Building healthier communities through food

Building healthier communities through food

DETROIT—Can a Detroit food business be socially and environmentally responsible and still be profitable? The short answer: yes.

FoodLab Detroit, a cadre of Detroit food entrepreneurs, is helping businesses do just that.

At first thought, FoodLab may conjure up images of backroom chemists trying to make a creamier chocolate bar or invent a new flavor of corn chip, but Detroit’s FoodLab is nothing of the sort.

In fact, its purpose is to connect and assist a diverse array of food businesses and help them find success operating in the city while being accountable to its residents. The group talks about triple-bottom-line food businesses, with the triple being profitability, social responsibility, and environmental protection.

FoodLab hosts monthly Food For Thought meetings to discuss the role of good food businesses in supporting a healthy community.

It's clear that everyone in on last month's discussion – 20 foodies, from jam makers and caterers to wanna-be pickle makers – had a strong desire to support a healthy community.

Using locally sourced, healthy ingredients is an obvious place to start, but that can pose challenges for businesses that make sweets and desserts.

Many metro Detroit businesses, like Treats by Angelique, Motown Freedom Bakery, and Sister Pie, make sweets that are meant to only be a small part of a person’s diet. Jess Daniel, founder of FoodLab, says that educating customers on how the food fits into their diet as a whole is an opportunity to educate consumers.

Pie maker Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie some day hopes to open a small café, not only serving pie, but healthy meals and snacks. As she says on her Facebook page, “I'm determined to do good every step of the way -- for my community and for people in need.”

Katie Kolbus of Motown Freedom Bakery makes baked goods that are free of common food allergens, like wheat and dairy.

Education also plays a part in creating a healthier community.

“Good food businesses support a healthy community by offering a range of products that are made with healthy ingredients, and also a huge part is the education component,” says Jess Daniel, founder of FoodLab Detroit.

Education is a passion for Vazilon Poinsetta of AVC Kitchens. She is launching a culinary school with a focus on nutrition and cooking healthy. For now she sells baked goods to keep herself afloat.

Until her cooking school is off the ground, Poinsetta is hosting free cooking demonstrations at an eastside library, teaching residents how to cook healthy with a box of pantry staples from a local emergency food pantry.

A local jam maker, Megan Heberlein, wants to teach canning so that community members can learn how to preserve cheaply priced produce when it’s in season.

Along with education, making good quality food affordable and accessible to all Detroiters is yet another way food businesses can make an impact on community health. But it’s not without its challenges in a sprawling city like Detroit.

Angela Dagle, soup maker and owner of Beautiful Soup, wants to her soup to be accessible to more folks. Two Midtown locales, Bottom Line Coffee House and MOCAD, carry her soups year round. She accepts Bridge Card vouchers at Farmers Markets in the summer, but wants to figure out how to reach Detroiters living outside of thriving neighborhoods like Midtown or Woodbridge during the winter months.

Dagle makes seasonal soup so she can buy ingredients from local suppliers, and continues to think about getting her soup into the hands of Detroiters living in outlying neighborhoods.

Another way food businesses can contribute to a healthier community is through supporting general good food policies and other organizations in the city that are working on healthy food access issues.

“So, even if you’re not distributing fruits and vegetables to Detroit residents, you could participate in a fundraiser for Gleaners Food Bank because you’re supportive of that organization,” says Daniel.

She says Detroit has a number of caring food businesses that make donations, host free events, or co-promote other food-based organizations that are doing work around healthy food and healthy food access.

“It’s pretty much the standard or the norm for a lot of our good food businesses, that they are supportive of these other efforts around the city,” says Daniel.

In terms of the standout businesses that are really helping to create a healthy community, Daniel says more than a few places come to mind.

There’s Fresh Corner Café, which delivers wraps and salads to corner stores and gas stations in an effort to have fresh, affordable food available to all Detroiters, especially those living in neighborhoods where good food options are few and far between.

Sunday Dinner Company is helping create a sense of community and supporting difficult-to-employ populations.

Tabia Coulibaly of Healthy Living Raw is passionate about getting folks to replace Doritos with kale chips.

Detroit Vegan Soul is another standout, with owners Kirsten Ussery and Erica Boyd dedicated to educating people about how delicious vegan food can be.

These are all examples of a movement that is clearly vibrant in our city, demonstrating that good food businesses do, indeed, contribute to a healthy community right here in Detroit.

Attend today's announcement from Growing Communities about expanding local food industries, job growth in Detroit.