July 2013 Newsletter Article

Q & A: Michael Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor Of Sustainable Agriculture At Michigan State University

Michael Hamm is the C. S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University and director of MSU’s Center for Regional Food Systems. The center brings together the research and outreach expertise of MSU’s agriculture, food science, health, nutrition, and policy faculty and staff in an effort to make regional and local food more available throughout the year. He talks here about the importance of the local food movement.

Q: Why is the local food movement important?

Regional food systems and locally grown food have direct implications for public health, national and food security, and economic development. Local “good” food means your food may be fresher and safer, that you are supporting the livelihoods of local farmers. We hypothesize that it is also helping to improve the resiliency and sustainability of our nation’s food system.

Q: What do you mean by “good” food?

We define “good” food as being healthy (providing nourishment), green (produced in an environmentally sustainable manner), fair (no one was exploited during its creation) and affordable (all people have access to it).

Q: How popular is this movement in Michigan?

We have seen steady growth in local purchasing by food service directors across institutions since 2004.

We have also seen a steady growth in the number of farmers’ markets, the growth in large supermarkets carrying local foods as well as the desire by restaurants to source from their region. This points to increasing potential for farmers to generate new business in these markets.

Q: How are farmers connecting with consumers?

Farmers are connecting with consumers in every way imaginable. They are connecting directly through farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture farms and on-farm farm stands. Some farmers sell directly to restaurants and food services within institutions. Local foods are increasingly purchased through full-service distributors as well as directly from farmers, farmer cooperatives or specialty distributors.

Q: Which institutions have been supporting this trend?

We have studied local food purchasing by K-12 schools most extensively, and our results show that the number of schools and districts purchasing local food has grown, with about half of schools now purchasing some local food, much of it fresh fruits and vegetables.

MSU also purchases locally, from the MSU Student Organic Farm and other local providers.

Q: What is driving schools to purchase food locally?

Farm to School surveys reveal that supporting the local economy and/or helping Michigan farms and businesses are top motivators for purchasing local food. Schools also are driven by desire for access to fresh food and high quality food. The primary barriers reported by school food service providers are the limited seasonal availability of items, food safety concerns and budget constraints. A survey of early childcare programs showed similar motivations and concerns. Though only about one quarter of early childcare sites purchased local foods, more than two-thirds of the programs surveyed were interested in connecting with local farmers.

Q: Are any other institutions getting involved in purchasing local food?

Many of Michigan’s hospitals are making efforts to purchase local food. As of December 2012, 114 of the state’s nearly 150 hospitals had committed to locally source 20 percent of their food by 2020 through the Michigan Health and Hospital Association’s Healthy Food Hospitals initiative.

Q: What is the outlook for Michigan’s local food movement?

Over the last decade there has been tremendous growth in local and regional foods, and these trends show no sign of abating. Analysis of the Michigan Farm to Institution results indicate that local food purchasing is a practice that will continue to grow among K-12 schools, early childcare and education programs and hospitals.

Farmers’ markets continue to expand both numerically and in terms of the breadth of products available.  The National Restaurant Association identifies a continuing top trend as local, hyper-local, sustainable and organic certified products. Food hubs, a strategy to link small and medium-scale farmers with broader markets, are emerging in Michigan and gaining Michigan governmental support. The ability of Michigan’s residents to purchase Michigan-grown products hasn’t been greater in the last thirty years and will probably be even easier in the near future.

Q: How can Michigan continue to support this trend?

Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the nation and is the leading producer of many healthy foods, including dry beans, blueberries, tart cherries and squash. We need to continue to develop strategies that make it just as easy to get food from a nearby farm as from the global marketplace. This will help assure all Michiganders access to good food while opening a host of entrepreneurial opportunities to Michigan farmers and food businesses.

Summaries of the Farm to Institution surveys can be found on the CRFS website. The Michigan Good Food Charter can be found here.  See more at MSU Today.