Archive for the ‘Local Food’ category

Local In Ann Arbor

September 15, 2018

Exactly ten years ago today,  the world financial system received a shock whose impact is still affecting the course of history.  This was, of course, the demise of Lehman Brothers. (For an excellent history and analysis of the effects of the financial crisis, see this recent article in the New Yorker (September 17,2018.)  I was not particularly surprised, though the roller coaster of those days affected me much as it did most people. But I had been anticipating disaster.  I read The Black Swan when it was first published in 2007. This is a complicated and difficult read, but its basic message is that simplistic predictions are likely to fail. Events can follow a chaotic path, which doesn’t mean jumbled, but obeying a mathematical course explained in the science of complexity (chaos theory). Taleb explains this at great confusing length, but he has one memorable metaphor (paraphrased below).  He suggests that we (were) due for a surprise.

If one uses past behavior to predict the future, consider the turkey. All is going well. He is protected from predators, fed well, given shelter and room to run. Day after day brings nothing but good news. Then comes Thanksgiving.  

Straight-line growth. It just keeps going!

This was especially meaningful to me because as a Washtenaw County Commissioner (1997-2004), I was exposed to numerous budget meetings in which the budget director continually pronounced that “the best predictor of the future is the past” and presented graphs showing that the County revenue would grow continuously in a straight line!  The early 2000s were the period in which we were battling sprawl – unrestrained development in rural areas.  The tax base was growing hugely and the resulting revenue was making the County look very rich indeed.  The message was that we could spend freely since the money would just keep coming and coming.  It became clear to me that we were addicted to growth. But growth must by its nature be limited and the rate of growth we were experiencing seemed unsustainable.  And indeed, by 2007 Michigan was in a severe economic slump.  (The period of 2000-2009 is now called Michigan’s lost decade.)

Meanwhile, there were other troublesome economic indicators. The price of oil had been rising steadily over the decade, reaching a price of over $160 per barrel in June, 2008.  As I confessed later, I had been a subscriber to dystopian thinking (including the peak oil concept) for some time. My response was to focus on concepts of sustainability (the classic concept, not the self-serving development concept).  I expanded my vegetable garden, began promoting the local food concept (see my Ann Arbor Observer article, Meet the Locavores), and began a blog, Voltaire’s Garden.  This is a reference to the French philosopher Voltaire’s often-quoted recommendation to “cultivate our garden” as a response to hardship and cruelty in the world abroad. This post, May You Live in Interesting Times, explains that history.  Note the emphasis on creating an island of survival and prosperity in the midst of scarcity and disruption.

Localization as an Academic Subject

The semester following the financial meltdown, I gained access (through my activities on local food) to an informal seminar series that was being conducted by some graduate students at the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) at the University of Michigan.  I don’t recall the title, if it had one, but there were many speakers, both invited and student participants, on subjects ranging from how to fight food deserts in Detroit,  to the futurist Nicole Foss, and others discussing everything from the coming energy crisis to how local farms might be established. (The pioneering farmer Richard Andres was a strong influence.)  It was a heady time, with the sense of a beginning revolution.  To me, the outstanding moment was a lecture by UM professor Thomas Princen on the subject of localization.  Dr. Princen’s field of specialization is economic and ecological sustainability and he has written several books.  Here is my review of one of them, The Logic of Sufficiency. It posits many of the same concepts of classic sustainability (with an equilibrium rather than growth) that I find so attractive.

Here is the handout that he passed out that day in February.  I found it electrifying.  It is a response to the evident financial stresses of the moment, as well as the impending energy crisis.  This is shown by the definition:

Localization is a process of social change brought on by unavoidable declines in available energy, as well by diminishing natural resource and waste sink capacities. Attention, individual and collective, is oriented toward direct relations, social and biophysical.

At the time I didn’t understand how controversial this might be. It pushes back against so many of the trends that we have come to accept in an age of globalization.

Each locality should solve as many of its own problems as possible and do so in ways suited to its own biophysical and social conditions. (and) Localizers should organize their own local food and water supplies before re-organizing the country or the world. If higher levels of authority are needed to ensure local provisioning, then one organizes at those levels. Otherwise, one looks inward to local capacities, local infrastructure and local needs.

This is basically the principle that the resilient communities movement adopts.  For a time, the international Transition movement was similarly oriented toward a self-sustaining community.  Here is my account of a local Transition organizing meeting (April 2009, in the same time frame as the discussion I have been relating).

And here is the recommendation that I truly took to heart.

Place-based Decisionmaking Principle: When critical life-support systems are at risk, key decisions should reside with those who demonstrate a connection and commitment to place, not with those who are placeless. This “residential” principle says that people who live and work in a community are more likely to represent community values, be dependent on the coherence and durability of the community in place, and know that place.

In today’s environment with the emphasis on equity and accommodation, this is likely to raise eyebrows, if not blood pressures.  And yet it is based on a “lifeboat” view of how a community may survive when the world is unfriendly. In its own way it echoes Voltaire’s island against the world.  If we once again experience food shortages and lack of sufficient resources to carry on a minimal standard of life, it may seem to be the only course.

Princen went on to teach a course in Localization for several semesters, using a textbook that a colleague, Raymond de Young (also an instructor in the course), and he wrote, The Localization Reader. Most chapters are by other authors, and some, like the essays by Wendell Berry, are classics.

Self-governance and the City of Ann Arbor

Note that the emphasis in the conceptual discussion of localization is on the ability of local populations to make decisions for themselves.  Thus, I determined to support the concept of localization in my writing and politics.  This was the reason for beginning Local in Ann Arbor. The neighborhoods are simply organs (in a biological sense) of the local community and its residents.  They have been fighting a rearguard action against those who would instead use Ann Arbor as a means to wealth, even if it means displacement of long-time residents.  (This was explained at length in my August 2018 pre-election post, The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor.)  Here is the plea I made in that post (emphasis added):

Some have accused the Neighborhoods of being elitists and implied that they are worse. But actually, the shoe is on the other foot.  The whole thrust and focus is to wealth creation at the expense of long-time residents, many of whom are not particularly well off. Who owns the city? Current residents and businesses, or a future populace who are not here yet? Should a small group of elected and appointed officials make all the decisions and determine the course of the city? Or should the citizenry be empowered to help set the course?

