Event Review

January Member Meeting Feeds Ideas on Local Food and Economies

Food is a part of life that many West Michigan residents take for granted. However, for West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum members, local food production and sustainable food sourcing are clearly growing areas of interest.

Around 130 WMSBF representatives attended the WMSBF January Monthly Luncheon Meeting, held at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, which highlighted community-based food systems in economic development and community sustainability. Featured in the program was Dan Carmody, President of Detroit’s Eastern Market Corporation, who discussed the development of local food systems and the economic and community impact surrounding Detroit’s Eastern Market .

The lecture program also featured several local presenters, including Melissa Harrington, executive director of the Fulton Street Farmers Market, Cheri Holman of the U.S. Green Building Council West Michigan chapter, and Jim Horman and Craig Nicely, architects and practice leaders at Progressive AE.

Horman opened the meeting with a welcome and a quick rundown of Progressive AE’s approach to sustainability and architecture. He highlighted the importance of considering the environment when building, and also the need for an approach that looks at the social and economic impact of buildings, like the new Downtown Market Hall.

Cheri Holman of the US Green Building Council followed with an introduction to the Green Building Council’s Battle of the Buildings contest. According to Holman, Battle of the Buildings is a challenge to commercial and industrial building owners to maximize efficiency in gas and electricity use in the coming year.

Any organization can enter a building as long as the organization has energy use data from 2013 entered into the free EnergyStar Portfolio Manager resource use tracking program. Improvement will be based on the difference between the baseline Energy Utilization Index number (EUI) calculated from the beginning of the year and the EUI at the end of 2014.

“[The EUI] is similar to miles per gallon in a car,” said Holman. “It doesn’t matter how big or small your building is, everybody has a fighting chance.”

After Holman’s presentation, Harrington highlighted developments at the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market, Grand Rapids’ oldest and largest farmers’ market.

Harrington noted that the Fulton Street Farmers’ Market had been financially successful in recent years, with $1.75 million in sales in 2012. She also described how when improvements to the Market’s structure were needed, the community stepped forward with over 700 unique donations towards the $2.9 million goal.

Funds went toward stormwater management improvements, creating accessible bathrooms, and constructing a small indoor market space for year-round vendors.

“Since our capital campaign wrapped up, we’re increasing vendors and customer counts,” Harrington said.

“That says a lot for this city, how much they care and are invested in our market,” she said. “We feel so cherished that everyone feels some ownership in this market.”

Further planned improvements include improving transportation solutions and drawing more shoppers from local neighborhoods.

Progressive AE’s Craig Nicely continued the program with a description of different sustainable construction methods and materials that went into building the Market Hall structure, such as utilizing reclaimed wood and stone from the original buildings that occupied the Downtown Market site.

Carmody, president of Detroit’s Eastern Market Corporation since 2007, followed Nicely. He opened by describing the long history and organization of Detroit’s Eastern Market, which was founded in 1891.

“First, you must understand that we are not a market in a figurative sense, but a collection of markets,” said Carmody. “We’re a collection of markets with transient vendors—much like most of the remaining public markets from the old days.”

“Our goal as a food hub, our goal as an old-school public market is to become the most inclusive, resilient, and robust food hub in the United States,” he continued.

Carmody went on to discuss the mechanization of American farming and the surpluses it created—along with unintended consequences. While food costs have dropped to less than 10 percent of household budgets, sugar consumption—in the form of leftover corn being turned into high fructose corn syrup—has skyrocketed. Health costs for Americans have also grown as a result. Food deserts were noted as another unintended consequence of large-scale, industrial food production: Currently, only three percent of farmers are small-scale, direct-to-consumer producers. The remaining 97 percent are large-scale industrial farms.

“The cause and effect of unintended consequences is always with us,” said Carmody. “When you embrace the success of big agriculture, you have to embrace the unintended consequences.”

For Carmody, reducing the consequences of big ag is one of the goals of a more robust, local-based food system. Another is bolstering the local economy: if 20 percent of Detroit’s net imported food was produced within city limits, the metro area would gain 4,719 new jobs and over $124 million in increased earnings.

To meet this goal, urban farm engineers are looking not only at new vertical farming structures, but also at re-purposing old warehouses and big box stores to function as indoor growing areas.

Carmody also feels that markets like the Eastern Market should be able to provide vendors with ways to grow and produce new food products, including incubator programs with innovative solutions for equipment concerns. “You don’t need a kitchen to start an incubator program, because all our communities are filled with underutilized kitchens sitting in public schools, churches, and social buildings,” he said. Currently, ten different businesses operate out of two kitchens in the community around Eastern Market. Eastern Market also hopes to provide a “food accelerator” (a space with a fully functional industrial-scale kitchen) for businesses that want to expand their food product production to reach wider markets and build their businesses. Identifying new wholesale markets and creating more effective wholesale purchasing methods would provide new opportunities for produce sales, as well.

A final factor in Carmody’s work with the Eastern Market was to build the community and the place around the Market by working to create functional mixed-use spaces and neighborhoods. By supporting the community, a customer base and social base is built for the Market and the surrounding neighborhood to function.

“By building that consumer demand for food, and fixing the infrastructure, together in a systematic format we can move local food from three percent to 20 percent,” said Carmody.

Carmody’s presentation available here.

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