Equity in the Food System

This is the second of two articles on the Michigan Good Food Summit, which took place last October in Lansing. Mode Shift spent some time at the conference, talking with those who care about Michigan’s food and agriculture economy and who hope to see better access to nutritious, affordable food.

J.R. Reynolds believes the food system in Michigan is broken, and he’s working to change that every day.

Reynolds, coordinator of Good Food Battle Creek and director of the Calhoun County Race Impact Alliance, was thus an apt facilitator for a Michigan Good Food Summit breakout session on Equity in the Food System: Facing Race and Poverty.

Panelists convened from different corners of the state, from urban Detroit to the more rural stretches of the Upper Peninsula, sharing how they work intentionally to address disparities in the food system for people living in their communities.

Session panelists included Noam Kimmelman, co-owner of the Fresh Corner Café in Detroit; Lisa Oliver-King, executive director of Our Kitchen Table in Grand Rapids; and Barbara Smutek, extension educator at MSU Extension in Sault Ste. Marie.

Kimmelman runs a fresh food delivery system, which he, admittedly, is still fine-tuning. He sells healthy, fresh, ready-to-eat food items, like wraps, salads, fruit cups, and pastas to 18 Detroit corner stores and gas stations. He started with 36 stores, but had to pare that down to serving 18 stores in order to contain costs. The stores that are still involved are well lit, and the owners are engaged and supportive of carrying different food.

The project has its challenges, like how to position fresh food amongst the Red Bull, hotdogs, chips and sodas. “We have to separate it within the store – create a fresh food oasis in a store of junk food.

Also, it can be difficult convincing customers that eating a fresh salad out of a corner store is safe.

But Kimmelman isn’t giving up. He’s considering putting a similar model in local workplaces to earn funds to help subsidize the corner store program. So when employees purchase a salad or wrap in their workplace, they’re supporting getting fresh food into Detroit neighborhoods.

At the heart of this work is Kimmelman’s interest in overturning the proverbial applecart when it comes to the unsettling correlation between poor access to healthy food found in lower income urban neighborhoods and diet related disease, like obesity and diabetes.

Across the state, Lisa Oliver-King also wants more opportunities for fresh, affordable food for people in low-income communities and communities of color. Working from Michigan’s second-largest city of Grand Rapids, Our Kitchen Table offers farmers’ markets, cooking classes and home gardening instruction in urban neighborhoods. The nonprofit also addresses other health and social justice issues, like lead poisoning and air quality.

Oliver-King says, “When we look at environmental justice and food justice, we look at capacity-building and power.”  That power, in turn, can translate into helping communities decide how to achieve greater equity. She espouses that better access corresponds with healthier eating; in other words, people aren’t choosing junk over healthy food. It’s just more available.

In the eastern Upper Peninsula, Barbara Smutek has observed firsthand the exploitation of people of color through her work with the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program through the Michigan State University Extension.

“The thing with tribal nations is that there are inherent rights, but if you’re completely reliant on someone else to feed you, how sovereign can you be?” asks Smutek.  “I do believe when it comes to food, it comes to power. If you take away access to food, you take away power.”

The U.P., west Michigan, and Detroit all struggle with issues around equity in the food system. There are still many low-income folks who live in urban neighborhoods of color or scantly populated rural regions of our state who are without opportunities to buy fresh, affordable food.

This inequitable access to healthy food is a serious contributor to health disparities. Through creative individuals and programs, and caring and passionate individuals like Smutek, Oliver-King and Kimmelman, Michigan is working to move the needle on providing nutritious, affordable, high-quality food to all residents.

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