Creating Change In Michigan’s Food Systems

July 9, 2013

Source: Michigan NightLight

How is Michigan doing in creating systemic change around food access, nutrition, and sustainability for low-income children and families?

Sharing a meal is a fundamental human experience. Breaking bread together extends peace between peoples, and its symbolism connects entire populations. Access to food has caused the rise and fall of civilizations, and on the most basic level, it affects how well our children learn and grow.

Nobody can flourish without access to fresh, nutritious food, and yet the current food system often fails families. High poverty and unemployment rates, along with inadequate access to fresh, nutritious food, make many Michigan adults and children food insecure, not always certain where their next meal is coming from – or eating nutritionally substandard meals.

Shopping in Eastern Market – photo by Melinda Clynes.

The importance of fresh food on health cannot be overstated: According to the American Diabetes Association, two out of three people with diabetes die from heart disease or stroke each year. Other illnesses are also tied to poor diet.

Yet, many urban neighborhoods have no mainstream grocery stores, or the stores are not accessible to low-income shoppers because they are located too far away or the prices are too expensive. These areas are called "food deserts." Available items in corner stores and convenience marts are typically highly processed, boxed, frozen, and canned foods that contain excessive salt, harmful fats, and sugar, and are nutrient-poor.

Plain and simple: if people can’t find healthy food, they can’t eat it.

Many organizations across the state are working to change that pattern. The Fair Food Network is one of them, evaluating food systems work in our state and piloting new programs that are helping more Michigan kids eat the healthy foods needed to develop and prosper.

Building Healthy Habits

A new report from the Fair Food Network (FFN) shows that low-income families are shifting their shopping habits towards healthier, fresh foods, thanks to Double Up Food Bucks, FFN's innovative model program.

Here’s how it works: When a recipient spends SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) funds at a participating farmers’ market, the Double Up Food Bucks program matches each SNAP dollar for up to $20 of purchases per market visit. So, $20 of benefits purchases a total of $40 of fresh produce, some (or all) of it grown by Michigan farmers.

Fair Food Network teams up with more than 40 foundations, businesses, and government agencies, including Michigan Department of Human Services, to provide Double Up Food Bucks.

The program has caught on with low-income families, with dramatic increases in healthy food purchases at participating local farmers' markets by low-income citizens. In a sample of SNAP respondents, 78 percent of participating families said they increased their fresh produce purchases, and 81 percent said they tried different kinds of produce as a result of the program.

Connecting Consumers and Farmers

"Double Up Food Bucks is successful because it boosts local economies and access to healthy foods at a time when low-income people are struggling to meet their basic needs," says Dr. Oran Hesterman, president and chief executive officer of FFN. "When more people buy a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, they support a stronger and more sustainable food system that diversifies our farms and farmers' incomes, and that’s healthier for our communities."

Michigan farmers' markets redeem more than ten times more SNAP benefits than those of neighboring states – helping farmers increase sales, boosting local economies, and creating jobs in rural communities.

In a FFN survey, an estimated 92 percent of participating local farmers reported a noticeable increase in the sale of fresh produce, and 83 percent reported an increase in revenue.

Although SNAP dollars spent at farmers' markets may purchase meat, bread, and dairy in addition to produce, Double Up Food Bucks are spent entirely on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. Even this small monetary incentive brings substantially more SNAP dollars into the local food economy.

Boosting Sustainability

Both the economic and social relationships forged through programs such as these are important. "At the heart of a community-based food system are relationships that build social capital, strengthen social networks, and form the basis of community identity,” notes Food Connections, a C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems’ publication.  “Food is an inclusive focal point for rebuilding community, in urban as well as rural settings, and especially between the two."

"Organically grown, local, healthy food helps the local economy and the environment," says Garrett Ziegler, Community Food Systems Educator with Michigan State University Extension in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "With a community-based food system, people see and experience the connection between food and the environment. When that connection is working well, consumers learn to recognize and value the environmental services provided by local farms."

Ziegler says that a sustainable community food system integrates food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management to improve the environmental, economic, and social health of its people.

Purchasing local produce saves time and cuts down on the fuel needed to ship elsewhere for processing – healthy for us and the planet. Plus, local food production and processing can create significant numbers of stable jobs.

Grass-root efforts

Many Michigan cities are trying out a variety of grass-root food distribution initiatives. For example, in Grand Rapids, Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank and Cintas Corporation have teamed up to offer mobile food pantry distributions at Dickinson Elementary School, providing fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and baked goods to students and their families. Each 5,000-pound, farmers' market-style distribution provides 100 households with enough food to supplement their meals for three to four days.

According to Dickinson Elementary School principal, Nan Evans, the mobile food pantry is desperately needed. More than three quarters of the students at Dickinson Elementary are enrolled in free or reduced-price meal programs. "Kids who come to school hungry may be angry or irritable, and they may have trouble concentrating," says Evans. "You might think that a student is ADHD when they're just hungry."

Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan also brings mobile pantries to 60 schools a year, in hopes to reach families with small children who are struggling to put enough food on the table. Gleaners also offers Cooking Matters classes that teach low-income families how to prepare healthier meals and snacks and make their emergency food provisions or SNAP benefits stretch further.

In Detroit, the Detroit Food Policy Council is working to get food growers, processors, vendors, cooks and chefs, consumers, and planners involved in food systems work. The council focuses on urban agriculture; citizen education; access to quality food in Detroit; hunger, malnutrition, and the effects of an inadequate diet; economic injustice in the food system; and the role of schools and other public institutions. Every year or two, Detroit Food Policy Council publishes a Food Report on an specific aspect of its food systems work and hosts an annual food summit, covering a variety of topics. 

Also in Detroit, Fresh Corner Café works to boost access to healthy food through distributing affordable and nutritious food to local corner stores, addressing the problem of food deserts.

Many more organizations in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and other Michigan cities are reaching out and working toward creating systemic change in the food system. As we figure out how to best nourish people, fuel local economies, and steward the earth, we are hopefully shepherding in a new era where all people – including vulnerable children – have enough healthy food to eat.

First posted at Michigan NightLight on June 22, 2013.