By Jennifer Schaap, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, with additions by Lindsay Mensch, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems
April 18, 2018
How do you change a food system? It’s a big challenge with a lot of energy behind it in Michigan as more people and organizations are supporting the local economy and community health. But small things can have a big impact, like creating a platform for growers and suppliers to meet institutional food buyers who are feeding a large slice of the population—our schools’ students.
“Farmers and food service directors are some of the busiest people,” said Meghan McDermott, Groundwork’s food and farming program director. “The work seems never-ending and they are always being asked to do more. It makes it tough to find time in the day to reach out to new contacts and develop new markets.”
In order to provide that platform for local and regional food suppliers and institutional food service buyers to network and connect around local food, the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS), Ecology Center, MSU Extension, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, and The Flint Fresh Food Hub organized four Cultivate Michigan Marketplace events across the state this past February and March. Cultivate Michigan is the local food purchasing and tracking campaign of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network, led by CRFS.
Peer-to-Peer in Petoskey
The Petoskey Cultivate Michigan Marketplace on February 13 hosted more than thirty participants, including farmers from Charlevoix, Emmet, Antrim, and Chippewa counties, along with buyers from dining halls, school food service, and senior centers in the region.
"I was glad to connect with a local senior center,” said an Emmet County vegetable grower. “I don't grow large quantities, and the scale they are looking for on their salad bar might be a good match for our farm."
Food service directors at the event shared ideas with one another, including how they serve healthier options and reduce waste. School food service staff from Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties, for example, compared strategies for serving milk—a rare opportunity, as they aren’t usually in the same space to have these types of conversations. Peer-to-peer learning is a secondary but invaluable part of events like these.
“This event was an effort in getting the right people in the room at the right time so they could explore and find a good match in a low-pressure, mingling scenario,” McDermott said. “New farmers are creating their businesses in the Northern Farms Foodshed (Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet counties), and we’d like them to stay and feed the community the most nutrient-dense, good-tasting, local food possible.”
High Attendance in Ann Arbor
On February 22, buyers, farmers, and suppliers convened in Ann Arbor at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The food suppliers represented a range of counties: Washtenaw, Livingston, Berrien, Monroe, Hillsdale, Oakland, Genesee, Midland, Isabella, Wayne, and Grand Traverse. Most of the institutional buyers came from Washtenaw County.
Jae Gerhart, the Washtenaw County Food Systems Coordinator who co-hosted the Ann Arbor Marketplace , held a similar event in winter of 2017. “This  event was very similar in terms of festive atmosphere, layout, organization and pre-planning, etc.,” said Gerhart. “The main difference was that this event was tailored specifically for food service buyers.”
Of the fifty attendees, about eighteen were farmers, twenty-two were institutional purchasers, and ten were regional buyers. Among the institutions represented were K-12 public schools, early care and education settings, food banks, higher education institutions, youth detention centers, and private food service companies.
The high attendance at this event suggests that the marketplace format works well for these busy professionals, and is worth their valuable time. Without an event like this, institutional food service buyers would have far fewer opportunities to connect with farmers and food vendors.
Victoria Davis, Director of Food Services at Ypsilanti Community Schools, said that “connecting with new farmers” was the main reason this event was worthwhile. Davis connected with some local meat vendors who she will order from this summer for school district barbeques and special events.
Food Access in Flint
The Flint Farmers Market was the venue for the February 28 marketplace. More than thirty people participated, including public school districts, a variety of regional food banks, and the Flint Fresh Food Hub. Attendees also came from Lansing, Detroit, Flushing, Durand, and many other cities in Southeast Michigan.
The twelve buyers at this event had two hours to connect with fourteen farmers and six food suppliers who provide food grown, raised, and processed in the state. Clearly, the desire to share in the local food economy is present in numbers like these.
“This was the most comprehensive ‘Meet the Buyers’ type event that we have held in Flint, because of its regional framework, drawing buyers and suppliers from a very wide area, and bringing them together exclusively to make connections to increase local food purchasing in our schools and other institutions, including our new food hub,” Terry McLean of MSU Extension commented. McLean was one of the local co-hosts for the Flint marketplace.
The Flint Fresh Food Hub, which was one of the Marketplace buyers, is set to open in June 2018. Developed from the success of the Flint Fresh Mobile Market and the Veggie Box subscription program, it will be a center for the aggregation, storage and distribution of locally grown food. The food hub will play a key role in making it easier for institutional food buyers in Flint to conveniently purchase high quality, locally grown produce, meats and dairy products.
Erin Caudell, who tabled as a purchaser for the up-and-coming food hub, commented, “It was helpful that we met some new growers and we were able to get them signed up and part of our [purchasing] process so that this year we’ll have a wider variety of produce to choose from. Because of the extra advertising, we were able to pull those new growers in that might not have known about us before.”
Growing Good in Grand Rapids
On March 1, farmers, buyers, and suppliers met at the Blandford Nature Center for the final Cultivate Michigan Marketplace. Despite the snow and icy roads, over twenty people attended. Thirteen buyers, four farmers, and five suppliers from this region of the state participated in the networking platform available at this event.
The host of the event was Garrett Ziegler of MSU Extension. With his contribution, he was able to draw regional attendees by providing a local flavor for this event.
Colleen Matts, who coordinates Cultivate Michigan and the Michigan Farm to Institution Network, was one of the team members who organized these events at the state level.
“The marketplace events [connected] buyers and sellers of local foods on a regional basis. They also helped to uncover partners and practitioners interested in farm to institution that we didn’t know before, which helps expand our network of people working to help farm to institution programs grow throughout Michigan,” said Matts.
Overall, the events met the goals that the planning team had set. The platform allowed for a diversity of networks, institutions, farmers, and vendors – big and small – to join together in working toward the goal of sourcing 20% of institutional food products from sources within the state of Michigan.
In case you missed the Marketplace events this year, Matts mentioned the intent “to host another series of Cultivate Michigan Marketplaces in the coming years, including with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.”
The four statewide Cultivate Michigan Marketplace Events were supported by the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Michigan Farm to Institution Network. To learn more about the Michigan Farm to Institution Network visit mifarmtoinstitution.org. Institutional food service buyers can join Cultivate Michigan at cultivatemichigan.org.