New Book Highlights Sustainability in Northern Michigan’s Food Industry

A new book celebrates the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and its work in making northern Michigan a leader in the local food movement.
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Photograph courtesy of Beth Price

It doesn’t get more local than Moomers Homemade Ice Cream on the west side of Traverse City. In a busy year, the creamery churns out 100,000 gallons of ice cream in over 150 flavors, such as Maple Walnut, Brownie Batter, and Cherries Moobilee. You can enjoy your confection in Moomers’ deck-wrapped parlor overlooking the 80-acre Plummer family dairy farm, a view complete with grazing cows to show you where your ice cream came from.

Moomers is a delicious example of how far the local food scene has come in Michigan. The state boasts one of the best examples of a “locally sustainable food economy” in the country. This means the residents consume fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, beer, and wine grown and produced within 100 miles of where they live. It’s a rejection of the industrial food system (nicknamed Big Agriculture), which uses unsustainable methods, harmful chemicals, and enormous amounts of fossil fuels to transport these products around the globe.

But over the past 20 years, a handful of food activists have championed an alternative: Small Agriculture. Chief among them is the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit in Traverse City. A new book, Shared Abundance: Lessons in Building Community Around Locally Grown Food, takes readers through Groundwork’s two decades of helping create a local food economy that’s respected around the nation.

In Michigan, a network of farms, restaurants, school districts, hospitals, and food pantries participate in this economy. Not to mention tourists: Visitors flock to the Traverse City region to sample delicious local foods as well as meet the people who grow, source, and cook them — along with the animals they’re sourced from.

This in turn encourages small farmers to stay in business — or get into it. According to Shared Abundance, local farm entrepreneurship has increased 36 percent in northern Michigan since 2002. Formerly known as the Michigan Land Use Institute, Groundwork has helped family farms forge the strategic business relationships they need to thrive, transforming an area once known for large commodity crops, like cherries (70 percent of the nation’s tart cherries are grown here), into the second most diverse agricultural region in the U.S.

Shared Abundance is written by Diane Conners, a former journalist turned local food advocate. She recently retired as Groundwork’s senior policy specialist for food and farming, but she leaves behind this coffee-table tome, with stunning photography of farmers and food by Beth Price.

Seven chapters cover topics such as marketing and connecting; farm-to-school programs; expanding food access and distribution, including as part of health care; and the infrastructure that’s needed to support it all. Each chapter concludes with a “playbook” of strategies for building local food economies anywhere in the country, as well as a recipe from a local farmer or chef. Shared Abundance is the story of a community that connects people to where their food comes from.

‘Shared Abundance’ tells the story of how the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a Traverse City nonprofit, created a local food economy in Michigan that’s respected around the nation. // Photograph courtesy of Beth Price

As Conners writes: “This book contains 22 years of stories and lessons about building economy and community around locally grown food.” These lessons have never been more vital as we battle global warming, the rise of chronic diseases, and food insecurity.

“Renaissance” might not be too strong of a word to describe the revolution happening in the local Michigan food scene, but the “grow local, eat local” movement started in 1971 in Berkeley, California, with Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ landmark eat-local establishment. Her goal was to share with guests the marvels of seasonal organic produce, harvested from local farms and her own backyard garden.

In Italy, Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food, an organization and movement dedicated to preserving local and regional cuisine. He was inspired by a protest against the first McDonald’s opening in Rome. An antidote to fast food, Slow Food was founded in 1989, expanded internationally in 1992, and is now in over 160 countries.

In Detroit, award-winning chef Jimmy Schmidt was another steward of the farm-to-table culinary movement. He was building his menus at The Rattlesnake Club around locally sourced and responsibly raised foods in the 1980s, well before anyone else in the region.

The Michigan Land Use Institute was founded by journalist-turned-environmental activist Keith Schneider in 1995. At the time, gas and mineral companies were incentivizing struggling farmers to retire and sell their land rights, and Schneider’s group helped preserve open land from urban sprawl.