As I indicated in that post, the problem is that Ann Arbor has become so attractive a place to live that property can essentially be mined for “gold”.  Wealth creation is a powerful drive.

On to the Future

Conditions have changed since 2009.  Oil prices have gone down (but are going up again) and there have been a number of adaptations (renewable energy taking the place of fossil fuels even in commercial generation; a robust local food economy) that make our current state less perilous. But the rapid advance of climate change and global warming make worldwide, if not local, economic and resource availability uncertain.  We have an unpredictable chief executive in the White House and there are many changes occurring and more likely in the Federal structure that we have come to depend on.  There are skirmishes, humanitarian disasters, and migration surges everywhere.  Water shortages and infrastructure failures are an increasing concern.  I don’t think that cultivation of our garden (or our resilient local community) is yet uncalled for.

Still, I think that I have said enough in the support of localization (which was, after all, the purpose of Local In Ann Arbor).  I have a couple more things to get off my mind, and then I will be closing this blog and moving on to another project.  I’m grateful for the readership I have enjoyed over the last decade.

SECOND THOUGHTS: (September 2, 2020) Those who have been continuing to read Local In Ann Arbor know that I did not succeed in getting off this particular treadmill. A great deal has happened in Ann Arbor since I thought I’d “retire” to write a novel. And I’ve been there for some of it. In particular, I have found that I want to pursue the Ann Arbor Emergent theme. I believe that the solutions, or outcomes, of many of the issues we are now confronting will need to be resolved on a regional basis that acknowledges the importance and involvement of our adjoining and nearby communities.  That is where you will see some more contributions from me.

UPDATE:  Today (September 17, 2018) the Local in Ann Arbor scene took a couple of blows. Mary Morgan, the former publisher of the Ann Arbor Chronicle (an invaluable local news site) and founder of the CivCity Initiative (a nonprofit devoted to encouraging citizens to be involved in local government), has announced that she will be relocating and the nonprofit will be terminated.  Both of these highly estimable projects failed to attract sufficient monetary support from the public to make them feasible over the long term.  She will be missed. Bouquets, Mary, and I hope there is a good donut shop where you are going.

Steve Bean, who has been part of our local scene for many years (read about his run for Mayor) also mentioned as an aside on Facebook that he is relocating to parts unknown.  Here’s hoping he finds a suitable person to take over his permaculture garden.  Ann Arbor will be just a little less interesting.

SECOND UPDATE:  Mary Morgan’s exit interview by Concentrate contains this interesting observation:

There’s tension or outright hostility between people with different visions of what Ann Arbor should be. Those divisions are becoming fossilized. So now, rather than responding to proposals that should be debated on their merits, people are reacting to the individual who proposed the idea – trying to suss out whether someone is “with us or against us,” and then arguing based on those assumptions. It’s toxic.

I don’t know that I wholly agree, but this reflects some of my disillusionment with Ann Arbor politics. It has gotten just plain nasty.  One reason I am “leaving town” as well (though staying in place).

Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty III

November 24, 2012

As the title of this series implies and as we said in the first post, we are very fortunate to live here, and now.  Washtenaw County, Michigan produces a lot of food locally, the state of Michigan produces even more variety, and the United States has one of the most successful food economies in the world. (Here is a useful reference to our agricultural production.)  According to the state profile, Michigan ranks in the top 20 of the 50 states by some measures of production of many food types, and in the top 10 for many foods.  I suspect that the data for Washtenaw County are higher now than this  2009 profile shows.  (For an interesting discussion of what the numbers mean, see the comments in this Ann Arbor Chronicle article.)  According to one study, Michigan has a sufficiently diverse and productive agriculture to supply just over 50% of our food requirements.

From the presentation of “Full Planet, Empty Plates” by the Earth Policy Institute

Worldwide, food stocks are not meeting demand, and the trends are bad.  Lester Brown’s Earth Policy Institute has published a new book,  Full Planet, Empty Plates (quick facts summary here) that eloquently sketches a picture of increased population and decreased food production, especially where water supply is becoming limiting.  We are used to tales of starvation in countries far, far away, but it used to be said that the problem was one of distribution.  Now it is increasingly a problem of supply.  For example, Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth, had striven to be self-sufficient in food. Wheat is a critical crop for bread-based diets in the Middle East.  But now that the Saudi water supply has been used, it is becoming almost wholly dependent on wheat imports.  Recently the Saudis have been buying up land in Africa for crop production, displacing native farmers.

Grain to feed animals is an especial problem, since much of the developing world is now demanding a diet higher in meat.  But meanwhile worldwide grain supplies are failing to rise to the demand.  Let’s just look at corn.  According to World Agricultural Outlook Board estimates, the world began 2010/2011 with a stock of 145.29 million metric tons of corn at hand, and ended the year with 127 MMT.  But the projections for 2012/2013 are a beginning stock of 131.54 MMT, ending the year with 117.27 MMT.  The projected decline is doubtless partly due to the drought in the US.  While we began the growing season expecting a yield of 15 billion bushels of corn because of expanded, aggressive planting, recent estimates are that we will have harvested just over 10 billion bushels.  The USDA report says that this is the lowest production since 2006; further, on a per-acre basis, it is the lowest average yield since 1995.  Shamefully, we are set to consume much of this corn in our automobiles.  Despite pleas from state governments, the EPA has declined to waive the mandate for increased ethanol use in automobile fuel.  According to Lester Brown, last year one-third of the US corn crop was used to produce fuel ethanol.   The USDA predicts price increases for consumers of as much as 3-4% next year.  That doesn’t sound like much, but recall that for much of our population, income is likely to stay the same or decrease.

