Exploring Regional Food Systems

Reader Contribution by Rachel Zegerius
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 Hector Santos-Castro and Kelly Carty dish up the love in the CPC kitchen.

Camps across the nation are awash with activity, the sounds and smells of summer personified in first kisses, spiders, homesickness, swim tests, madball, zombie pranks, kookaburra, grassfed beef burgers with marinated kale salad…wait, what?….That’s right, grassfed beef and kale are just some of the vogue ingredients replacing the familiar camp foods of yesteryear. Today, many camps are serving up locally grown, humanely raised alternatives to the memorable green hotdogs and better off forgotten frozen tater tots. The New York Times pointed out this trend in “At Camp, It’s Not Grub, It’s Cuisine“.

Whether pursuing education, allergy compatibility, environmental sustainability or marketing to foodie parents, sourcing local and organic products on this scale is a challenge, albeit rewarding. When I set out to overhaul the food purchasing system at our small camp in Southwest Michigan five growing seasons ago, I began building relationships with the local farming community from the soil up.

What did that look like? A Kitchen Manager tasked with lettuce delivery from one farm on Wednesdays, eggs picked up from another at the Thursday farmers’ market, beef coolers collected from the Crane Dance Farm ladies between slaughters, chicken from one family, turkey from their cousins, non-homogenized milk from Mooville and, last but not least, raw milk cheeses from an Amish cooperative creamery north of town. The time commitment, cost increase and complexity proved substantial. And, each year I revisit our food purchasing system, looking for ways to tweak the ordering and transportation of produce, meats and dairy, with very little opportunity to streamline the process.  

From a foodservice perspective, it seems that our regional local food system is fragmented, at best. My question is this: How can we accommodate commercial needs, while supporting our local farms and sustainable growing practices? The USDA Economic Research Service notes that one of the main constraints to the entry and expansion of local foods is the “lack of distribution systems for moving local foods into mainstream markets.”1 Added to the issue of distribution is the high volume demanded by commercial users, including camps. Conventional marketing channels seem ill-equipped to supply the growing demand for local or regional food products.

However, I’m hopeful that change is on the horizon. The work of creative entrepreneurs, coupled with the MI Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s $1.9M in grant funding in 2012, is leading to better regional food systems:

  • Cherry Capital Foods is a unique food distributor based in Traverse City, MI that works with farmers, growers and producers to create efficiencies for food providers and customers. “One refrigerated truck, one delivery, one invoice – multiple, independent food sources.”
  • WIRED West Michigan is a creative approach in workforce development by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, designed to train farmers in the ways and needs of supermarkets and other large buyers. Classroom training, coupled with field trips, demonstrate methods that farmers are using to get buyers what they want, when they want it.
  • Many people point to the value of food hubs to address the problems of rural access. USDA’s working definition of a regional food hub is “..a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products…” Food hubs are sexy and these projects are popping up around the state, bringing new opportunities for producers and
  • The West Michigan Cooperative, started in 2006, is a non-profit organization providing farmers of Southwest MIchigan with an innovateve way to serve consumers all year long with the region’s first online farmers market.

Additional efforts being made to strengthen regional food systems are described by the Northwest MI Council of Governments and the Michigan Land Use Institute, in their publication “See the Local Difference: Regional Food Systems Become Essential Ingredient for Michigan’s Future“. Until these efforts migrate south and west in our glorious state, our camp will continue to source directly from at least ten separate local farms on seven days of the week, using a variety of transportation and payment options. And, at the end of the day, the extra effort and costs are well worth it.

Story Gilson enjoys a camp breakfast of organic Michigan blueberries and farm fresh egg burritos on sprouted corn tortillas.

The payoff is that kids are learning how to appreciate simple, whole foods over their processed alternatives, and training their pallets to taste the difference. Our food choices open doors to discussions about food systems, food justice and local food economies. Circle discussions, garden work projects and a hunger banquet accompany the many announcements made at meals characterizing the stories of people who grow our food. Mutualistically, we actualize our mission of social justice and environmental stewardship, while keeping kids healthy.

“Food is really creative and awesome,” says Annie Colburn-Jaynes, 12. “To think that the food we eat, we grow,” she says. “I eat my meals and think: I grew that; I picked that.” 

SOURCES: Barham,James, Debra Tropp, Kathleen Enterline,Jeff Farbman,John Fisk, and Stacia Kiraly.

Regional Food HubResource Guide. 2012. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service.Washington, D.C.April.