West Michigan’s small-scale alternative food systems — and the future of such endeavors
Even though Grand Rapids is a mid-size city, it does have a small-town feel — once you’ve been here a while you start to realize everybody pretty much knows everybody else. When I first moved here and asked people who I should talk to about the food system, I heard two names over and over: Tom Cary and Gail Philbin.
Tom is a lifelong resident of Grand Rapids, and Gail has also lived here for many years, although I recently learned that we’ll be losing her to Chicago very soon. Tom was instrumental in starting the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council in 2001, when there were just a couple CSAs and three or four farmers markets in the area. Today there are at least 12 CSAs and a profusion of farmers markets. The council has been involved in myriad food projects in the region, from working in some of Grand Rapids’ more distressed neighborhoods to build access to healthy food, to launching the Beginning Farmers Training Program that helps connect the know-how of people who’ve been farming for a while to young upstarts who want to learn.
And Gail started Farms Without Harm in 2005, a local nonprofit that opposes factory farming and has brought together farmers with interested people and organizations to raise the profile of sustainable agriculture in the region, through activities such as farm tours and public presentations. She was also a board member for a time of the Food Systems Council.
When I spoke to Tom and Gail, they both agreed that since the early 2000s, there has been an explosion of interest in local food in the area. Betting that interest would only increase and looking to find a way to supply people with locally grown food in the winter when the farmers markets close, in October 2006 the Food Systems Council, Farms Without Harm, and other partners created the West Michigan Coop, an online cooperative that members order from once a month.
It launched with 35 families, and about a year and half later has 255 members supplied by 28 vendors and growing. Tom’s vision for the Coop is to have 5,000 members in five years; he wonders if the management can take the Coop beyond breaking even, to become a capital source for new farmers or food entrepreneurs. One thing there’s no shortage of in West Michigan are great ideas for the future.
And now for a "but"… like Bonnie and Elanor, I too was at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Food and Society conference last week in Arizona. My nagging concern after returning is this: What will happen to the big dreams for small-scale, local and regional efforts in this city and others like it across the country?
During one reporting session, participants questioned what it meant to grow the food movement; as one person put it, should this movement be about scaling up, or spreading out? It seems like many of the sustainable-food goals for which advocates have been fighting for the last decade or so are starting to take root, and with that mainstreaming of the idea comes the urge to “take things to scale.” I just hope that we don’t lose sight of the promise that small-scale, diversified efforts will make good on if they’re given the chance. I hope sustainable food actors in Grand Rapids and other areas don’t get left behind in a new wave of “get big or get out” — ironically, the same mentality that has delivered to us this monolithic, runaway food system in the first place.
Guest contributor Stephanie Pierce lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she writes, dreams, and plans at Fourth Sector Consulting, a for-benefit company that works only with mission-driven organizations. Her unofficial title is Practical Wonderer. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stephanie can tell you why Lake Superior is better than Lake Michigan and how to correctly pronounce “sauna.”
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