Remember that our commodity crops – even those produced in Michigan – go into the worldwide market.  So as the worldwide supply falls short, we will be competing on a world-wide basis for food – even that produced from American soils.  Lester Brown has summed it up this way:  “Food is the new oil.  Land is the new gold.”

But surely no one is actually hungry in the U.S., right?

So in spite of all these statistics, it is hard to imagine that in a country where most major health problems are now related to obesity, people could actually have difficulty getting enough food. But of course our country has been experiencing a steady growth in income inequality.  (See some chilling statistics from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)  For technical reasons, the word “hunger” is not used.  Instead, levels of  food security are measured.  The USDA has four categories, two of which indicate problems called food insecurity.

Low food security: reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.  (For example, if you were unable to eat meat more than once or twice a week, and could not afford to eat meals out, but were able to eat a sufficient diet so that you did not actually experience loss of weight or skipped meals.)

Very low food security: Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. (For example, food sometimes ran out and you had to skip meals or lost weight because of inadequate meals.)

The graph at right shows that 15% of Americans now experience some form of food insecurity – and nearly 5% say they have to miss meals sometimes.

Now imagine the effect of shortage-induced price rises.

So what are we going to do about it?

One thing is to support our institutions that help people get needed food.  The greatest of these is Food Gatherers.  They serve as a food pantry to get commodities to families in need and do food rescues.  But so often people who depend on food pantries for a substantial part of their diet find themselves eating canned food.  Food Gatherers has launched on an effort to see that fresh healthful food is supplied as well.  Another superb organization is Growing Hope.  They combine education and opportunity to grow your own food with a farmers’ market where several different methods of obtaining food through social programs allows people to have fresh food.   These two organizations keep people from being hungry while also supporting the fresh local food ethic that is what this movement is all about.

Another thing is to support our local farmers.  That’ll be in the next post on this subject.

UPDATE:  Michael Pollan’s tweets served up a report from the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the intersection between climate, politics and hunger.  “The Wheel of Life suggests these complex interactions help explain why, even though economic growth indicators have risen in many countries over the last decade, hunger rates have increased too, especially within the last several years.”  Here is a direct link for a download of the report:  The Wheel of Life: Food, Climate, Human Rights, and the Economy.

Note: Posts on the subject of food are listed on the Local Food Page.

Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty II

November 24, 2012

Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, October 2012

Good news: the local food movement in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County has built success on success over the last few years.  It really is a social movement in the sense that it represents a conscious change in the way we view food production and consumption, and is the result of individual and group actions by many people and different groups and institutions.

What is the motivation behind the movement?  Actually, there are several.

Healthful food 

The understanding that our food was being produced using too many toxic materials (especially pesticides) has been growing over decades and a demand for organic food is now well established.  There is a national organic certification system that has a mixed effect (not a subject for this post) but it is simple wisdom to “know your farmer, know your food” in order to be confident of how the food was produced.

Beyond the issue of toxics, the nutritive value of food is dependent both on how it is grown and how processed.  We now know that grass-fed beef is more healthful because of the fatty acid content, and fresh vegetables contain more nutrients than those that have been stored. And of course, the types of food consumed have a profound effect on health.  As Michael Pollan has thoroughly discussed in his book In Defense of Food, the Western diet is making us sick.  He has warned us against eating food that “your grandmother wouldn’t recognize” and boiled down the lesson to his now celebrated basic rule:  “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”   (“Food” here means recognizable food, not industrial synthetic “product”.  Twinkie, I’m looking at you.)  Locally grown real food is a direct way to achieve this goal.  This is the driver behind the “Farm to School” effort. The idea is to train children to appreciate fresh, real food, and to make it available to them through school food programs.

Tasty food

Slow Food, an international organization, has been an important impetus behind the local food movement.  Our local chapter, Slow Food Huron Valley, has provided a real brain trust and organizational center for the movement.  As their website says, “We inspire a transformation in food policy, production practices and market forces so that they ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.”  Note that last – the slow food movement is not just about the environment or helping small farmers, it is about the taste.  Part of the local food movement has been an epicurean interest in artisanal foods – food made by hand, locally.

Local economy

The local food impetus ties in to a larger quest for local economic vitality. The BALLE organization (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) exemplifies the effort to encourage  “human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life”.  This relates in turn to the concept of localization, the notion of creating self-reliant local communities.  This concept is the core basis of this blog.  For a comprehensive review of the concepts of localization, see the book The Localization Reader. This set of readings is used for a seminar on localization taught at the University of Michigan by Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen, who are the editors of the book.  The articles contained within have little to do with food and much to do with energy and philosophies of social organization.  Some of them are classics and some newly written by the editors.

Encouraging development of  the local food system is the focus of FSEP  (Food System Economic Partnership), which is housed in Washtenaw County but has members (counties) throughout the SE Michigan region.  FSEP has supported small food business development through education and expert assistance and is conducting a Beginning Farmer program through its Tilian Farm Incubator Program.

Grand Rapids is ahead of our region in using the food system for business development, with their Downtown Market project. (Read local blogger Mark Maynard’s take on this.)  Still, though we do not have an indoor facility, we do have a year-round Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market  with a venerable history (download pdf of history,  thanks to The Arbor Market) and a growing list of other farmers’ markets.

Washtenaw Food Hub, open for business

A really exciting recent development, the Washtenaw Food Hub, is now emerging as a reality.  It recently received a grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for continued development of the former Braun farm (4175 Whitmore Lake Road) into a center for commerce, education, food storage, food preparation and other system-building activities.

Ethical and environmental considerations

Making food choices has increasingly become, for some of us at least, a battle of conscience.  Our industrial food system has been very efficient at delivering relatively inexpensive food, but the cost isn’t just to our waistlines.  It is to the global environment and to other animal species.

