The local-food movement in northern Michigan no longer is simply a neat idea. It is fast becoming recognized as an economic necessity.
The problem is that the infrastructure needed to keep that food — and the dollars it generates — local has yet to catch up with the idea.
Part of the solution can be found in a nondescript building near the Traverse City airport. Inside, piles of boxes await distribution to stores by Cherry Capital Foods — boxes of Great Lakes Potato Chips, Northwoods Soda, Slabtown Coffee Caramel Corn, Food For Thought salsas and jams and Uncle Gene's Backwoods Pretzels. All made in the Traverse City area.
Five-year-old Cherry Capital Foods finds local markets for local goods to — in the words of Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture — "keep that dollar in the community, turn it over several times."
Grand Vision, a six-county public-private collaboration mapping out the future of northwest Michigan, has set a goal that 20 percent of food consumed locally comes from local sources. In addition, the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce is asking the region's hospitality industry make a similar 20 percent-local commitment.
Add this to initiatives setting aside 10 cents per meal to put local fruits and vegetables on the lunch plates of local schoolkids, a farm-to-school food program and a general retraining of buyers — from individuals to institutions — of the need to shop locally, and what results is an economic solution that caught the attention of Gov. Rick Snyder, who praised the collaboration during an economic summit in early March.
Douglas Luciani, president and CEO of the Traverse City chamber, estimates that more than $1 billion is spent a year in the area on events ranging from weddings and family reunions to luncheons and fundraisers. If all event planners and venue owners agreed to buy 20 percent of their goods and services locally, that's $200 million that stays in the local economy.
Creagh said the Snyder administration is taking a close look at what the Traverse City area is doing in creating a local economy — with food and agriculture front and center — with an eye toward using it as a model for the rest of the state.
"The governor has said, 'Show me a program that brings real value to real people, and we'll invest in them.' And so when the economy starts to recover, we're going to be looking at programs that actually make a difference," Creagh said.
But many challenges remain to create a truly regional economy. Part of the problem is the short growing season. One answer, Creagh said, is more greenhouses. But the biggest challenge involves infrastructure — it's still not all there yet.
An anecdote that Creagh often uses involves the Detroit Public Schools' lunch program. Michigan farmers recently began providing asparagus for the schoolkids. Unfortunately, the vegetables are first detoured to Indiana, where they are washed and packaged before being sent back to Michigan.
"That's unacceptable," Creagh said. "We have great food processors here."
Local processing is tricky, said Evan Smith, senior operations manager at Cherry Capital Foods — a company that Traverse City area leaders have said has been crucial in creating local markets by bringing farmers and customers together.
Take strawberries, for example, Smith said. As a summer crop, local strawberries are rarely available for school lunches.
"Yet the schools are sitting here screaming, 'My goodness, we would love to have local strawberries here.' Well, they're not in school when the strawberries come out," Smith said. "So, there's an example of infrastructure that's missing, abandoned or needs to be repurposed."
The answer, he said, is more freezers so excess summer strawberries can stay in the region and show up as frozen strawberries or in smoothies. But that would take a purchase of more freezers or repurposing old ones and a financial incentive to justify turning them on.
Serving thousands of schoolchildren, plus a general preference among consumers and institutions to buy local, could be enough to attain the critical mass necessary, Smith said.
Cherry Capital Foods thinks of itself as a facilitator of regional collaboration. For example, Smith said, a tiny company in Traverse City sells Li'l Terror Hot Sauce. Owner Lori Fletcher was doing so well that she had outgrown her habanero pepper supplier. Cherry Capital Foods hooked her up with more local farmers.
Sweeter Song Farms in Cedar is starting to produce more than its customers can take. Cherry Capital helps the farm find new markets.
The early adopters of the local-food movement were restaurant chefs looking for a competitive, creative edge. Next came specialty markets like Oryana Natural Foods in Traverse City, whose customers are more in tune with the movement. Next come institutions and larger commercial buyers. The farther away decisions are made, the longer it takes to get on board.
But the change is happening now, with the hospitality industry getting involved. Previously, little thought was given to where food came from, said Luciani of the Traverse City chamber.
Allison Beers, owner of Events North, a Traverse City event planning business, said about 40 to 50 hospitality businesses have signed up for the 20 percent program, agreeing to use local food, wine, transportation, photographers, flowers and other goods and services.
Luciani said everybody involved, from farmers to consumers, is more aware of how food is central to a booming regional economy.
"People know what it means to keep a dollar in the economy; how it affects our schools, our roads, our infrastructure, job creation," he said.
Smith at Cherry Capital Foods has a more personal motive. "What motivated me more than anything on this is watching all the college graduates leave. I have a son in Seattle and I have one in Chicago. I'd love to see them back here."