U.P. Food Exchange encourages food sustainabilty

It seems like residents of the Upper Peninsula are a long ways away from fresh, locally produced food. Yet, a small but growing group of farmers and food producers are making wholesome eating a reality for folks living above the bridge.
Like the sap that trickles out of a maple tree in the spring, access to wholesome, locally grown food is slowly but increasingly becoming a reality from Sault Ste. Marie to Copper Harbor.

Thanks to the work of the U.P. Food Exchange, which is made up of three regional food hubs, locally sourced food is becoming more accessible to folks in the U.P.

However, like our harsh winters here in the north, progress toward this goal has been difficult at best. The very act of farming in the U.P., though not impossible, is arduous due to our short seasons. Distribution is another matter with everyone living so doggone far apart. Also, existing food distributors for retail outlets are accustomed to dealing in bulk; many U.P. food producers simply don't deal in such volume. Yet another problem is storage, or warehousing of what is produced above the bridge.

It's enough to make you want to eat a tomato that has traveled 3,000 miles!

Fear not, lovers of wholesome food. There is a consortium of hard working people in the U.P. who are not only spreading the doctrine of healthy eating, but delivering the goods themselves: fresh produce, fine maple syrup, organic meats, and even mushrooms.

The U.P. Food Exchange is a partnership created between the Marquette Food Co-op and MSU Extension. It ties together three food hubs: Eastern, Central and Western, working cooperatively to overcome the hurdles to creating a sustainable food basket right here in the Upper Peninsula.

With limited resources the U.P. Food Exchange has been able to bring together farmers and more importantly buyers through annual food hub meetings and the U.P. Farm Directory.

However, even with these opportunities for networking and exposure to farm goods, the reality of making locally produced food available for more folks in the U.P. was little more than a pipe dream--until recently.

With a shot in the arm in the form of a grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the U.P. Food Exchange has been able to plow forward on fertile ground.

"We were successful receiving it because we had the plan in place; we thought it would take several years (to get the grant), but it took a year and a half," says MSU Extension Specialist Michelle Walk, who has been instrumental in bringing all parties involved in the U.P. Food Exchange to the table.

The grant is helping the exchange in very concrete ways. As a result of the funding they've received from the grant, they've been able to increase storage capacity for cold and dry local food in places like Harmony Health Food in Sault Ste. Marie and the Marquette Food Co-op. They've also been able to open an online marketplace for buyers and sellers to connect (in addition to face-to-face networking), improve marketing efforts with venues like the exchange's newsletter Ploughshare, and perhaps most importantly, improve distribution capabilities by initiating talks with Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City.

What all this means for you, the consumer, is more ways to buy wholesome, locally produced food. Indeed, there are several ways to put sustainable food on the table these days while also helping out the local farmer. Fresh food is in abundance at farmer's markets across the U.P.

Some communities also have community supported agriculture (CSA) farms where you can buy shares of fresh food as it becomes available. You can also visit farms and purchase food (see the U.P. Farm Directory)--now, it doesn't get much fresher than that!

Thanks in part to the U.P. Food Exchange, folks can increasingly find locally sourced food in restaurants and institutions like schools and hospitals. For example, in Sault Ste. Marie, Upper Crust Pizza and War Memorial Hospital are working with a grower to include fresh greens in their salads.

In addition, Walk says schools, who are already under pressure to prepare wholesome meals for children, are very interested in the work the food hubs are doing and are in talks with all parties involved in the food creation and distribution business.

And in case you're wondering, the food produced by our friends and neighbors is safe to eat. The U.P. Food Exchange has been working with the USDA to bring food safety programs to farmers and other food producers. Walk says as a whole, U.P. farmers are in "pretty good shape." Education will continue to ensure local food producers meet food safety standards.

The Marquette Food Co-op, due to expand this May when they move into their new digs on Washington Street in Marquette, is really the birthplace of the sustainable food movement in the U.P. Along with the food hubs, the MFC offers a multitude of resources for growers large and small. They also make eating right pretty easy (and tasty!) by including recipes on their website that use locally sourced food.

What is really important to Walk and fellow exchange organizer, Natasha Lantz, who works out of the MFC office, is the farmer/community buy-in that has taken place since their efforts began just a few years ago to create sustainable food choices in the U.P.

"It's great to see how independent some of the local groups have become," says Walk. "Communities are taking on these initiatives on their own instead of relying on us."

And that should give us all something to chew on.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter living in Sault Ste. Marie. You can follow him via Twitter @moranwrite.
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