As Michael Pollan outlined so well in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, our industrial food system rests heavily on the cultivation of corn (maize).  It is used in many industrial food products as a sweetener and source of chemicals, but most of all it is used to feed animals.  Zea mays is a very remarkable species.  It can be remarkably productive, partly because it is a C4 plant.  Many other grains, like wheat and millet, are C3 plants, which means that they have a defect in their photosynthetic mechanism which causes them to be very inefficient under conditions of high temperatures and water stress.  Maize loves those hot Iowa summers (with enough water).  But its cultivation requires high inputs of fossil fuels for high production.  So as we consume its products, we are also exacerbating our planet’s energy budget problem.

Some ethical considerations about food. Click for larger view.

Cattle are fed maize for rapid weight gain, though they are not adapted to be grain eaters.  This often happens in crowded feedlots where inhumane events are well known.   The animals are under stress during this time and at slaughter.  Chickens are also often caged under stressful conditions.  (California was the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring changes in chicken cage sizes.)  You don’t really want to hear about pigs.  All of these thoughts can affect your appetite.  (There are others; I discussed this in a post on a different blog some time ago.)

Thus, eating local food, in particular locally raised meat, eggs, and dairy, probably not only gives you access to better food but often to food from humanely treated animals.  Of course, the more vegetables (local of course) that you eat instead of these animal products, the more you win on both ethical and health grounds.

Community food security

And finally, the most important reason of all.  Food security means that people have enough to eat. We’ll discuss that at more length in the next post.

Note: Posts on this subject are listed on the Local Food Page.

Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty

November 21, 2012

Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, October 17, 2012

The Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to step back and reflect on our amazing good fortune to live now, here (Washtenaw County, Michigan).  We are truly living in a time of plenty.  And we are living in a region that produces a lot of food, good local food.  It didn’t have to be that way, and for so many people at so many times it hasn’t been. It is good to be mindful as well as thankful.

The holiday that has been debased as merely “Turkey Day” and worse,  Early Black Friday, may seem trite to us at the moment, when obesity is considered the nation’s major health problem and ready-to-eat food (at least in some palatable form) is available at every convenience store and strip mall.  But we should remember, at this time and always, that we are living in a privileged moment of history and in an exceptionally endowed food environment.  Don’t forget that the first “Thanksgiving” was a celebration of escape from hunger.  The Pilgrims who set off for the new world in the Mayflower in 1620 numbered 102.  In autumn of 1621, the 53 survivors celebrated the harvest.

As a country, we have experienced many episodes of mass hunger, despite having the wildlife and natural resources of an entire continent to exploit.  Most recently, the Great Depression was characterized by hunger marches and bread linesFranklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address (1937) is worth rereading.  (You’ll find some startling parallels to today, at least if you are of a liberal viewpoint. )

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. –Franklin Delano Roosevelt

My mother was a teenager during the Depression, a member of a family with 9 children.  She experienced hunger – not starvation, but the experience of never having quite enough and never being sure about future meals.  To the end of her life, she couldn’t bear to see food wasted.  Then there was World War II, with food rationing.  Finally, in the postwar period, Americans were able to have enough to eat.  But food was expensive. Michael Pollan, in his revolutionary treatise The Omnivore’s Dilemma, tells the story of how political pressures due to food prices caused a change in farm policy.  In 1973, there were supermarket protests after the cost of grain soared (we had shipped our stores to Russia, where there was a famine going on).  President Nixon instructed his Agricultural Secretary, Earl Butz, to make food cheap.  He did – and launched the American industrial food era by ensuring an endless supply of cheap corn.

I well remember those times.  I was a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, and we coped with the high price of food by growing our own vegetables, joining a co-op (it sold only bulk food), learning to eat mostly vegetarian food, and making as much as possible by hand and at home.  The price of a pound of hamburger doubled in a matter of months (it was like watching the stock market).  I read Diet for a Small Planet from cover to cover.  But then – things got easier.  Food became all too accessible. Prepared food of all kinds and restaurant meals became cheaper and there were fast-food restaurants on every corner.  As a nation, we relaxed and starting eating too much so that diet-related disease has become a crisis (children are now diagnosed with Type II diabetes, unheard of earlier).

Our relationship to food is complex.  It is one of our chief sources of pleasure.  It is something that we require for life.  It can be an addiction, a morbid affliction.  It has profound effects on health and longevity, the exact mechanisms for which keep changing, at least in the information we are provided. It is a chief means of celebration.  It is an ethical dilemma.  It can affect the generations to come (malnourished mothers have children who never grow as big). It is a social bond. Scientists have even suggested that cooking it is how we became human (more calories with less work, feeds big brains).  And of course, it is a business.  So it is difficult to come to just the right place with the subject, yet many of us became aware that something was wrong.

In this last decade there has been a rebirth of something worthy of being called a Food Movement.  The previous move toward homemade food and what would become known as organic food in the 1970s never really went away, but it was a narrowly observed cultural phenomenon until recently.  Now, with the influence of works such as Pollan’s book,  there is a new emphasis on locally produced food and away from the industrial food model. I was fortunate in picking up on this in the early days in Ann Arbor.  Here is the article I published in the Ann Arbor Observer.

(continued with next post)

New Local Food Page

March 14, 2012

Here are some new ideas.  Let’s grow our own food or buy it locally, preferably from small farmers and artisans, join a food cooperative, bake our own bread, learn how to cook without a half pound of meat per person, use a lot of fresh vegetables, make our own yogurt, cheese, pickles, jam, use lots of seasonings, often with ethnic origins, to make freshly prepared simple food delicious.

