Archive for the ‘Local Food’ category

Why The City Should Support Project Grow

May 11, 2009

Ah, at last we have leadership for what counts in the White House.  Our president and his First Lady are getting their own hands dirty in the White House vegetable garden.  They are typifying the zeitgeist of an era where Michael Pollan is the prophet of eating fresh vegetables raised by one’s own hand and Alice Waters is the exemplar of their preparation.  Everywhere people are digging up vacant city blocks to enjoy the psychological and physical benefits of raising one’s own food.  So what does our city administration do?  It tries once again to cut off our very own community garden program.

On May 18, 2009, the City Council will either adopt a two-year budget, or the budget proposed by City Administrator Roger Fraser will take effect.  This convenient arrangement is apparently in the City Charter.  Fortunately, most years the Council has chosen to negotiate some changes to the administrator’s proposed budget.  Here’s hoping that restoring funding to Project Grow will be one of them this year.

As described in the Ann Arbor News article and a summary slide from the Townhall presentation, the upcoming year is budgeted at about $85 million in revenues, with the following year at about $82 million.  This puts the city into a deficit (expenditures exceed revenues by several million dollars).  So the administration plans to cut out the $7,000 only just restored to Project Grow.  I believe that the motivation for this and other cuts is to restrict the range of services offered to citizens to the bare minimum required by law.  It was also embarrassing to the administration last year when evidence surfaced that Project Grow had indeed requested funding, after it had been stated during budget discussions that they had not.

In an email to a councilmember, Jayne Miller (the Community Services administrator) explained the administrative reasoning behind the cut:

First, and in our view, most important, is the financial status of Project Grow.  Their fund balance, at the close of 2008, is at $59,849 or 98.3% of their operating budget for 2008 ($60,871).  Their proposed budget for 2009 shows a $63,994 operating budget with a proposed ending fund balance of $60,914 (95.2% of operating budget).   For 2010 they show a projected operating budget of $66,072 with an ending fund balance of $61,996 (93.8% of operating budget).  Also, the history of that fund balance has been:  2005 – $54,943, 2006 –  $62,924, and 2007 – $62,948.

Second, there are other “garden” non-profits they could consider consolidating with which may assist in reducing overhead costs.  It is our understanding that Matthai Botanical Gardens approached Project Grow about consolidating their operations, but Project Grow decided not to merge with Matthai.  Growing Hope and Food Gatherers are other non-profits they could consider for a merger.

Third, we do not provide support to any other “garden” non-profit and do not do a competitive review of “garden” non-profits to determine who should be funded, if any.

This is the most classic “doesn’t get it” explanation that I have ever seen.  Note the meticulous detailing of the projected fund balance for each year, down to the dollar.  (That projected fund balance of $66,072 included the city grant of $7,000.)  Huge numbers there.  Then the suggestion that Project Grow should merge with another non-profit.  Growing Hope serves mostly Ypsilanti and Food Gatherers has a huge job doing what it does now to feed the hungry.  Adding on a responsibility like managing Ann Arbor community garden plots would stress those organizations, and they would need more money to do it.  It doesn’t make sense.  (I am not close to the Matthei Gardens question, but I gather that it was a mutual decision not to have Matthei attempt to absorb Project Grow.)

Finally,  the competitive review idea is pure bureaucratese.  Such competitive reviews do happen where there are established programs with dedicated revenue streams (i.e., outside funding or a designated allocation from the general fund), and agencies respond to an RFP.  Human services are often provided in this way.  But Project Grow is a unique program and is the service.

I don’t need this service for myself.  Happily, I have a large back yard and an ever-expanding vegetable garden in it.  But there are a lot of people living in Ann Arbor who don’t have a place to grow their own food.  This is what Project Grow offers.  It is not a “garden non-profit”.  It is our community garden program. (Nelson Meade’s early history of Project Grow tells of the long hard work community activists have put in to achieve this, starting in 1971.)

I was on the Project Grow board briefly in the 1980s.  At that time, the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County pretty much supported the entire program.  (Even now, some of the gardens are located outside the City of Ann Arbor.)  Since then, the organization has engaged in fundraising by holding events and asking for contributions from the general public, though the economic reality is that this will not be likely to pay for expenses.  About half their income (around $25,000)  is from rental fees for the plots, though they have reduced fees for lower-income gardeners.

So what does that huge budget go for?  About two-thirds ($40,00) is for salary and payroll taxes – for two part-time people.  Their jobs are mostly about maintaining and assigning garden plots, working with volunteers, and putting together newsletters and events.  (There is not much “overhead” to cut – these are worker bees.)  The rest is for garden maintenance expenses.  (The city charges them for the water used, for example.)  Most of the gardens are on property owned by the school system.  At one time there were gardens on land owned by non-profits and churches, but most of those were lost to development.  Recently Project Grow has been trying to put some community gardens into city parks, but this has been slow.