In 2002, the institute published The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture, a report about the northern Michigan farming landscape, written by Patty Cantrell, founder of Groundwork’s food and farming program, and program director Jim Lively. They focused on the human stories behind small farms in the area, addressing their business hurdles at the community level. The authors also shared a vision for how small and midsize family farms could sustain themselves outside of commodity markets.

The report was the catalyst for creating the 2004 directory Taste the Local Difference. It was a marketing tool and guide for Michigan’s local food economy, highlighting local farmers in five counties, what they sold, and where they were located. Today, Taste the Local Difference, which is now a consulting, media, and marketing agency, covers all Michigan counties, offering business and marketing services and hosting an online directory of farmers and producers at its website, localdifference.org.

Daughter and mother Aarie (left) and Debra Wade of the Grand Rapids-based Baxter Community Center, which is supported by the 10 Cents a Meal program. // Photograph courtesy of Beth Price

While commonplace now, direct business arrangements with farmers were rare two decades ago. Taste the Local Difference drew the interest of not just chefs and restaurateurs but also the medical community, local food pantries, culinary institutes, and public schools.

Over time, the Michigan Land Use Institute (which changed its name to the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in 2015) broadened its scope to food in schools. Recognizing that the people who were raising their kids in Michigan wanted them to eat healthier while feeling connected to the land and the community, it created a pilot program to connect local farmers with school districts, called 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms. Every 10 cents a school spent on locally grown food for its meals was matched by Groundwork, increasing the amount of Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and legumes in school lunches.

Meghan McDermott, deputy director at Groundwork, saw the need for bringing local produce into schools just over a decade ago when she moved to northern Michigan from Chicago.

“When I came here, there were kids in the heart of Traverse City, with 97 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch, who had never eaten a local blueberry grown down the street from where they live,” McDermott says.

Some of the most affecting passages in Shared Abundance describe how children prefer locally grown food because it’s tastier and they know who grew it. No wonder the 10 Cents program has been a huge success; it’s now administered by the state of Michigan, and in 2022, the program was approved for $9.3 million in funding with bipartisan support from the Michigan Legislature.

The program matches grants, which provides opportunities for farmers like Nic Welty from 9 Bean Rows in Suttons Bay, who gets stable year-round revenue from schools purchasing local produce. To help meet demand, Welty founded a cooperative of 12 farmers growing produce on farms that range from 5 to 75 acres to handle ordering, invoicing, and distribution — the local-food ripple effect.

That effect reaches commercial kitchens, too. The Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City buys large quantities of food. Its “plant slant” curriculum emphasizes working with locally grown foods, with hopes that new chefs will enter culinary jobs and create new restaurants using this healthier mindset.

Groundwork also serves as a resource to improve food access for families in need. The organization buys local produce and other foods to distribute at meal sites and food pantries to support good nutrition. Using donations, Groundwork distributes funds in small $2,000 grants and collaborates with food pantries, churches, farms, schools, and other outreach-focused sites. It provides stipends and additional resources to 26 project sites across 10 counties to secure food access and work on other community initiatives in the northwest lower Michigan region.

In her prologue, Conners quotes writer, environmentalist, and farmer Wendell Berry: “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are [healed] by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”

Groundwork aims to change that. In the chapter on culinary medicine, Conners describes Groundwork’s efforts to bring nutritious produce to people with health problems, especially diabetes. Working with health care groups like Munson Healthcare and its eight hospitals, these initiatives teach patients how to eat healthier, trading processed, carb-heavy meals for those rich in nutritious local produce.

Above all, Shared Abundance is about people making a difference: farmers, of course, but also dietitians, chefs, food service directors, culinary students, teachers, and doctors. Consider Dazmonique Carr, who owns a hyperlocal mobile grocery in Detroit called Deeply Rooted Produce. She delivers food from six farmers within 10 miles of her home to schools, private residences, senior living facilities, and corner stores. With help from the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, she’s also buying lots in Detroit and turning them into urban farms, harvesting fruit trees planted by her ancestors who came from the South to Detroit.

“There are people out here who are homeless and hungry who don’t know that there are mulberries free for them to grab,” she says. “We have burdock root, borage, red clover, chicory, wild carrot. … There is an abundance available to us.”


This story is from the January 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.