Oh whoops.  Those aren’t new.  That was my experience in the 1970s as a graduate student in Wisconsin.  We called it “pure food” or “natural food” then (the idea of “organic” was just getting wound up).  I read “Diet for a Small Planet,” spent some time volunteering with a group of people who formed a food coop (they drove a rickety truck to Chicago once a week to buy actual fresh vegetables, and got bottled milk from a local dairy), started a vegetable garden in a vacant lot behind my apartment, traveled to a small rural grocery to buy local cheese and meat, patronized farm stands whenever I could find them (Madison didn’t start a farmers’ market until about 1976), baked the bread, made the yogurt, the whole thing.  It felt real.  It felt organic in the classical sense.  We ate well on not much money.

So I was delighted to learn that all this was starting up again here in Ann Arbor.  Some will say it never quite went away, but it has a new lease on life with a new generation (and with the help of the previous ones; Al Connor, who helped start the People’s Food Coop in Ann Arbor, is still working on food policy).  I did some looking around in 2007 and wrote an article on the subject for the Ann Arbor Observer, “Meet the Locavores“.  Since then the Ann Arbor local food universe has expanded mightily.

I’ve revised and updated the page I have maintained on this subject, and The Local Food Page has a few useful links.  I’ll try to make it more comprehensive in the future.

Meanwhile, note that the Local Food Summit is on April 2 this year.  Better sign up if you plan to go.

Glorious in Ann Arbor

April 5, 2010

It was a glorious afternoon.  In trying to take it all in, I was inspired to try a haiku (a form I’ve never before employed):

Lunch by chance on State

Old stone cut by green space and bells

Goofy smiles on faces

Why do we love Ann Arbor?  It is a mix of experience and circumstance, individual to each of us.  But this afternoon exemplified it for me.

First, in anticipation of a matinée, we tried a new restaurant near State Street, Tian Chu  (they show the two syllables joined or separate in different applications).  It has been reviewed elsewhere but we had wandered in just as they opened.  Because the proprietor seemed so proud of it earlier, I chose the Bamboo Tofu and my husband chose the Bulgogi lunch box.  As noted by the linked review and our earlier chat with the proprietor, this family has lived in China (as Korean minority persons) and operated a Korean restaurant in Hungary.  They are truly cosmopolitan and the menu is an intriguing mixture of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese specialities, blended without apology as appropriate.  So my husband had as part of his Korean (main dish) meal, egg drop soup (Chinese) and I chose the miso.  Then we shared three Korean-style side dishes as appetizer, a clearly homemade kimchi (yes, Napa cabbage), mung bean sprouts with sesame oil dressing, and a light pancake with scallion.  My bamboo tofu was delicate, served in a bamboo section.  It was vegetarian, with a light broth (seasoned with chili and sesame), silken tofu, bamboo sprouts, and thin slices of green squash (zucchini, I think).  His bulgogi came with rice (as did my dish) but in the lunch box (a Japanese construct) were included a sweetish pickle and soybean sprouts, plus a slice of vegetable/egg sushi (Japanese) and two deep-fried dumplings (he said they were like Chinese spring rolls) and a sauce for dipping.  It all came with a special tea that the waitstaff said was based on several grains.  This in a tranquil peach-colored interior and with a ceremonial presentation.  Next time I want to try the Tonkatsu lunch box (a Japanese specialty) and then maybe the Mapo tofu (a Chinese dish I crave sometimes).  It was a lovely leisurely lunch.

We emerged into one of those magical spring afternoons. Early April and sunshine.  Some chain restaurants were closed for Easter but we were able to obtain ice cream at Amer’s, picking our way over the trash left from Hash Bash.  But who cared?  It was a lovely afternoon, everyone of every age I passed seemed to be in a daze and many of us returned smiles to one another.

Then slowly, slowly to the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in the Michigan League.  We reminded ourselves that this building originated as the women’s union when the male undergraduates wouldn’t let them into the Union.  But let’s put all that behind us.  It was too early to go in for our matinée performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, so we wandered about the Burton Tower area.  I realized that one part of the charm of the UM campus is that it provides copious amounts of green space.  I imagined myself as an undergraduate lolling on the lawn or leaning against a tree with a book (there were one or two but most gone for the holiday).  The UM provides allées, majestic sculptures and fountains (donated, not from taxpayer dollars), sweeping plantings, benches, and green, green, green. The buildings themselves have a monumental quality, set off by their surroundings.  I realized that nearly every building has either a major open space in its vicinity or a particular one closely associated with it.  There is a nice little area just at the Lydia Mendelssohn end of the League that has some benches, some plantings not yet in flower, and a winding path.  Some people in my general age range (plus) were clustered there enjoying the sunshine.  Meanwhile Burton Tower chimed the quarter-hour, then the half-hour.  There were not many other people around but whether they were pushing strollers or warming old bones, virtually every one had the same rather goofy smile that I’m sure I was displaying.  It was just a lovely afternoon.

Then to the performance.  It was another UMGASS production.  The University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society has been active since 1947.  I’m a member of FUMGASS (Friends of…).  There is a whole network of G&S societies across the United States and elsewhere.  It is a perfect fusion of students, University personnel, and community members in a labor of love and delight.  The artistic director  (Joshua Borths) of this particular performance wrote a preamble to the program explaining the ongoing importance of G&S in this time of troubles. “For me, the operettas of G&S convey life at its most innocent and love at its purest…the experience for the audience becomes one that isn’t found in the rest of our popular culture – an experience of pure joy”.

But another aspect is that this is one of the purest community endeavors that I am engaged with.  The audience is a wonderful intergenerational mix.  But the cast and production is all “amateur” (a term incorporating “lover”) – unless you count the budding professionals from UM musical studies who will add this to their portfolios.  Many members, though, are UM students or staff who have been appearing in these performances for years though their specialties are in other fields.  Others are simply members of the community at large.  From the staff and cast bios: “major in UM Vocal Performance and Musicology at UM” “Student services coordinator in the College of LSA” “Master’s Candidate in Orchestral Conducting” “Wildlife Biologist” “UM Professor Emeritus” “vocal performance and neuroscience major”  “a graduate of UM with majors in linguistics and physics, now in his 13th semester with UMGASS” “A mom, singer, and server from Philadelphia” “retired lawyer and law professor”.  I’ve left many out, apologies.  A longtime presence has been the Zinn family, including Karl Zinn in production and David Zinn, the local illustrator whose drawings have graced many environmental and governmental publications as well as UMGASS programs over the years.