City council has often been put into a reactive position on these budget questions – with the question of “so what would you cut” when there is an attempt to add programs back in.  But that is a false equivalence.  The budget is not that  precise, and the question is never asked when an administrative initiative is being funded.  For small amounts like the allocation to Project Grow, it really will come out in the wash.  (Or, to be more explicit, out of the fund balance.)

Council needs to take leadership on this issue, not just for what might be perceived as a narrow constituency, but because it is the right thing for our city.  We are supposedly a forward-looking, environmentally motivated city, poised to offer a quality of life that includes all the best current sensibilities for healthy young people.  Well, folks, this is one of them.  Here are some reasons community gardens deserve support from our leaders.

1. It’s part of building a local food system where food can be produced without a huge carbon footprint, because the broccoli doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles.  (Environment – green – got it?)

2. It’s good for adults who can have access to fresh food, plus the exercise and psychological benefits of growing it. (So is a legitimate addition to the range of recreational choices offered by our parks system.)

3. It’s good for the young.  The Agrarian Adventure is one example of a nationwide effort to make children understand where food comes from and how to eat a more healthful diet, by growing and cooking their own food.  But that needs to be available to all the city’s children. Project Grow has special programs devoted to teaching the young.

4. It’s important for self-sufficiency and social equity.  Our residents who are lower-income (and yes, folks, we still have them) should have a place they can grow their own food.  It can be an important part of the diet for someone on a limited income.

5. Project Grow has made an outreach to persons with disabilities so that they too can garden.

6. It is part of the authentic community spirit of Ann Arbor, as shown by its history (see the Meade account), and it is also a great community-building activity.

7. It is the latest greatest thing, and your President would approve.

8. It is so very little money.  Please.

The Local Food Scene (I)

May 4, 2009

Call it a movement, a subculture, a community, or just the latest big thing—among a growing number of us, it has become very important to be involved in some way with the effort to bring our food home.  I think I’ve always been there in some ways, but the emerging focus on the subject in Ann Arbor drew my attention a couple of years ago and inspired me to explore it enough to write an article about it.  Since then I’ve made a number of personal moves in the direction of sourcing as much of my food locally as I can (in addition to and aside from continually expanding my vegetable garden).  Today was a big one – I bought half a hog from a local farm (Ernst Farm in Freedom Township).  We saved a little money, but we also brought the frozen, packaged meat home from a 5-generation family farm where the dams and sire are outside sniffing at the fresh air, while the layer hens wander around the driveway.  We know where the meat came from and that it was raised without antibiotics, in a natural setting.  And its purchase means that the farm operation earns the money to keep going.

I’ve been impressed with the many separate and distinct efforts to address the issue of a local food system here in Washtenaw County.  They are being combined, if not coordinated, in local food “summits” and there is now a joint website and calendar for events.  Shannon Brines has been a strong influence and his website and blog is a good place to keep up with local and national trends in the sustainable food movement (with occasional diversions to discussion of carbon burdens).  Slow Food Huron Valley has also been active in coordination, together with one of its leaders, Kim Bayer, whose food blog often has excellent recipes paired with seriously researched and collated information about local food producers, environmental aspects of the sustainable food movement, and reasons to go to the Farmers’ Market.  Another source of energy is Emily Springfield, who has chronicled her own efforts to produce food as well as starting a group effort (Preserving Traditions) to learn traditional methods of preparing food.

I’ve only barely scratched the surface with this beginning of an introduction to the subject, and ignored a lot of important contributors and groups.  But you’ll be hearing more.  Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, you might pick up a copy of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.  That will give you a good idea of where we are “coming from”.

Knights’ ‘Hood

April 22, 2009

For a truly townie experience, do what we did last weekend and go to Knight’s.  It has been an occasional habit to stop by on Saturday for lunch and have one of their excellent hamburgers, often preceded by a cup of soup made on the premises.  My eye caught a modest notice on the door that this weekend (Sunday, April 26), there would be a 25th anniversary celebration of the restaurant from 2:00 to 5:00 with “complimentary hors d’oeuvres and cash bar”.

That was all the notice that anyone is likely to get.  Unless, maybe, you were already signed up as a “friend” on their website.  Even the website doesn’t have information about the open house and I’m pretty sure Knight’s has never, never advertised.  In fact, they don’t even have a sign.  If you don’t realize that the building on Dexter Avenue across from Veteran’s Park is a restaurant and not a private club, you might never enter. The only information you are given is the large image of a chess knight outside.

There really are Knights.  It is a family business and the patriarch, Ray Knight, is supposed to be at the festivities on Sunday.  His son Don Knight runs the restaurant now, while his brother Bob runs the market.

