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FIC Team on the road: Ann Arbor / Ypsilanti Tour

Local food work has an amplified impact when we do it in collaboration with other local organizations. In September, the FIC team took a field trip to meet some of our counterparts across the state.

FIC Team on the road: Ann Arbor / Ypsilanti Tour

On the road!

This team works hard - chopping veggies, mowing lawns, harvesting tomatoes, and wrangling middle schoolers all summer. We love what we do and are always looking for ways to improve our work, to be more effective, efficient, and impactful. So, as a fun reward for a hard summer's work AND a research project to learn about what some of our sister organizations do, we borrowed Kalamazoo Valley's "Cougar Cruiser" van and set off down I-94 to visit some friends in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. It was a beautiful Friday in September, and we made three stops.

Argus Farm Stop - Ann Arbor, Michigan

Our first stop was the Packard Avenue location of Argus Farm Stop. Argus opened its first location on Liberty Street in 2014 and is a consignment-model grocery store and cafe. This means they stock local (Michigan-grown) produce, identified by the farm that grew it, and return 70% of the sale price directly to the farmer. A (delicious) in-store cafe that earns a 60% margin makes the money needed to keep Argus in business. The second location on Packard Avenue opened in 2018 and expanded into a second storefront in 2020 - the larger space allows them to also pack a fresh produce box for customers to order online and pick up in-store or have delivered.

Owner Kathy Sample sparkles with energy for supporting the local food system. She told us about how she and her staff carefully curate the product mix in the stores, helping farmers decide to grow what will sell best - and prioritizing "dirt farmers" (those that grow food outdoors, in the soil, as opposed to hydroponic growers). In part due to Argus's work to foster demand for local food, 45 new farms have started up in Washtenaw County in the last three years. This is an AMAZING reversal of a trend toward farm and farmland loss that most of the country is seeing. (According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, the eight Southwest Michigan counties lost 10% of farmland and 12% of farms between 2012 and 2017.)
argus cafe

 

Kathy cultivates ownership and excitement for local food throughout her whole business. All employees, from her food hub manager to every barista, must know how to cook and know the Argus story to be able to tell any customer who asks. It's evident that the staff come to work with love and energy, and the impacts are real.

Argus accepts SNAP (federal food assistance) benefits and participates in Double Up Food Bucks. They are glad to play a small part in improving food security for people in their community, but their priority is supporting agriculture. Every decision is based on what's best for the farmers. Keeping that north star in view helps them focus on their critical contribution to Washtenaw County's food system: creating and sustaining market demand for the unique, high-quality products that local farmers and makers produce.

Growing Hope - Ypsilanti, Michigan

Next, we went to Growing Hope, a 15-year-old nonprofit organization in Ypsilanti. They have two locations: the Growing Hope Urban Farm, a 1+ acre formerly residential lot at the border of the Normal Park neighborhood and Ypsilanti's South Side; and the Growing Hope Marketplace, a retail, event, and incubator kitchen space in the heart of downtown.

Growing Hope Center

At the Growing Hope Center, warm and welcoming energy radiates from every corner of the site. An enormous mural of flowers and bees adorns the 1920s bungalow that houses their offices; every imaginable shape and size of raised bed spills over with bountiful produce. Turmeric plants taller than our heads greet us as we walk into their passive-solar hoop house. Dayna Popkey, the Program Director, tells us that the produce grown on-site - largely cultivated by youth in a summer program - is available for neighbors to harvest from certain beds or to take freely from a harvest cart near the sidewalk. A smaller hoop house was used for seedling propagation in the spring - it's empty now but will be set up with tables, chairs, and fairy lights for a series of fundraiser dinners through the fall. In addition, one of Growing Hope's main programs works with families in the surrounding neighborhoods to install raised bed gardens in their yards and help them succeed with growing their own food.

The Growing Hope Marketplace is about a mile away, just around the corner from City Hall. The parking lot on site is the location of the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market on Tuesday afternoons. A local coffee roaster rents a small storefront that was formerly a gas station. The main feature is a warehouse-style building that houses a large open event space and an incubator kitchen. Dayna tells us the kitchen is used 24/7 by small food entrepreneurs who need licensed kitchen space to launch and grow their businesses. The indoor event space had previously been rented for parties and other events before COVID but hasn't been used much since; the organization is reimagining its use of that space.

In deciding how to focus energy and use resources - like the event space, and each garden bed, Dayna says Growing Hope asks, "Is this good for our neighbors?" and "Is this good for the people who are most harmed by the current food system?" Recognizing that organizations working to support urban agriculture and community gardening can often do as much harm as good to the neighborhoods where they work, Growing Hope tries to listen, respond, and work in service to Ypsilanti communities.