This was one of the best-performed UMGASS productions that I’ve attended for a long time. (Not that I’m complaining.) All the principals were very good, managing the trademark G&S patter song beautifully, with good strong voices.  And the joy and pride were evident.

All in all, the day typified what is glorious about Ann Arbor.  Local quirky but serious business effort.  Community-based cooperative effort to celebrate a long-term tradition.  Beautiful campus opening even to us townies.  And the sunlight.  And the goofy grins.

Local Food III

February 21, 2010

Now that it is almost time for the second Local Food Summit (March 2, 2010; click here to register), it’s a good moment for another recap of the subject.  “Local food” isn’t just a tag, it is an entire set of philosophical concepts and world view.  It is also a powerful community builder; there is scarcely anything more fundamental than sharing food.  Individuals come to it from different directions.  Some focus on the healthfulness of fresh food, grown where you “know your farmer”  (thanks, Shannon Brines, though I don’t think you originated the phrase).  Some have invested personally in the concept of sustainability, as exemplified by the new permaculture blog hosted by  Me, I’m a worrier and though those other things are important to me, I’m thinking about long-term community food security.  Yet I also rejoice in the beauty of freshly grown vegetables and fruit and of the home-prepared dishes made from them, as wonderfully expressed by The Farmer’s Marketer blog.  (The latest series on that blog is a very useful review of the consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) opportunities in the Ann Arbor area, required reading for anyone who is trying to source more food locally.  It starts with this overview.)

Kolibri kohlrabi, from the author's garden. Good storage vegetable.

While buying food at farmers’ markets (or through CSA membership)  is a great way to be introduced to local food (and important in supporting local agriculture), growing one’s own food is a fundamental means for food security. I’m fortunate in being able to grow food in my own backyard (I’ve even committed a gardening blog, Voltaire’s Garden).  But not everyone has the ground, the sun, or the knowledge to grow their own food without assistance. The community gardening movement is essential to making this possible for people at all economic levels.  Ann Arbor’s Project Grow and Growing Hope, based in Ypsilanti, are important resources for this. As I’ve discussed at length earlier, Project Grow is a vital community food security resource for Ann Arbor. Reprehensibly and to their enduring shame, CM Hohnke, CM Greden, CM Derezinski, and Mayor Hieftje  voted against restoring a mere $7,000 to this year’s budget that would have helped Project Grow thrive in the future.  (Two CM were absent and 6 votes were needed to restore funding.  Thanks to CM Higgins, CM Briere, CM Teall, CM Taylor and CM Smith for voting to restore.) Project Grow has gone through some organizational changes.  The long-time director, Melissa Kesterson, resigned and new board members and new bylaws are in the offing.  A recent email from PG indicates that they are cutting the number of paid staff and increasing volunteer participation.  I hope and trust that they will be successful in maintaining community gardening in Ann Arbor despite cutbacks in grants from Washtenaw County and others as well as the city.  (They have a special fundraiser at Seva [314 E. Liberty] on Monday, March 29, from 5:00-9:00 p.m.; 20% of the cost of all meals purchased that night will go to Project Grow.)

Growing Hope is an Ypsilanti-based organization that is all about community food security.  They have a multi-pronged approach that includes promoting community and neighborhood gardens, training gardeners, starting plants for use in community gardens, and full-force support of the Ypsilanti Farmers’ Market (to which lower-income people can get coupons for purchase of fresh locally grown food).

Help in learning to garden and produce food is available elsewhere, too.  The UM Matthei Botanical Garden and Arboretum launched a major initiative last year and continuing it this year, called The Local Table.  They have an exciting class schedule that includes such things as growing mushrooms, keeping chickens and an ongoing support group for beekeepers.  (I’m really, really sorry that I missed the shitake mushroom day.)

Transition Ann Arbor has also taught food production skills at their “Reskilling Workshops”.

Food Gatherers, which is all about food security, started a growing program last year. They have a number of community partners who are growing food to supplement their own diets or the food distribution programs that the organization runs.  Food Gatherers also happily accepts the produce from home gardens.

Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) is a five-county consortium that is focused more on the small local producers and building a food system of producers, distribution, and consumers in Southeast Michigan.  Their annual conference this year is June 24 in Jackson.  Their website also has links to other exciting programs like Ann Arbor Township’s Small Farms Initiative.

Like so many gardeners and would-be gardeners, I’m starting to get out the seed packets and thinking about my planting schedule.  I hope that this spring can bring ever more local food production and a growing (pun intended) energy around this important issue.

UPDATE: I recently learned that Edible Avalon is showing a new spurt of energy.  According to the coordinator, Kris Kaul,  it is being conducted this year in conjunction with Food Gatherers, under a grant (I haven’t been able yet to find out from where).  The idea is to help tenants at Avalon Housing grow their own vegetables.

SECOND UPDATE: Here is a story on Ann Arbor Chronicle about the recent food summit.

THIRD UPDATE: There will be a fundraiser for Edible Avalon at Zingerman’s Roadhouse on April 11.  Here’s what the Zingermans’ newsletter says about it:

Join bestselling author and food visionary, Michael Pollan, at Zingerman’s Roadhouse for an intimate conversation about the revolution in food and farming underway in the United States. He will present a unique personal view of the forces behind the current headlines dealing with food and health. Part of the evening’s conversation will be based on questions from the audience. Proceeds from this fundraiser will support Ann Arbor’s Homegrown Festival and the Edible Avalon Project: a community garden program supporting low income residents in Washtenaw County in growing their own organic food. The event will also support the work of the Center for Economic Security in making “Growing Health,” a film illuminating the connections between healthy living soil and reduction in chronic disease.