Oh, yes, the market.  It is another mysterious building with only chess knights to tell its story. Whenever I stop by for some of their excellent ground beef, I’m likely to run into someone I know (it is at Spring and Miller,  in my ‘hood).  I’m told that the business started with the market, where real attention was paid to the meat.  Then in 1984 the restaurant was opened.  They are still about the meat.  I interviewed Mr. Knight for an article I wrote on local food and learned that he brings in sides of prime beef that are cut on the spot.  The meat that doesn’t go to the restaurant is meticulously tailored into familiar cuts and laid out in an open cooler near the front of the store.  They also buy Amish chickens from a Michigan producer and cut them up themselves.  (If you ask nicely, they’ll save you the backs for making soup.)  You won’t find many inexpensive cuts there, but the few times we bought steak for special occasions, it justified the hype.  They also have bulk bacon and sausages in the cooler. You can request special cuts if you give them a couple of days.  Otherwise, it is much like a well-stocked convenience store except that they carry a few local items like Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory chips, Angelo’s raisin bread, and Knight’s own brownies.

As for the restaurant (which may be called Knight’s Steakhouse or Knight’s Bar/Restaurant, depending on where you look), it is solid good food, confidently prepared and deftly served.  The prices are reasonable for the quality and the drinks are a good value.  Going there for dinner is like shrugging into a comfortable garment, if you are able to avoid the smoke successfully.  (There are non-smoking areas and some nights they limit smoking to the bar.) Though beef is the main attraction, they usually have some very decent fish dishes, and those are usually what I select.  I’ve now discovered that the specials are posted on the website.  This caused me some grief when I read that they had the pork schnitzel with pierogi and red cabbage the other night.  Maybe next time.

By the way, don’t plan to go on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or any really special day.  Even weekday evenings there is usually a wait.  And be prepared to run into someone you know.  If you’ve lived here long enough.

UPDATE: According to the May 2009 Ann Arbor Observer, the market is now being managed by Sherry Knight Bedolla.  She is introducing some modernizations including more prepared food.  I’ve been noticing more fresh produce and other touches, but apparently more is underway.  The meat is staying.

UPDATE: We went because the appetizer special was the pork schnitzel plus the pierogies.  Wish they’ d make this a dinner special, with a red cabbage side.

UPDATE:   October 2011: I doubt that the Knights were reading this blog post, but they did put the pork schnitzel with pierogies and red cabbage on the regular menu!   (To see the Knight’s night’s specials, see their online menu , usually posted mid-afternoon.)  If you want a classic steak dinner or the other solid standards on their menu, you are in good hands.  Often my husband simply orders one of their hamburgers for dinner, with a side of salad and/or a cup of soup.  (Did I mention that their soups are superlative?)  They clearly have a chef working for them.  In addition to the rotating offers on the specials of the classic pot roast, roast chicken, turkey dinner, and meatloaf, there are often innovative or even daring specials, often with an Italian or Cajun twist.  Tonight the menu also includes the classics Shrimp Scampi and Trout Amandine.

Since the state smoking ban, Knight’s is crowded almost every night (Mon-Sat) that they are open.  A hint:  you can call ahead to put your name on the waiting list.  No, you’ll have to look up the number yourself.
Meanwhile, the market has also been undergoing upgrades, including a new automatic front door and a new meat cooler with expanded choices.  There are more and more local products and special fresh baked goods.

The thrilling news is that they are attempting to put a bakery in next to the market.  This is requiring a rezoning. From ETrakit:

“A proposal to rezone 306, 308, 310 Spring from R2A (Two-Family Dwelling District) to C1 (Local Business) to allow the residential dwelling at 306 Spring to be converted to a bakery use. No new floor area or additional parking is proposed.”

Please, Planning Commissioners, grant us this boon.  Think of how much those of us in the ‘hood will treasure having a Knight’s bakery within walking distance.  Please?

UPDATE January 2012

If you call ahead for a booth, it can be a very cozy place on a winter’s night.

UPDATE: Knight’s Market has finished a renovation.  Here is the new front door:

They have a new meat cooler, too.

UPDATE September 2012

As reported here by, Knight’s has received final approval of zoning changes that will permit renovation of the market and a new bakery and food prep area in the existing house on the property.  Great things anticipated.

UPDATE  February 2013 reports that Ray Knight, the founder of Knight’s and of a successful clan of Knights, died on February 16.  The article has a nice picture of the five Knight siblings who now run the operation, plus some good interviews with them.

UPDATE June 2013

A stunning move by the Knight family will lead to a downtown restaurant in the old Borders Building.  We don’t know details of the name, or the menu.

UPDATE October 2013

Chitchat with various family members and staff indicate that the bakery on Spring is on hold until the new restaurant downtown is established.

UPDATE January 2014

The Knights have now launched a website for the Liberty restaurant.   They are now scheduling interviews for new hires and forecasting a March opening.  They’ll be open on Sundays downtown.   Looks as though the name will be “Knight’s”.  (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)