U.P. Food Exchange celebrates 10 years of supporting local foods, farms

Ten years ago this month, the U.P. Food Exchange formed as an agricultural hub to connect local and varied food projects within the Upper Peninsula's eastern, central, and western regions.

Although organizers were able to celebrate a decade of accomplishments at the recent 2023 U.P. Food Summit in Marquette, they acknowledge that systemic change doesn’t come quickly and that many of the original challenges remain.

How it started: Initially funded by a grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, the UPFE set up online sites for farm products, for buyers and sellers alike, sponsored an array of food-related programs, and worked to educate farmers and consumers alike as it pursued its core mission — a strong local food system.

Today, the U.P. Food Exchange is a resource portal for farmers, businesses, and individuals looking to participate in the local food system. The collaborative efforts of businesses and organizations include policy work, community education, food safety, business development and more. 

The challenges: Sarah Monte, who oversees the administrative work of the U.P. Food Exchange and UPFE Online Marketplace, says: “It was known 10 years ago that we needed to increase the supply of local food. Distribution, infrastructure development such as incubator kitchens, processing facilities, or even just adequate farmers’ markets — with the funding and staff to run food-access programs —  are still obstacles.”

Leaders from seed libraries across the U.P. attended the recent U.P. Food Summit.At the recent Food Summit, farmers also reported struggling to find help with labor so they could produce more food, Monte says. 

“We see, too, that something has to be done to assist farms with the debt burden required to start a farm,” Monte says. “Farms are essential for our communities. We need to start thinking about community investment in farms, policies that support the growth of agriculture in our communities, and education to encourage more purchasing in rural communities.”

Although many of these challenges are common across Michigan’s rural areas, they are especially acute in the Upper Peninsula, says Matt Gougeon, general manager of the Marquette Food Co-op in Marquette, which is the fiduciary and administrative base for the U.P. Food Exchange.

The Upper Peninsula contains a third of the land base of the state, but only 3 percent of the population. Communities are very small. There are also vast distances between communities, Gougeon says. That geographic isolation means distribution of fresh food is limited. 

While agriculture is prevalent, the U.P.’s growing season is only 80 days long because of its far northern latitude, so fruit and vegetable crops may be limited and field crops such as corn and hay are more promising choices for farmers.

A lack of infrastructure, limited distribution, and low-income consumers are issues that affect all food access, not just local food, Monte says.

“There are communities that simply do not receive enough trucks to keep produce adequately stocked in grocery stores. A recent study of food prices by Dr. Michael Broadway on food prices in the Upper Peninsula showed that rural areas pay higher prices for food,” Monte says. “Those communities often also have a higher poverty rate than the state average."

Accomplishments: Still, there has been progress to celebrate. Those accomplishments, Monte says, include:  

—  “Seed libraries are popping up all over the U.P. and in addition to offering seeds for local gardeners, they often also offer training and information to support people growing their own food.”

— “We have a produce safety technician who works with farms to ensure that local produce is being grown, harvested, and stored safely.”

— “Innovative community garden projects are being started that help feed those in need.”
 “There are so many ongoing projects that different members of UPFE may be working on, Monte says. “This is a network that helps people collaborate, but not every project intersects with every member of UPFE.”

For example, a Michigan State University educator, the UPFE Online Marketplace Manager, the kitchen and event manager at Northwoods Test Kitchen, the U.P. Produce Safety Tech, and a planner from Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region all worked on a Farm to School project on the west end of the U.P. that is really pushing farm to school work forward in multiple schools, which is pretty wonderful.”

That project, led by Rachael Pressley of the Western UP Planning and Development Region office, included work with MSU Extension, Taste the Local Difference, UPFE, the Produce Safety Technician program and others, and included a guide for Farm to School purchasing of local foods and training for food service directors.

Many members of UPFE came together to work on Prescription for Health, which distributes monthly vouchers for fresh produce to people with both health risks and economic barriers to purchasing fresh produce. the Cold Storage Grant program, which helps U.P. farms upgrade their systems for cold storage or fresh produce until it can be sold. 

What’s next:  There’s plenty of growth to celebrate, yes, but there’s no time for resting on laurels. “There is very low access to local food in much of the Upper Peninsula,” Monte says. “There is quite simply not enough food being grown to meet the need.”

She says larger cities such as Marquette and Houghton tend to have more access through markets and some retail and restaurants, but the supply of locally grown food is not adequate for institutional purchasing of any scale.

According to a recent study by the Center for Rural Health (on which UPFE/Marquette Food Co-op, Feeding America West Michigan, CUPPAD, and MSU Extension collaborated), there is room for the agriculture industry to grow in the U.P. 

The study shows there are only 2,483 acres used for produce production in the Upper Peninsula. The average farm, excluding potato growers who grow for external markets, is only 2 acres. The average annual income from farming in the U.P. is $7,747– an indication that for many farmers,  the operation is a part-time endeavor or even a hobby farm.

There is also educational work to be done. Some producers travel long distances to sell their goods at bigger markets, such as the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market, reporting that closer to their homes there is lower community interest in their products, Monte says. “This seems to be shifting in many communities,” she says, “ but (that shift) is essential to supporting the ability of farms to grow their markets.”
Also, she says,  “I think it is important to note that we need to keep the conversation going regarding tribal food sovereignty and foodways. There is so much to be learned from indigenous food traditions and techniques and exciting work that needs to be supported.”

“For example, a few years ago, the Bay Mills Indian Community exercised their right as a sovereign government to adopt their own cottage food laws that supported their local food producers. The Decolonizing Diet Project opened people’s eyes to the wide variety of foods and flavors— as well as health benefits— of foods native to the Americas. There is also really excellent work being done to monitor the health and wellbeing of wild rice beds in the Great Lakes.”
UPFE going forward: The UPFE team’s recent strategic planning included:
  • Strengthening and broadening the network and systems 
  • Focus on community education
  • Support the growth of new and existing farms in the Upper Peninsula 
To learn more or engage in UPFE’s work growing the local food system as a team and offering support to others leading the work in their communities. Sign up here for the Plowshare newsletter or shoot an email to info@upfoodexchange.com.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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