Today, most Americans are disconnected from what is a natural part of life: planting and harvesting. Farm-to-table food. People surf the internet. They stroll through unending lines of shelves in a big box store. All to find food. Unfortunately, this has a detrimental impact on our health, and the environment. We are committing himsa (violence), most often mindlessly. Ahimsa (non-violence) is yoga’s first commandment.
Before the advent of all the jet, TV, or Internet, people were closer to nature. The connection between harvest and sustenance was clear. One ate what was available on their own, or surrounding, lands. As Gandhi urged, progress starts with one’s self. “Be the change.” When it comes to mindful eating, we must honor and respect what we consume. Likewise, we should refrain from needless slaying and torture of animals, and destroying our environment, all of which are examples of himsa.
I recently spent a few days in Ann Arbor, in part, to learn about its vegan-friendly, mindful farm-to-table movement. Michigan is a major agricultural state. In fact, it is the second most diverse state for farming, after California. Plus, there is a resurgence in getting back to the farm-to-table basics. Real food. Slow food. Local food. Non-violence.
A Michigan non-profit is encouraging local food for many reasons.
—First, more than a million acres of U.S. farmland is lost each year due to residential and commercial development.
—Second, a typical American meal travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to your table or car seat.
—Third, conventional food distribution uses at least four times more fuel than local and regional systems.
— Fourth, each dollar spent at independent local businesses returns three times more money to your community.
—Plus, if every Michigan household spent $10 per week on local food, $1.6 billion would be added to the state’s economy.
In Ann Arbor and neighboring Ypsilanti, there are a number of farm-to-table establishments.
Brandon Johns opened Grange Kitchen and Bar in 2009. “We are essentially a true local restaurant. We spend 90 cents on the dollar on local food. In the dead of winter, we fall down to about 70 percent. There’s a ton of greenhouses here that extend our seasons. It’s amazing what Michigan produces because of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. It’s not just cars.”
Travis Schuster is head chef at Ollie of Ypsilanti. He believes in putting money back into the community.
“My main goal with Ollie is to make locally and sustainably sourced food accessible to the entire community. I think that people respond positively to our sourcing practices because they want to feel that they are making a responsible decision when they chose to dine at Ollie. I hope that they are choosing to dine with us because they realize that we are taking their dollars and putting them right back into our community: whether it’s our staff who all live within walking distance of the restaurant, the farmers in our community, or the producers and artisans that are helping to shape and fortify sustainable Michigan foodways.”
Furthermore, Travis knows the farmers. The younger ones tend to be well-educated and idealistic. “There’s kind of a disconnect with the previous generation. The young farmers have longer-term goals. Not just the money.”
Lisa McDonald is the owner of a bakery and TeaHaus. She agrees with Travis’ statement about the new breed of farmers. She has hired several farmers in their off-season. One had a degree in philosophy.
However, Lisa not only hires farmers, but she also buys from them. She recognizes the hurdles small farm owners encounter. “It’s very expensive for small farmers to get the certified organic label. And, just because it’s stamped organic doesn’t mean they are. I’d rather know the small farmer. You know their practices, and what they’re selling.”
As Lisa noted, Brandon says it’s nearly impossible for small businesses to get national marks of approval. Case in point, USDA requires producers to have a dedicated bathroom for the USDA inspectors. While bureaucracy is working against these small businesses, the University of Michigan is on the local food bandwagon. The UM Campus Farm was established in 2012. The initiative is part of a plan to source food locally, or sustainably, by 2025. In addition to providing food for campus dining, the UM farm sells its produce at Argus Farm Stop, year-round.
Next, Argus is a business enterprise that was established to support local farmers, 12 months a year. Kathy Sample opened Argus*, a unique direct-to-consumer farmers’ market, inside an abandoned gas station. She’s well aware of the challenges small farmers have today and recognizes that most can’t make sufficient profits at the markets. Her business was launched to boost the local economy and give local farmers a practical way to survive and thrive.
In fact, more than 75 local farmers drop off their fresh crops. Kathy and her crew manage everything. That way, farmers can work their lands. The farmers set their own prices. And, the store only takes a 20 percent share. Since Argus is in business to help the farmers, a comfortable coffee house inside the Farm Stop is what keeps Argus afloat. Twice weekly, the local food bank picks up food that hasn’t been sold.
“We started (in 2014) because we saw 93 percent of our local farms were gone. We thought what if we started a real grocery store…and nice coffee bar,” Kathy recalls. “We hope to impact the agricultural community…The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 57. Most are telling their kids to get a job at GM. There’s a lot of reasons why we need to help farmers find a better way.”
As her fellow farm-to-table mindful restaurateurs noted, USDA doesn’t support small farmers. “Most slaughterhouses are gross and inaccessible for small farms. The big houses wrote the rules…same for eggs. We need to see a resurgence of small processing plants that do it humanely. If you’re going to eat meat you should care about how it got onto your plate.”
Everything is geared to industrialized farming, she says. American farmland just isn’t making enough profits. “The only way a young person can get land is if their parents give them money. Or getting people to loan you land.” And yet, there’s a continuing interest by the younger generation of idealists in the heartland.
Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are great examples of the slow, local food movement. There are 14 farmers’ markets, although most are not year-round. Additionally, there are 18 farms that allow public access to pick and take home produce like blueberries, apples, and pumpkins. Considering the county population is under 359,000, that’s a pretty good scorecard.
Most of us are aware of Flint, Michigan. Though not for their local food initiative. In addition to your traditional farmers’ markets, Flint has a mobile unit to take produce to underserved neighborhoods. Of course, like any local food campaign, it’s a win-win situation. Producers get more income to continue their hard work. And, consumers get better quality fresh food at fair prices without the middle man taking all the profits.
Wayne County, of which Detroit is a part. There are 29 farmers’ markets, 1,400 community gardens and urban farms. In fact, the Eastern market is one of the oldest in the U.S. and has helped to buoy the growth of others in the County. In some respects, Detroit is going back to its pre-automotive roots.
For example, one co-op began six years ago. Seven participating Detroit farmers refrain from using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. And, their soil is free of contaminants. In 2016, the co-op supplied more than 10,000 pounds of produce.
In the meantime, the Michigan Farmers Market Association represents 140 farmers markets and 220 farmers. Residents can pay with SNAP and WIC.
Finally, as Kathy says about the local food movement, “A rising tide floats all boats. It’s got to happen.”