Chef Alex Young will prepare a delicious selection of appetizers for the reception, using ingredients from his own Cornman Farms.

$500 – includes private reception with Michael Pollan, conversation & book-signing,
Package of Chris Bedford’s DVDs, and Pollan’s 3 books.  (This is at 5:30.)

$150 – includes the conversation and book-signing (Starts at 6:00)

The newsletter doesn’t give a phone number to call for information; I’d try the Roadhouse.

FOURTH UPDATE: Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) has some great training events going on this fall for people considering getting into growing for the market.  See here.

FIFTH UPDATE: The Spring 2010 Community Observer has a good article (not available online yet, see arborweb in a few weeks): Growing Closer by Michael Betzold.  It is about the efforts to have more small local growers produce food.

SIXTH UPDATE: Hoop, hoop, hooray! A great story about St. Joe’s using its resources to grow food for patients and the community is in the Chronicle (April 14, 2010).

Local Food Scene (II)

August 1, 2009

I spent a couple of hours yesterday doing what my father used to call “pearl diving”. Not much at the bottom of that bowl of soapy water but dirty dishes, though. I volunteered to help with the “Friday Mornings@Selma” event that Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe host in their home weekly. As the recent article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle explained, they have regularized their legal position by linking with Slow Food Huron Valley, a 501(c)(3) organization, so can collect donations for the breakfasts they serve to an eager multitude (recent weeks have seen as many as 120 people at their table through the morning).

I’ve sat at that table a couple of times in the past.  It is the place to be for meeting people involved in the local food movement. Matt Grocoff, whose main expertise is in green energy for the home, was next to me last time I attended. He has gained some celebrity because of his backyard chickens (he taught a workshop on backyard chickens as part of the Transition Ann Arbor Reskilling Workshop).  Kim Bayer,  Slow Food officer and food blogger is a regular (she is now doing a podcast).  Local food bloggers “rule” at Selma, actually – volunteering as well as eating.  Bayer was recently a guest chef and Shana of Gastronomical Three often coordinates volunteers.  This week, Jen of A2eatwrite was on the waffle detail.  Her Local Love Fridays is now a feature of  And the matriarch of local food bloggers – “Mom” of “Mother’s Kitchen” tries never to miss a Friday Mornings@Selma on her way to work.  Mom or “MK” is now organizing a canned good production project for Selma.  This week I met Jane Pacheco, the director of Chelsea Community Kitchen (a collective effort to have a commercial kitchen where local growers and cooks can make products that can be sold legally).  There are others, from neighbors to UM students to organizers of the Homegrown Festival.  It is always a lively conversation, and always there is much to be learned.

The kitchen is where most people are seated, with a large overflow table in the dining room.  But lots of people sit around the massive wood-topped kitchen island (nearly the size of a small room), while volunteers are working frantically at its other end to send breakfasts out.  There is little formal coordination of volunteers; people can sign up on the website, or calls for help go out by email when a need hasn’t been filled.  Thus, my encounter with the soapy water.   Somehow, it works, like a ballet with people bobbing and weaving as they pass each other on their tasks.   (Chefs, sometimes from well-known restaurants, also volunteer their time and there is usually a “special” or two.)

To some extent, Selma is a good metaphor for the whole local food movement, which is, especially from the outside, chaotic and disorganized.  It has been a matter of a few dedicated people presenting an opportunity to take part in the vision of clean, healthful food prepared by hand – and persuading others to join them.  The movement has bubbled up from the community, rather than coming from institutions.  It mirrors and shares in some of the values of “Transition“, which is also a local movement with national and international referents.  Competence (learning how to grow and prepare food) and values (making choices to focus on local and “sustainably raised” food) are important in both. Other important concepts are community food security (making sure that people in our community have access to fresh healthful food) and localization (building a strong local economy). But to me the important thing is that it is arising spontaneously and locally, through the actions of individuals and self-assembled groups.

The first event I attended at “Selma” was a fundraiser for Chris Bedford, a filmmaker who specializes in food issues.  Now Bedford’s latest film, Coming Home: E.F. Schumacher and the Reinvention of the Local Economy,  is showing on September 3 at the Michigan Theater.

The money raised by McCabe and Gottlieb is going to a “Small Farms – Small Farmers” initiative, primarily to buy hoophouses for new ventures.  These unheated greenhouses can extend Michigan’s growing season nearly to all year, as has been shown by local hoophouse pioneer Shannon Brines.  One of the people I shared my breakfast table with was a young woman who, with her husband, is starting a small organic farm north of Ann Arbor – and building a hoophouse with a grant from Selma’s work.  As I hung up my teatowel and left after noon on Friday, Jeff McCabe was working with a new group of volunteers, who will be working today to “raise” a hoophouse near Detroit – purchased in part by another grant from Selma.

Maybe there were pearls in that soapy water, after all.

Jerusaleum Garden and the Character of Ann Arbor

July 11, 2009

A visit to the Ann Arbor Public Library coincided with a need for a lunch solution today, so I stopped in at Jerusaleum Garden for the first time in a while.  They seem to have a new menu and are generally looking spiffy.  I sat in the adjoining patio that they share with Earthen Jar (a vegetarian Indian restaurant that sells its food from steam tables by the pound).  It was a perfect summer day, just hot enough to make welcome a languid moment watching passersby while surrounded by diners and potted flowers.  I was also pleasantly impressed with lunch – for $15 we got a fully loaded lunch for two (leftovers will serve for a couple more days).  The tabbouli had a number of chopped vegetables, including carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes in it, along with the required parsley in good proportion, and a light lemon dressing.  The falafel was not oily.  The yogurt salad was generously loaded with chopped cucumbers.  It was a perfect summer lunch in one of the places that gives Ann Arbor its special local character.  I hope that it is not endangered.

