Act: Inspiration

Food Can Make Michigan Great Again

June 7, 2017

I’ve lived next door to Michigan for most of my life, but its reputation (or my own simplistic stereotypes) kept me from getting to know my neighbor until recently. This issue of my newsletter, which features my reports from the field, is my apology for being such a bad neighbor all this time.

About a month ago, Lesli Hoey, a promising scholar, respected activist and beloved teacher of food planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, organized a mini speaking and meeting tour for me in the communities near Detroit and Ann Arbor.

I went thinking I could teach Michiganders a thing or two about how food activists could reach out to the community-at-large and use food to build social cohesion and overcome polarization. I left Michigan with a deep respect not only for the extraordinary diversity of what farmers grow there, but also the outgoing, imaginative and entrepreneurial energy of Michigan’s grassroots food scene — not to mention what Hoey calls the plain old “Midwest niceness” of its population.

The once-famous auto industry, and many of the Fordist-era heavy assembly line industries spun off from it, are largely in the past. But food production remains full of promise, and the food practices emerging within communities are way ahead of the curve. Michiganders need to host more food conferences so we can learn from them. (And the tourism department should help pay for the food conferences, and treat that as an investment in the state’s reputational capital!!)

I want to describe nine projects I saw there. If you don’t come away with at least nine new ideas you didn’t realize were practical before, that’s not Michigan’s fault.


My tour started in Ann Arbor, home to a highly respected university and a leading hospital, both of which account for the city’s relative affluence — a powerful case for the general argument I make about the central importance of anchor institutions in cities.

The University of Michigan — in addition to launching a campus farm, increasing the members of food system faculty, and expanding academic programs focussed on food — hosts free public lectures for food studies courses and all city residents on topics related to food literacy — a great form of community outreach that sets a standard all universities should meet in terms of giving back to their host communities.

(See here and here for more ideas to adapt to the university in your community. You can see the videotape of my session and talk here — and also see me using their great teaching device, a clicker that makes sure people pay attention. )

Mariah Van Ermen, a graduate student in public policy, gave me an insider’s two-hour walking tour of the campus, which looks just like my image of an old university campus: lots of trees (which the city is named after), public spaces, old buildings, including a magnificent law school, and the steps where US President John F Kennedy announced the Peace Corps — which captured the imagination of socially conscious youth during the early 1960s.


Unlike Canada, a much larger proportion of the US population lives in small and medium-sized cities. As well, the US has hundreds of universities in smaller cities and towns, and these become hideaways from the dominant culture where young people, intellectuals and activists hold sway — fertile soil for new ideas and experiments, especially around food.

As a consequence of widespread public purpose anchor institutions, many small and medium-sized cities in the US enjoy the cosmopolitan range of choices associated with creative cities together with the intimacy and human scale of a smaller community — a trend that has benefited Michigan and many other states.

I think Canada and the world can learn from this settlement pattern. An even sprinkling of small (under 50,000) and medium-sized (under 900,000) cities also makes it easier to provide affordable housing, to make a wider range of land accessible to beginning farmers, and to support local farmers who can sell to local markets without relying on monopoly-sized distributors and retailers for long-distance logistics.

Ann Arbor is a prime example of this trend. Aside from serving as a harbor for a score of top-rate mid-priced restaurants featuring local and sustainable meals, Ann Arbor hosts Argus Farm Shop, the most unusual farmers market — or is it a grocery store and coffee shop??? — I’ve yet seen.

Basically, the Argus Farm Shop takes a wide range of direct-from-the-farm goods on consignment from about 200 farmers. The farmers choose whatever price they want to sell their goods at, and the store keeps 20 per cent of whatever is sold to cover the costs of the store and the staff time providing consumer education on behalf of the farmers. The store pays nothing if the food doesn’t sell, which encourages farmers to be careful about how much they supply, thereby drastically reducing in-store waste.

For farmers, the overall deal is impossible, to beat. How many retailers offer farmers 80 per cent of the selling price of their food? (The norm is that farmers get about 17 cents on the dollar for unprocessed foods, and about a nickel for processed foods.)

The owners of the store, Bill Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample, estimate that Argus pays a million dollars a year to local farmers. About three-quarters of their customers live within a mile of the store.

They estimate that larger cities could support at least three stores like this, combining the freshness and directness of a farmers market with the convenience and access of a corner grocery store. This is the business model for a truly local neighborhood grocery store and café.


Ann Arbor also hosts a major national food organization, the Fair Food Network. Founded by veteran gardening and food activist Oran Hesterman, the Fair Food Network may well become one of the few progressive civil society organizations in the US to have a successful impact on the upcoming Farm Bill.

