, and taste and feel the market experience.  The market starts June 9 and is offered every Wednesday for the following 21 weeks, from 11 AM to 4 PM. It's on Cass Avenue near Putnam St., in front of Prentis Hall, with free 15-minute parking provided in front of the market. 

Wayne State students and employees, employees of the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Medical Center, and residents of nearby neighborhoods come out in droves to sample the market's offerings.  They linger to say hello to friends they haven't seen in a while, and carry over intense discussions from labs and classrooms (yes, I have seen them!).  Co-workers go out shopping together and share recipes, thereby encouraging bonding and cooperation in the workplace.  The market is full of buzz—it's a festive and social gathering place.  Sure, the fruits and vegetables are fresh and affordable, and everyone who comes to the market leaves with bulging bags and sagging arms, but the market is also a fun place to be and see and be seen!

In short, farmers markets help integrate the university's functions in knowledge production and sharing with its business operations and also with its mission in civic and community engagement.  They also begin to sketch a picture of the university as an economic citizen of the region, which could be filled out in a variety of creative ways.  Every university should host a farmers market!  

Next: Why is a professor of urban planning running a farmers market?