Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Panel Discussion: From the Farm to Your Fork

18. February 2008 • Juliew
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Local dinner

Why Local Food Can Make Us Healthier, Happier and More Secure

Monday, February 18, 7:00-8:30pm

Ann Arbor Downtown Library, Multi-Purpose Room

A joint program from Slow Food Huron Valley and the Ann Arbor District Library:

Food is powerful! We need to eat every single day and the choices that we make determine how our world is used. Among the most powerful things we can do to create a secure community and a healthy family is to eat and buy locally grown and produced food.

This event spotlights perspectives from luminaries in our own food community. Featuring local farmers Annie Elder and Paul Bantle, Chef Alex Young (chef and co-owner of Zingerman’s Roadhouse), dietician and Farm-to-School Coordinator Ruth Blackburn, and UM research scientist Dr. Catherine Badgley. Along with a big-picture description of how the food system currently works, the panelists will highlight ways in which our vibrant local food system sustains us.

This event is one in a series of events leading up to the HomeGrown Festival celebrating local, sustainable food on September 13, 2008. Make this your year to get involved!

This program is cosponsored by Slow Food Huron Valley, an organization that identifies culinary artisans and local producers who engage in sustainable agriculture and are committed to the viability of the land.

  1. Thanks for posting this! My church (1st UU) has a local food group, and several us are going to this event. Hope to see folks there! This should be a cool event :)

       —TeacherPatti    Feb. 18 '08 - 04:35AM    #
  2. Patti

    I was going to attend but cannot squeeze it in. Would you consider listening for how Zingerman’s feels they fit into the whole ‘local food’ thing? I mean their food is great but its anything but local. Buying local food isn’t simply buying from local companies, it is buying food that is grown here and therefore has had less transportation and used less fuel oil.

    I like Z’s food and would like to know what their take is, maybe I’m missing something. I think a big part of buying locally is a kind of compromise to the environment, the season, etc. Even though you know what ‘the best’ is and even if you could afford to have it brought to you, I think eating locally means that you eat what is in season and what is possible to grow where you are in larger quantities and leave the heavily transported items for special occasions, if at all.

       —abc    Feb. 19 '08 - 12:13AM    #
  3. ABC,
    Absolutely! It seems like people do define “eating locally” differently…some think it’s within 100 miles, within the state, the region, etc. I agree with what you said re: eating what is in season and what it is possible to grow, but of course I drink large quantities of coffee which can’t be grown here (but who knows with climate change….). I also live by the “do the best you can within your means” rule.
    I will absolutely keep an ear out for what Zings has to say, as well as what the other folks say.

       —TeacherPatti    Feb. 19 '08 - 12:20AM    #
  4. Patti

    Yes I do coffee too, as well as olive oil, and other things from warmer places. And I agree with you about doing your best. I am interested though in being more locally connected and it struck me that they were featuring a Zinger and I was trying to see how that was going to help us all focus more on buying local foods.

    Thanks and enjoy yourself

       —abc    Feb. 19 '08 - 01:05AM    #
  5. abc,

    The Zinger they’re including is Alex Young, the chef at the Roadhouse. Based on what was described to me this last summer by the bartender at the Roadhouse as I was getting pleasantly hammered, Alex himself grows a bunch of the vegetables featured in Road House dishes. And there were plans to acquire more land out Dexter way so that the Roadhouse could feature even more local produce.

    Also, in the summer the Roadhouse makes space available in their parking lot for a Farmers Market that runs on Thursdays (??) I think.

    So as far as the local food angle goes, it’s maybe not the Deli so much as the Roadhouse where Zingerman’s has some credibility.

       —HD    Feb. 19 '08 - 01:29AM    #
  6. I was at a tasting at Zings when someone asked Ari why Zingermans doesn’t have more local foods. The answer was pretty simple: they are too big a business for most local producers. They do use local produce where they can, but right now, there aren’t enough local producers to make, say, their corned beef since they go through some enormous quantity a week. Companies like Niman Ranch are able to provide large quantities of ethically raised meat because they work with a system of family farmers rather than have one big supplier. So Zings uses a lot of Niman Ranch meat and Niman Ranch does have farmers in Michigan, but there is no guarantee that the meat is local. I think that is a reasonable choice for Zingermans to make. Zings does make their bread locally. They make their cheese locally from Calder milk. They showcase some Michigan vendors like Sweet Gem Confections, Grocer’s Daughter, and American Spoon. Would I like if they had more Michigan products? Absolutely. But they do better than a lot of local restaurants.

    The Roadhouse bothers me because they don’t showcase Michigan at all on their menu (pasties? smoked fish? apple pie? cherry pie? Michigan mint? Michigan bean soup? Come on people!) but they do use local eggs, local maple syrup, Michigan cherries, presumably some local dairy, and they grow a lot of their own vegetables so again, it is hard to say they aren’t doing it the right way.