I had the pleasure of hearing Oran speak at a campus event one evening, and then talking to Fair Food staff for most of a morning. With one exception — due to deep differences in the basic social traditions of our different countries — I could identify no differences between views I evolved during my days with the Toronto Food Policy Council and the views of Fair Food Network leaders.

Oran describes the food system as foundational, a concept I recently became familiar with thanks to research by my wife, Lori Stahlbrand, and her colleague, Kevin Morgan of Cardiff, Wales. The foundational economy project in Europe links researchers promoting the appreciation of taken-for-granted services and jobs provided by people meeting our daily needs. Oran uses the term to talk about the “outsize impact” food has because of its physical and symbolic significance, and its impact on everything from personal health to social justice to climate change. “The food system is the basic system we have to get right,” Oran says.

And we have to talk about food and system in the same breath, he continues, the same way we talk about energy systems and transportation systems. That, in turn, means we won’t think of simplistic stand-alone solutions, such as shopping responsibly — as important as that is — but always link such actions with calls for policy change that addresses system issues. It’s only when we think about food at the system level that we can design programs to harvest all the wins that come from good food programs — for personal health of the eater, economic health of the farmer, social health of people on low income, community health of more convivial food arrangements, planetary health from local deliveries that require less fuel, and so on.

The Fair Food Network’s featured project supports the campaign to double down on food insecurity by doubling up the value of food stamps used by people on low income. The ask is that farmers markets and supermarkets kick in two dollars of fruits and vegetables for every two dollars paid for with food stamps, used by people on lower incomes throughout the US. Oran argues that this boosts sales at farmers markets, builds loyalty at supermarkets, improves the diet of people on low income, and provides a way “to pay the farmer upfront in order to avoid paying the doctor later.”

The program is now up and running in 20 US states. The Network is campaigning to build a non-polarizing coalition of all the people who favor healthier food choices for people on low income, and all the people who favor stable incomes for local fruit and vegetable farmers. Such bridge-building may carry the day during Farm Bill talks in 2018, they hope, and build on the success of the Networks 2014 campaign which netted $100 million for Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants. (For info on what they accomplished through the Farm Bill, see here.)

That’s exactly the kind of coalition-building behind unifying win-win-win objectives that food policy councils and Food Secure Canada champion North of the Border — our antidote to the toxic and divisive politics that have become the norm over the last decades, and one of the most positive contributions food campaigns can make to political discourse everywhere.

(The one exception I referred to above refers to the fact that Canada does not provide food stamps to people on low income because this is considered to be demeaning, betraying a lack of trust in recipients’ ability to manage their own expenditures in a responsible way. As well, Canadian social, educational and health policies are provided on a universal basis, and do not specifically target people on low incomes. As a consequence, food policy councils in Canada generally support universal programs, and do not have any policy on improving food stamps. To understand the difference in policy, a good book to read is this.)


I’ve known some terrific mayors in my day, but they could all learn from the green thumb and common touch of Amanda Edmonds, mayor of Ypsilanti and founder and leader of a non-profit gardening group called Growing Hope, which she manages for the first 50 hours of a long workweek.

More important than having other mayors come to meet her is having more food activists come, so they can see the excitement and value of getting involved in local government politics. She is an object lesson in what can be done by blending the energies of direct democracy with the disciplines of representative democracy. “This is where you learn that political capital is a real thing,” she says, “and that who’s at the table matters.”

In my book looking back at the time I managed the Toronto Food Policy Council, I identified gratitude as the major virtue of a food leader, and love for your little corner of the world, and a desire to make it better, as the ideal motivation for food activism. I think Amanda brings the same spirit to what she does. She says food and place-making (making places welcoming and special) go together. I would say a better description of her core belief is that food policy must be people-centered. Either way, she’s an exciting-to-be-around “people person,” which is the way most people in the region explain her political success.

Edmonds is also an action hero. She reminds me of one of my favorite personal slogans, which is that the food movement is very short of staff, so we need lean organizations where everybody punches above their weight. Edmonds is quite slight and her organization is quite lean, but that’s no problem because she punches way above her weight.

If you look at successful food organizations, you will see that they are almost always led by champions, who go above and beyond, who do many things well, and who are go-to people for anyone with a project idea. If you want to find someone with spare time to help you, the saying goes, go to the busiest person you know. Edmonds is a go-to person.

Slight as she is, lean as is her organization, the backyard garden behind her office is where the state of Michigan launched its Cottage Food Act, one of the more advanced efforts across the continent to kickstart micro-entrepreneurship in the food sector. There may not be a local factory looking to hire 1000 workers, but there are 1000 people willing to work hard serving a community need for delicious and healthy food, so let’s put those two facts together, and work from there.

