Growing Concern

Melinda Curtis wants us to break the food chain by buying Michigan crops and boosting the economy

Five years ago, the Michigan asparagus industry was wilting. Most of the spears grown in the sandy soil along the Lake Michigan shore went into cans and competed for shelf space with Peruvian asparagus.

As the price for processed asparagus slumped, Michigan’s asparagus industry floundered. Just a few years later, thanks to the simple idea of putting fresh, regionally grown produce in local grocery aisles, Michigan asparagus farmers increased their fresh production from 1.5 million pounds to 4 million pounds annually. Today, a third of the state’s asparagus industry is plugged into the fresh market, says John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, and it’s been profitable.

That turnaround came thanks to the state’s Select Michigan Campaign and the efforts of Melinda Curtis, a program representative for the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Select Michigan Program and passionate food activist from Keego Harbor.

Asparagus isn’t the only Michigan crop that’s coming into its own with the help of Curtis and the MDA. Blueberries, potatoes, carrots, apples, sugar, wine, and Eden Organic Foods have worked with Select Michigan to stock grocery shelves and wedge their way into consumers’ consciousness. Ask Curtis what she’s most proud of and she’ll say: “I had an impact on a market.”

With the Select Michigan program up and running, Curtis has added another focus to her mission: uniting metro Detroit through local food. Her latest venture is the nonprofit Slow Food Detroit.

Curtis, who boasts that her family has been in Michigan since the 1830s, grew up in Bloomfield Hills and then left the state to study communications at Northwestern University. Following a career in public television in the 1980s, she returned to Michigan in 1989 for a job in marketing and communications. After witnessing a close friend’s struggle and death from cancer, she began researching food and discovered organics. Curtis, the daughter of a doctor, says “it shattered” her to see her friend die despite the best that medicine had to offer.

In the early 1990s, while embarking on a quest to find Michigan’s organic farms, Curtis envisioned rolling hills dotted with farms that produced everything from hogs to radishes. Instead, she was taken aback by the acre upon acre of corn and soy grown on large industrial farms.

Realizing that the food system was changing, and Michigan’s local production was at risk, Curtis decided to reconnect people with their food. She hosted a local radio show, worked with Whole Foods Market, and then joined the Select Michigan campaign.

The campaign was intended to reverse a trend in the American food chain, which had been responding to consumer demand for out-of-season and international products. Food on the dinner table was becoming more and more exotic. Last year, for the first time, the United States became a net importer of food. We now import 60 percent of our food from overseas.

Enter the local food trend, which in Michigan has grown exponentially in the last two years and could help boost the state’s economy. “If people are buying more Michigan products, there is more money in Michigan, and we’re helping support the [local] economy,” says Ted Handelsman, owner of Better Health Market, a local grocery chain that works with Curtis’ campaigns.

Curtis subscribes to that same economic theory. In 2006, she founded a local chapter of the international Slow Food organization. The goal of Slow Food Detroit is to help Michigan lead the nation in agricultural diversity and be known internationally for its culinary arts.
As its mission statement says, “Detroit is surrounded by affluent suburbs with infinite food choices and more master chefs per capita than any state in the country, but recently the city itself was labeled by a national study as a food desert, where most residents have to procure their food from local gas stations or liquor stores.”

Curtis envisions a city lush with community gardens that produce fresh fruits and vegetables for residents. She imagines greenhouses next door to office buildings and grocery stores that double as community centers. “We could be a great eating city,” she says, “We just need to come together and redefine ourselves.”

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