Southwest Michigan's local food connections in the spotlight

Editor's Note: This report is based on Patty Cantrell's remarks at TEDx Manhattan, where ideas were being shared on the theme "Changing the Way We Eat."

Patty Cantrell has been singing the gospel of local economics for more than 20 years.

When she took the stage at TEDx Manhattan in mid-January her remarks connected the dots in Southwest Michigan's local food movement and gave it a global platform.  

Now a community organizer and journalist focused on making the business case for local and regional food, Cantrell moved at age 13 with her family to a 40-acre farm in Southwest Missouri and she grew to love the connections she realized were being made in these rural communities.

Today, she says, as country, we are establishing these connection again, making our way back to each other, and moving forward as a result.

"On quite a grand scale, we are in fact creating a new pattern for our civilization -- through food: One meal and one farm at a time," Cantrell says.

There are very concrete ways in which our natural human leaning toward connection, Cantrell says, is changing laws, influencing business investments, and even shifting the way big institutions operate. These changes have come about to address inequalities in the food system that have resulted as many connections between farms and consumers have "washed out."

"Because our food system has become like a superhighway it now bypasses whole communities, and leaves other avenues that connect us – simple commercial connections between farms and schools, for example -- full of potholes or completely impassable," she says.

But as the absurdities become clearer, as the outcry grows louder, people are seeking out access to healthy food and the means of producing it in in a way that nourishes communities, strengthens local commerce, and works in harmony with nature and neighbors. They are getting together and finding other ways, things start changing.

More people are building new pathways, new roads to market, filling the gaps between farmers with quality products and the people who need and want them, she says.

She likens the changes to those that came about in the music industry. It evolved from music on front porches, to being controlled by record labels, to five dominating companies. Now it’s become a decentralized and globally interconnected universe of music.

"The music industry shift happened when artists and audiences found ways to re-connect." The same thing is happening in food, she says.

The same progression is under way as the desire for meaningful connection -- with each other, with our food, with nature, with local commerce -- forms new pathways that make new choices, and a more sensible and satisfying system, possible.

In Kalamazoo, this new decentralized, globally interconnected process already is at work. The community has put into place some of the new pathways that are forming networks that also form a new infrastructure for our food system, literally new roads to new markets.

“In the Kalamazoo area we see all of the interest and activity that has come to characterize the local food movement: farmers markets, chefs sourcing locally, ordinances allowing for backyard chickens, school and community gardens, and organizations like Fair Food Matters in Kalamazoo, channeling the community’s investments in projects like the Can-Do Kitchen, for bootstrapping food entrepreneurs," she says.

"This is where it all starts: With households and neighborhoods addressing absurdities, like children thinking grocery stores produce milk. It grows then to into commerce, like farmers markets, where people go to get the goods and services they can’t find on the food system superhighway. And this small part of the emerging system is up to $1 billion annually.

"In the Kalamazoo area we also see the next set of pathways and networks forming – with larger volume markets growing as companies change the way they do business. This growing part of the food system is up to $4 billion annually."

She illustrates her point with three local entrepreneurs and their interconnecting networks:

Mark Elzinga -- a third generation Kalamazoo County farmer -- supplies big box garden centers with spring bedding plants. His 30 acres of greenhouses are empty much of the fall and winter so when he learns local people are trying to eat more local food, all year round he says: "I know how to get fresh greens to my neighbors in the winter." Elzinga now raises wholesale volumes of organic spinach and lettuce, using renewable energy, during Michigan’s dark, cold months.

Michael Rowe, food service director at Bronson Methodist Hospital and his team have been working since 2009 to source locally produced food as part of the hospital’s commitment to being a positive part of Kalamazoo’s future. Local is now up to 20 percent of Bronson’s $3 million annual food budget. In addition to being one of Mark Elzinga’s first big customers, Bronson’s large purchases help many of the area's smaller farmers and Can-Do Kitchen clients grow their businesses.

Denis Jennisch, is produce manager for the West Michigan territory of the $37 billion food service company Sysco. The region is one of Sysco’s test markets for a new local foods focus. Sysco’s distribution system makes it possible for Mark Elzinga’s wholesale volumes of greens to get to market. "Jennisch is doing it by getting off the superhighway to find and work with local growers and products," Cantrell says.

Beyond these efforts, these businesses and their owners are creating a ripple effect.

Elzinga inspires greenhouse growers nationwide with his innovations as his business is featured on the cover of a trade publication naming him Greenhouse Grower of the Year.

Rowe advises hospitals across Michigan, more than half of which pledged last year to source 20 percent of their food from Michigan-grown sources by 2020. Hospitals nationwide are taking similar steps.

Jennisch is part of a nationwide Sysco training effort to help other managers get off the superhighway and do business with farmers like Pedro Bautista and his small farm neighbors in Van Buren County who have formed a cooperative to market their blueberries together and a brand to connect with shoppers who want their dollars to go to people and places they care about.

Kalamazoo is one of dozens of communities in Michigan building new food pathways and new roads to new markets: Traverse City and Detroit have reached the point where they now have formal business councils for connecting local enterprises and regional food opportunities. Michigan state government is involved, looking at ways to build food hubs that can connect all the emerging pathways and networks.

And this is just Michigan. Other examples can be seen in Iowa, California, Missouri, Arizona and the Northeast where new businesses and new pathways to local food are popping up.

Cantrell charged the TEDx audience to: "Recognize and invest -- your time, money, influence – in these new pathways and networks. Because it is this new community and commercial infrastructure that will support all the successful ventures to come."

This is no elite or isolated movement, Cantrell says. "This is the heart of America talking."

Patty Cantrell’s owns Regional Food Solutions LLC. Through it she works with nonprofit and educational clients to communicate new food and farm business options and public policy directions. She is a member of the Michigan Food Policy Council and a 2008-2009 Food and Society Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
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