Think Local First has a really fun T-shirt that I first saw Steve Bean modeling at a Transition Ann Arbor meeting.  It says, “Keep Ann Arbor Funky”.  (Sadly, they were on sale at Shaman Drum, another special piece of Ann Arbor that just closed.)   I agree with the sentiment.  What is it?  “Funky” has gone through many meaning changes, including references to “funk” music.  But “characterized by originality and modishness; unconventional” or more simply, as another source gives it, “hip“, is what we are looking for here, along with an acknowledgment of a slightly down-at-the-heel character, as in the computing definition, where “(funky) is said of something that functions, but in a slightly strange, klugey way. It does the job and would be difficult to change, so its obvious non-optimality is left alone”.

Many of our beloved institutions (I’m thinking of eating places, but there are others) are like this – not always bright and shiny, but real originals that bring character to the town in a way that the newest “concept” can’t.  They are individual and irreplaceable, and they are being lost.  We have lost Red Hot Lovers (though it may re-emerge in another location).  We have lost Tios, though the restaurant has moved to McKinley’s Liberty Street complex.   Happily, Blimpy’s lives.

I can hear the boos and jeers now.   “Ann Arbor in Amber.”  (Jon Zemke of Concentrate pulled off a classic with his “amber NIMBY neighborhoods”).  Yet without anchors of its unique and personal character, Ann Arbor could be a moderately affluent suburb anywhere.   The Ann Arbor Chronicle has been finding a number of posts from other communities  (listed in their Old Media and New Media sections) where Ann Arbor is spoken of enviously.  Being called a living museum may not sound complimentary, but the artificial communities sometimes called lifestyle centers try to emulate it.  Other cities literally build theme parks trying to capture that sense of genuine character that we possess now.  (I was amused to note that Hyde Park,  the home of our current President, has Ann Arbor envy, though funkiness is not mentioned in the article.)

But can character stand up against the relentless press of development?  Look again at the picture of Zaragon Place looming over the hapless shell of Red Hot Lovers. The property has evidently become too valuable.  When the City Council begins to develop the Library Lot,  will Earthen Jar and Jerusalem Garden survive?  I hope so, else we will have lost a little bit of ourselves.

Budget Vote Tonight

May 18, 2009

Tonight (May 18) the City Council will approve Ann Arbor’s city budget. Amendments will be brought forward to “save” at least a few popular programs, though the scope of changes that the budget will bring will probably not be understood for months. Sadly, our city has been eliminating or degrading services for some time, while embarking on an expensive building program.

One of the programs on the chopping block is Project Grow. Actually, it will continue in some form even if the tiny $7,000 appropriation requested is cut. But this contribution by the city could make the difference between Project Grow’s ability to expand its operation and continue to enhance our community food security, at a time in our country and state when people are under great income pressure even as we recognize the fragility of our food supply. I hope that the Council will show good leadership in restoring this miniscule amount.

Here is the text of a message sent out to Project Grow supporters today.  It contains good information.

TONIGHT Monday, May 18 Sabra Briere is presenting to the Ann Arbor City Council a resolution for vote to reinstate Project Grow in the city budget for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

Please give one more push on behalf of Ann Arbor’s community gardens by contacting your council member and making your voice heard. Council emails and phone numbers are on the city website.

Here are some highlights of the resolution language:

Project Grow has been serving Ann Arbor’s citizens for 35 years, giving us all the opportunity to grow our own vegetables while working collaboratively with our neighbors. Project Grow gardens are scattered across the City, and are used by people of all means and all abilities.

Project Grow routinely collaborates with the following organizations:

Avalon Housing
Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department
Food Gatherers
Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation
University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens
Catholic Social Services
Ann Arbor Public Schools
Leslie Science and Nature Center

The list above does not include the many organizations that either volunteer in the Project Grow gardening programs or have plots in the gardens:

Michigan Community Scholars
University of Michigan’s Industrial Designers Society
Ann Arbor YMCA
Youth Volunteer program of America
Washtenaw County Juvenile Court
University of Michigan Indian American Student
University of Michigan’s Medical Students Association
University of Michigan Project Serve
Washtenaw County Youth Mentorship Program
University of Michigan Cultivating Community
Washtenaw County MSU Master Gardener Program
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources
Washtenaw Community College/ Project Grow
Hands on the Planet
Organic Gardener Certification Program
United Asian American Medical Student Association
Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts
Eastern Michigan University’s Sigma Theta Sorority
Rehabilitation Program United Way Day of Youth Caring
University of Michigan Circle K International
Washtenaw Counties P.O.R.T
Packard Clinic

Who uses Project Grow?

In addition to all of the organizations that use Project Grow, about 500 gardeners are annual members. Many more benefit from the produce, as well. The Project Grow gardeners I know give away tomatoes, squash, beans, basil, lettuce and other produce regularly. You may have benefitted from the bounty, as well.

Project Grow equals local produce

Ann Arbor’s citizens are embracing a new ideal and building a local food system where food can be produced with a smaller carbon footprint. More and more of our neighbors are becoming more aware that it is good for us all to have access to fresh food; it’s also good to get the exercise and psychological benefits of reconnecting to nature.

Project Grow equals families working together

Our young people have been described as having a ‘nature deficit,’ and what can be more magical than working with our children to plant seeds and plants, reap the harvest, and eat what we have sown?

Project Grow gardening equals opportunity and access

Project Grow’s sliding scale allows families of all means to work in the soil; both apartment dwellers and home owners use Project Grow gardens. Additionally, Project Grow’s innovative gardens for people with disabilities have opened new possibilities in lives that previously were limited.

UPDATE: Councilmember Briere’s amendment failed, with only 5 votes (Briere, Smith, Teall, Higgins, Taylor) in favor.  Rapundalo and Anglin were absent.