Posted tagged ‘localization’

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 AnnArbor.com.  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.

Fridays at the Workantile Exchange

July 10, 2009

The work is already going on at the Workantile Exchange.  As described in a couple of Ann Arbor Chronicle articles earlier this year, this space at 118 South Main was set up by Michael Kessler as a co-working space where independent workers can share a space and some facilities while working on their own projects.  But as the management explains, this is neither a conventional business incubator nor a rent-a-cubicle operation.  Rather, it appears to be an attempt to create a deliberate community where independent entrepreneurs and creative workers can bounce ideas off one another (fortified by the Mighty Good Coffee that also serves as an entrance hall), find others who have resources and skills needed for a current project, and schedule meetings and classes (the facility has a couple of conference and training rooms).  “We’re here for anybody pursuing a project-driven career, whether or not it’s their full-time profession. There will be the expected “geeks” and “suits” among us, but also lawyers and artists, sales professionals and writers, teachers and filmmakers.”  For about $100 a month, you can buy access to this free-floating brainstorm. Today, the main room (the Café floor) had a casual but quietly focused air, with several low-tone conversations going on while others worked at laptops.  A tiled set of large Post-its on the wall asked for leads to people with specific skills or noted future discussions; “B corporations and IF-profits” looked intriguing.

The mutual training seems to be a big part of this enterprise.  To that end, the Workantile Exchange is hosting some public brown-bag lunch seminars, especially on Fridays.  It’s a good excuse to check out the real estate.  And the topics are mind-bending. The next one, presented by Bill Tozier, is “The Independent Film Model for Project-Driven Businesses” (having little or nothing to do with film-making).

Small Is Beautiful and Local Is Even More So

May 11, 2009

We have a rare opportunity on Tuesday, May 12 to hear Michael Shuman speak.  The lecture is free and open to the public, 7:30 p.m. in the Rackham Building.  Shuman is to goods-and-services-oriented businesses what Michael Pollan is to agriculture.  In his book, The Small-Mart Revolution, he sets up a dichotomy between “local ownership and import substitution” (LOIS) businesses, and the globalized “there is no alternative” (TINA) businesses that have taken over so much of American life.  His thesis is that we can live better and happier by supporting community-based enterprises and that the TINA businesses are responsible for many of our modern (economic) ills.  He calls the economy based on TINA “Wreckonomics”. The book was published in 2006, but remarkably enough says this in its first chapter:

“One of the central paradoxes of contemporary American life is that despite so much wealth and progress, we have never been so insecure.  Millions of middle-class Americans have taken advantage of low interest rates and borrowed their way to short-term stability, but we know that sooner or later this will come crashing down…Many of us are no further than one layoff, one major illness, or one national calamity away from plunging into a personal economic tailspin.”

He has many examples and prescriptions, and has continued the fight in many forums, as documented in his blog.  I’m looking forward to hearing him in person.

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”.

How Can Our Downtown Succeed?

May 1, 2009

A recent article in the Ann Arbor Business Review describes an increase in retail and commercial vacancies, with a drop in asking prices for rents.  This is good an indication as any that business is not doing very well downtown.  But what are the causes and cures?

There was some slight interest in the question of downtown’s retail success at the time that Ann Arbor was walking through the Calthorpe exercise (predecessor of the A2D2 process).  The organizers invited Robert Gibbs, a specialist in developing retail centers, to speak.  His talk was inspiring and enlightening – and as far as I can tell, his recommendations were ignored.  As I reported in an article at the time, Gibbs made the point that what really determines the success of retail businesses is—parking.  What do customers want?  They want to be able to park in front of the place they are going, or failing that, not too far away.  But parking is a contentious issue right now.  The DDA has been doing an outstanding job of building and maintaining parking structures, but this is expensive.  There is a strong push to discourage the use of the automobile to reach downtown.  This makes sense for commuters, who are coming to downtown presumably for the whole day, and the estimable GetDowntown program is there to encourage the use of bicycles and the AATA.  But it won’t help to bring shoppers.

Another factor that has been affecting our downtown retailers has been the surge in property prices and rents. We’ve seen a number of local stores that provided a good basic service leave or close partly because of rents.  With rents now falling, perhaps we will keep some of the remaining ones.  My belief is that the bubble in real estate speculation that characterized the whole country has affected our downtown by pushing up rents and the value of property that might yield a quick development buck.  Newcombe Clark is quoted in the Business Review article as saying, “One result of the falling rents is that downtown buildings will lose their value…Another is that new construction will become economically impossible because the rental rates won’t support the costs of building”.  Yes. Exactly.

The problem is that the business of downtown has become only the business of development.  The Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce (who surely should be looking after the interests of  business) recently issued a policy statement that, if adopted, would expand the built environment of downtown by developing it intensively up and out.  They are still trying for taller buildings and they are frustrated with all those troublesome historic districts.  And while we are at it, let’s make the area where we can build these big buildings bigger (goodbye, Central Area Plan).  But will this really make our downtown healthier?  I say no.  The opportunity to make money from development downtown has blinded us as a community to what makes the downtown valuable to begin with.  That is its character.  Alter the character too much, and no one will want to visit it.

Look at the images shown on the Main Street Association site.  What makes it attractive?  The old (aka historic) buildings.  Its wide walkable sidewalks, somewhat impeded by outdoor seating (European!), and nice trees help.  But the human scale of the buildings and their charming facades are what really distinguish it.

Last summer, the economic development specialist Donovan Rypkema (who specializes in commercial district revitalization and the reuse of historic structures) gave a talk in which the take-home message was very simple: if you want to develop a successful upscale community, historic preservation is an important tool because the young professionals you are trying to attract want that authentic ambiance.  I think I’m not stretching his point too much to say that this authenticity will also bring in customers.

Of course, it is also key that downtown should offer services that we want.   One of my favorite places to visit is Downtown Home and Garden, where I can buy stuff I actually need for gardening and cooking.   Now look at this business.  It is in a historic building.  It’s fun to go in there (even if the cat is not on duty).  And you can drive your car right into the building (or park in the adjacent privately owned parking lot).  Put that together with a good business sense of providing things people want to buy, and you have a successful downtown business.