(This column continues a discussion about the importance of building a resilient local food system in a time of global food crisis. In Part 1, we focused on pantries, community and home gardens, and the emergence over the last decade of urban farmers in Lansing. This month, our focus is on current and emerging markets for locally grown and prepared food products.)
Along with their rural counterparts, Lansing’s urban farmers have found a convivial setting for selling their products in farmers markets. Twenty years ago, the region had two markets: Downtown Lansing City Market and Meridian Market. Today, mid-Michigan has 15 to 20! Most are a blend of rural and urban growers, and most also feature local makers selling breads, cheeses, sauces, jams and ready-to-eat items. The latter include participants in incubator and accelerator kitchens such as those at Allen Neighborhood Center. These kitchens provide entry-level food entrepreneurs with affordable kitchen rental and business mentoring; and they help build the local food economy. According to Matt Jones, ANC’s kitchen manager, “Eighty-seven small businesses have gotten their start in the ANC Incubator since 2014. Many have since opened storefronts in the region, contributing to more vibrant commercial corridors. These include Apple Blossom Kombucha, Sweet Encounters, Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale, Tatse and Tacqueria Chaparrito.”
Farmers markets are a celebration of the huge array of food items grown and produced within 50 miles of Lansing. Though most are open only one or two days a week and only a few are year-round (Meridian, Holt, Allen), they offer fresh, just-picked, nutritious products that are an alternative to the items on grocery store shelves that, on average, have traveled 1,500 miles and many days to get here.
While farmers markets are important venues for selling local food, most have limited hours and seasons. Enter the Eastside Lansing Food Co-op. Since opening last October in Allen Place, a new location for this 40-year-old institution, ELFCO has grown steadily and impressively into a hybrid food co-op and neighborhood grocery store. Open seven days a week, ELFCO has many traditional co-op features: bulk foods and spices, fresh local produce, a social mission surrounding access to food and a sense of community. (Note the frequent pop-ups, meet-ups, food sampling and community events at ELFCO.) To match the cultural and economic diversity of the community, ELFCO’s general manager, Sally Potter, works to offer a wide variety of products, featuring many price points. She notes, for instance, that “ELFCO carries 3 choices for a dozen eggs: $2, $4 and $6, and that is typical for every food category. We are also debit, credit and EBT-friendly. Most shoppers, by the way, are not co-op members; everyone is welcome to shop here.”
Most significant is that while several other grocery stores stock locally grown food on a limited basis, no other store in town has so central a focus on local food as ELFCO. Since opening last October, ELFCO has paid over $80,000 to small farmers and food producers in mid-Michigan. A fully stocked grocery store, ELFCO makes it easy for you experience a complete grocery shopping trip within what Potter aptly described as “its art-filled, calm and friendly walls.” (This week I ducked in to get Blue Mitten lettuce, veggies from half-dozen other local farmers, Felske’s strawberries, Mr. Leslie’s Cheesecake and cat food and paper products.)
Sourcing from local farmers and producers whenever possible will eventually (and hopefully) become the new norm, especially given MSU-coordinated farm-to-institution initiatives (e.g., schools, hospitals, dormitories). You can add to the momentum by suggesting local sourcing at the restaurants that you frequent and by shopping at grocery stores that prioritize local products (ELFCO, Old Town General Store, Capital City Market).
While the grim headlines about the global food crisis will continue, we can do our part as individuals, households, neighborhoods and communities to build resilience into our local food system — one that we can rely upon to supply nutritious and fresh food for our families and neighbors; support family farms (an estimated 400 within 50 miles of Lansing); and encourage the growth of small food businesses for many years to come — cities all over the world are doing the same. Groundwork in Traverse City has just published an inspirational playbook titled “Shared Abundance: Lessons in Building Community Around Locally Grown Food.” The book documents 20 years of building agro-biodiversity, small farmer capacity, and generally strengthening the food system in NW Michigan. There are very similar efforts throughout the state, nation, and world. In the words of the Post Carbon Institute’s “Great Unraveling,” “Influence cascades down from global systems, to nations, cities, households, and individuals — and also back up those same hierarchical levels.” Perhaps, the cumulative effect of all of us working to create local food resilience will be to change the headlines regarding what’s to come.
(Joan Nelson was the founding executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center. She lives on Lansing’s east side.)
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