Ypsilanti is a city on the outskirts of Detroit. It once echoed Detroit’s manufacturing greatness, and now echoes its decline. But like Detroit (more about that soon), Ypsilanti will be a case study in how food can make cities great again.

It’s great to see the Spring 2017 issue of Edible WOW feature her efforts to turn Ypsilanti into Ypsiplanti (actually, the name of a popular plant store!). She’s going to cultivate a whole city the way she cultivates community gardens, with hoop houses for the rainy and cold days, and helping hands and dig-in togetherness as the way forward. Ypsilanti is a great match for Amanda’s energy. It’s a community where people volunteer and give. They provided early volunteers for bee protection and for solar power, for example.

A tour of the new downtown market space with Amanda, when the new season-extending addition was about to launch — will be a bright spot among Michigan’s 300 farmers market — is a showcase of how Ypsilanti and its downtown will grow great, just like the Growing Hope gardens — inch by inch and row by row.


On the way to meet Mayor Edmonds, Lesli and I continued our quest to sample the range of local and independent craft beers Michigan has to offer — too many for one short trip, because Michigan is home to the fifth largest offering of craft brewers and brew pubs in the US, according to one source. You can sample some of them at Ypsilanti’s Cultivate, a welcoming non-profit tap house and coffee shop that donates any surplus revenues to anti-hunger efforts.

Cultivate looks like it was built to be a sprawling taphouse and coffee shop, with lots of space for people to set up their computers and a garden out back. A short time ago, it was a garage.

When they say the food movement is a transformative force, this is the kind of transformation they’re talking about.


Lesli and I didn’t get tired out from exploring the area around Ann Arbor. We got inspired out.

Just when we thought we couldn’t be more inspired, we turned up the driveway to Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, and found the trailer where Amanda Sweetman does her planning to create therapeutic joy for people healing and recovering after serious and disabling injuries. She does her work in a series of garden hoophouses that add an entire dimension to our understanding of food production as a growing experience.

One of Sweetman’s aims is to use the gardens to promote the health of staff and patients so there are a minimum of return visits for medical treatment. One of the powerful measures in the Affordable Health Care Act was financial penalties for healthcare organizations that didn’t do follow-up work to help patients mend their ways, resulting in released patients coming back for a repeat of medical treatment — a big risk for themselves, and unnecessary expense for the healthcare system. Gardening was a way of avoiding such penalties by introducing people to some positive activities and habits that could prevent recurrence of chronic diseases.

As much as Canadians like to celebrate the advantages of our public system for financing medical care, we could well take a leaf from the Affordable Health Care Act and institutionalize health promotion, as well as disease treatment. It should be the mandate of hospitals to promote health, not just treat disease, and one practical way for hospitals to practice health promotion is with gardening.

Another of Sweetman’s work objectives, she says, is “to create advocates for change at the personal and community level.” During the winter, the health center has hoop houses. During the summer, they have access to 340 acres, one of the largest hospital-based farms on the continent. The gardening is designed to empower patients and staff by teaching them how to change their own habits and how to become agents of change in their neighborhood.

Sweetman emphasizes that the food grown in her program is for therapeutic purposes only. It is not used to feed staff or patients at the hospital. That is the job of Michigan farmers, she says.

Sweetman then introduced us to the Cultivate Michigan Pledge, which left me in stunned silence, as I learned about its programs, supported by the Center for Regional Food Systems and Michigan Farm to Institutions Network, and compared them to the relatively empty and unfunded words of the Ontario Local Food Act in my neck of the woods. Michigan offers a model for anyone interested in promoting local food production and sales through purchases from public sector and public service institutions.

There are few such positive examples in North America of governments, universities and civil society partnering to identify public purchases as a tool for food system transformation.


Herb Barbolet, an old friend who introduced me to the food movement about 20 years ago, referred to the chance creativity that was inherent to any food gatherings. He called it “serendipitous synchronicity,” long enough to sound academic and goofy enough to make people laugh. The term means that people came together by chance while looking for a way to talk about their favorite topic, food, and realized they had enough in common to work together on an innovative food project.

The Detroit Food Policy Council partly arises from the serendipitous synchronicity of Anan Lololi, member of a Toronto-based Reggae band, knowing Malik Yakini, member of a Detroit-based Reggae band, many decades ago. They met again after Anan had become a leading food organizer in Toronto’s Black community and of the Toronto Food Policy Council, and Malik was a charter school principal looking for ways to become engaged in a community project. A short time later, at Malik’s invitation, Anan and I spoke to a meeting of Detroit city councilors, and Anan spoke to a community meeting Malik had organized, and Malik chaired the founding of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

The Council invited me to speak to members on the topic of “how to reach out beyond the choir.” I believe this is the most important challenge and opportunity facing the food movement. It is an opportunity because we have succeeded in making food, obesity, food insecurity, local food and organic food important topics of public, academic and policy nerd discussion. But reaching beyond the choir is also an important challenge because we have not yet been able to “get to first base” in terms of core funding of food programs, by governments, foundations, or investors; nor have we won the public support needed to move such an agenda. The fact that the Detroit Council understands this challenge is itself a major indicator of serious strategic thinking.