Interlude: some community context

To really understand Growing Hope and our next stop, The Farm at St. Joe's, you have to understand the inequity in Washtenaw County. Ann Arbor has a median household income of $69,000. Just 20 minutes' drive away, Ypsilanti has a median household income of $40,000. The 48105 zip code of Ann Arbor has a life expectancy of 89 years; the adjacent Ypsilanti zip code has a life expectancy of 67 years. The disparities are stark, and the work that's needed in each place is different. The organizations we talked to knew this and have built responsive, intentional, and place-based programs.

The Farm at St Joe's - Ypsilanti, Michigan

Our last stop was The Farm at St. Joe's, on the campus of St. Joseph Mercy / Trinity Health Hospital. The hospital campus is situated on 70+ acres of former farmland between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. In 2010, the former CEO Rob Cassalou announced that he wanted some of the expansive lawn returned to its agricultural roots. After a few years of start-up, the planners realized that supplying the hospital cafeteria with produce grown on site wasn't a reasonable goal. Since then, under the leadership of Regional Director of Farming and Healthy Lifestyles Amanda Sweetman, The Farm has evolved into a food hub and education center supporting diverse approaches to community health.

The Farm's produce goes to a program called Veggie Wednesdays, through which it is distributed to 10-15 Trinity-affiliated clinic sites and distributed to patients in the context of visits with their doctors. The Farm also runs a small farmers market in the hospital for staff and visitors. In 2016, a hospital resident who couldn't get to the market in its short lunchtime window requested a way to buy farm produce, and a Farm Share program was born. The farm share sources produce from multiple farms throughout Washtenaw County and passes on 80% of the price of the box to the farmers. In addition, paid boxes are available to hospital staff with means to buy them, and grant-funded boxes are distributed to food-insecure patients and households in the community.
AAYpsi Tour 4

Trinity is a nonprofit hospital system that has declared access to healthy foods an essential community health goal. Mental health, maternal and infant health, and healthy weight and diet-related disease are perennially the top three priorities found in Trinity's Community Health Needs Assessment studies, and access to healthy food addresses all three. In addition, part of Trinity's mandated Community Benefit expenditure covers operations and programs at the Farm - creating steady, solid support.

The link to the healthcare system amplifies the impact of the food access programs at The Farm. Every time a patient receives a farm share or Veggie Wednesday produce item, it is logged in their patient record. When physicians screen their patients for food insecurity, they have an immediately available resource to prescribe. (Most US hospitals and doctor's offices do a standard food insecurity screening for patients, but most have little to suggest beyond a referral to a local food bank or pantry.)

 

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Amanda generously shared information about a longer and longer list of impactful programs based at The Farm, as we grazed on fresh ripe raspberries and admired beautiful flower gardens and stately compost heaps. When I asked her what drives her planning around what programs to offer, she said her key question was:

Is this improving the vital conditions of our community? Food access, access to healthy outdoor spaces, access to care: these all improve vital conditions.

 

 

In addition to its Farm Share and education programs, The Farm has a "Growing Compassion Garden", where volunteers grow cut flowers for patients in the hospital. A staff community garden is so popular that it will be expanded next season. An accessible greenhouse is no longer used by an occupational therapy partner but is being remodeled for Trinity's outpatient therapy group to use. Field trips and summer camps, mostly offered to low-income students in Ypsilanti Schools, help create healthy, active, outdoor experiences for children in the community. The Farm is making a vital, vibrant space to support community health in multidimensional ways.

Takeaways - Joy and Connection

As we drove home, I kept thinking about the “north star” that each of our friends had pointed to, that drives their decisions and strategy: for Argus, it’s supporting the farmers. For Growing Hope, it’s nourishing the community. For The Farm at St. Joe’s, it’s creating the conditions for health and thriving. 

Here at ValleyHUB, we often say “Our #1 crop is education”. And I think that’s it - everything we do is crafted around what would facilitate learning and growth for our students and community. Through education, we improve livelihoods, we build community, and we shape our environment. In this way, ValleyHUB contributes to Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s mission: We create innovative and equitable opportunities that empower all to learn, grow, and thrive. 

We ended the day exhausted and energized, full of good food and “full of beans” (this is a phrase we learned from Amanda at The Farm, for the state of having so many ideas they spill out in all directions). 

We felt validated by sharing our challenges with fellow changemakers in the local food system. We were inspired by new program ideas, new plants, and new garden bed designs. We felt connected to a community of folks who are working together, even in our totally separate communities, toward a shared vision of a food system that supports us all in health and prosperity.

 

 

 

 

 

 


November 09, 2022
By: Rachel Bair, Director for Sustainable Food Systems
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