My approach to this challenge of reaching out to a broader audience hinges on two factors.

One factor hinges on the ability of a Council to identify the features of what I call a “quick start,” working with what are called “low-hanging fruit.” I’ll explain these two features quickly (they are explained in more detail in my e-book, Food for City Building).

A quick start project is one that enjoys political consensus and is not divisive or polarizing + provides multiple benefits to the economy, community, health and environment + has low start-up costs but fast Return on Investment + has administration in place and does not require an entirely new budget line or department.

Low-hanging fruit is a project waiting to happen because the costs of inaction are so high (think of the billions governments pay out now in order to landfill food waste) while the rewards for action are many and fast (think of all the benefits of a well-designed good school garden program).

After identifying the quick start to launch with, attention has to turn to the second factor, which hinges on the reality that every successful food project requires a champion — a person who exudes positive energy and has no axe to grind + a person who goes above and beyond in terms of energy, commitment and ability + a person with connections and stick-to-it-iveness to make things happen and be a bridge to relationships that make a campaign viable.

An afternoon brainstorming session should be able to identify at least five projects that meet these criteria, and the days of preaching to the choir are over, and the days of shouting from the rooftops (green roofs are a perfect example of a quick start, BTW) just beginning. Maybe the food co-op being organized by former Detroit FPC chair Malik could become one of these quickstarts.

I have every confidence that the Detroit Food Policy Council and its executive director, Winona Bynum, have what it takes to make this transition.


Lesli and I just had time to tour one project in Detroit — Earthworks, the hoophouse garden and bicycle repair shop hosted by Capuchin Soup Kitchen. There is a silver lining in every cloud, and the upside of Detroit’s tragic and totally unnecessary decline is that it offers an abundance of willing land and people willing to work it.

Shane Bernardo was our guide, and he showed us how two abandoned house lots and one abandoned business had been transformed into a 2.5 acre certified organic farm, featuring two hoop houses for year-round growing of greens, a bike repair shop which repaired abandoned bikes, and an office and storage facility. (Check out its history here.)

Everything was done in a mindful way. For example, the rain that fell on the hoophouse was funneled to a tank that irrigated the plants, machinery for which ran on solar-powered electricity. The soil used to nurse seedlings, many of which were produced for neighbors to use in their home gardens, was made from composting food scraps from a nearby food bank and mixing it with wood chips from tree branches cut down by the local utility. They provide 100,000 transplants a year to support 1400 members of a Garden Resource Program, which is dedicated to a food-sovereign Detroit. “Our purpose is to grow local leadership and ownership of the food system,” Shane told me.

There are 70,000 abandoned homes and sites in Detroit, legacies that can still rise from the ashes of mistaken policies of the past. Earthworks is a beacon of how this land can be reused to produce food, shelter, community and hope once again.


I was surprised to learn that Michigan has more food policy councils than any state or province on the continent. Leaders of many of these councils, members of the Michigan Local Food Council Network, met the day before I left, and gave me a chance to speak with them.

One feature of this Network, which others across the continent might do well to imitate, is that support for the Network is provided by the Center for Regional Food Systems and its director Rich Pirog. This is an example of one form of core funding that can be provided to food organizations by the government and public sector.

The food movement, largely based in civil society, is desperately lacking in funding because the goals it pursues rarely provide a revenue stream for one beneficiary who will therefore invest in it. Instead, food movement projects usually benefit a wide range of people, none of whom are exclusive beneficiaries. Consequently, the food movement is starving for funds because it benefits so many people — the problem of “collective action failure” brilliantly analyzed by Mancur Olson. One function of government is to overcome such collective action failures and “market failures” by funding organizations with whole-of-society mandates and benefits, thereby enabling them to do their work. One way for governments to channel such funding is through organizations such as the Center for Regional Food Systems.

Anything that I or anyone else said at the meeting was overshadowed by the good cheer and positive energy at that meeting. That kind of energy just waiting to land, and one place it landed was at the lunch table where Rich and I sat. By the end of the lunch, we and Lesli had hatched a plan for a research project that could win food policy councils their place in the sun of local communities.

I hope to report back to you on the hatching of that project in a few months.

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, food policy councils