    I think we have just gotten so far away from eating locally/regionally and seasonally (and even what that means) that it is going to take us a long time to de-Syscofy and GFS our food system. We often go to Frank’s Restaurant downtown and it is interesting to hear how things have changed for them. Pete (the cook/owner) grows his own tomatoes and green peppers in the summer (his BLTs are great when his tomatoes are ripe!), they used to get meat more locally, they used to get eggs from a local farmer. But when those local farmers retired, they had to go more mainstream. They can go through 1000 eggs in one weekend. That isn’t something your local guy with a dozen chickens is going to be able to support.

    So now people want their food to be cheap, local, safe, organic, consistent, sustainable, ethical, juicy, and yummy. And they want it all in places where there is a lot of competition for land and farming is one of the least fiscally rewarding ways to use this land at least in Michigan. (In the California desert with a lot of subsidies, it might be the most fiscally rewarding.) We are going to have to take a long, hard look at crop subsidies and land use and irrigation and chemical prices and gas prices and price and reward accordingly. There isn’t an easy fix here and what works for one crop/restaurant/use/organization/person may not work for another. The good news is that people are starting to pay more attention to what they eat, which is the first step toward something we can hopefully all live with and feel good about.

       —Juliew    Feb. 19 '08 - 03:35AM    #
  7. Here are two local web sites: – connects farm businesses with customers. See the article by Mike Score in the Feb. 10th AA news – which you can access through Google without paying the News’ $2.95 archive fee. – sponsored by Washtenaw and other counties, the Food System Economic Partnership connects local farmers with insitutions, particularly the U of M which serves local produce in the dorms. They will be having a conference in the spring.

       —Leah Gunn    Feb. 19 '08 - 05:41AM    #
  8. The event was really interesting AND I got to meet the fabulous Juliew who is just as wonderful in person as online :)

    Anyway, here is what Chef Alex had to say about the challenges to local chefs…basically, one needs to build a base of customers that appreciate local food, which is hard to do. It is also inconvenient to get local food much of the time…as Julie said above, the restaurant is too big. Also, it is hard to predict the number of customers on any given day, which could result in a lot of spoiled local food.

    But there is some good news! He also said that we as a community can support local foods at restaurants. Education is key, of course, but we also need to choose how you spend your money and what you spend it on. We need to support restaurants and restaurant meals that are local.

    A huge issue is that there just aren’t enough farmers growing real food…too many (for a variety of reasons) grow commodities like soy and corn. To that end, we as consumers can ask for local food, support our existing farmers, support new farms.

    It was a great event! It was put on by Slow Food Huron Valley, a great group doing a lot of great work (join us! join the book club—it’s a lot of fun! :))

    Julie, please add anything that I forgot!

       —TeacherPatti    Feb. 19 '08 - 08:03AM    #
  9. It takes a long time to build up a customer base and a supplier base, but it can be done. Hasn’t Alice Walters done a pretty good job of this out in Berkeley? But it took a lot of hard work. And CA is, well, CA. They’re by the ocean and typically have better weather. I bet you can grow things all year there.

    That said, it’s encouraging that A2 has a grow/eat local movement. Don’t forget folks—you can grow a bunch of local veggies in your own back yard!

       —OWSider    Feb. 19 '08 - 08:16AM    #
  10. The turnout was great—standing room only. I saw Julie and Patti (sorry I didn’t say hi), as well as farm friends from the Community Farm of Ann Arbor, where my family has been a sharebuyer/member for a few years. Farmers Annie and Paul were their usual wonderful selves and shared what I thought were very inspiring insights and stories about their farm and the community that supports it.

    I got the impression that a lot of conversation could have gone on after the event ended. I had hoped there might be an opportunity for announcements in addition to questions, but time was limited. I would have liked to share that one of the City’s environmental goals is local food sufficiency, and the Env. Commission would welcome residents who are interested in developing city policies toward that end to work with us. For starters, I’d welcome any ideas you all might have for ideas to explore. Keep in mind that we’re limited to policy recommendations to city council.

       —Steve Bean    Feb. 19 '08 - 08:22AM    #
  11. Yes, ZCoB has been supporting the Westside Farmers’ Market in the Roadhouse parking lot summer Thursdays from 3 to 7 and is preparing for its fourth year. Most of the work has been done by their staff as volunteers, though they are soliciting and welcoming broader community support. This year the market will be from June 19 to September 25.

    The WSFM is attempting to expand and is still soliciting more vendors. Only producers of local food are invited. There will be local music groups each week, and one local nonprofit organization is also invited to present its information to the community each week. Dogs and strollers are welcome. It’s supposed to be fun.

    Chef Alex also announced at Monday’s presentation that he is taking “fresh” tomatoes off the Roadhouse menu (except for with hamburgers) until they are more seasonal. That’s a big step.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Feb. 19 '08 - 06:56PM    #
  12. Hi Steve! I agree…the conversation could have gone on and on (darn library and its closing time!)

    I just want to keep the momentum going, and I’m so glad that you are on the Env. Commission! There are so many groups (Think Local First, Slow Foods, Project Grow, Growing Hope, etc.) that I wish we had a central “clearing house” so that we don’t constantly reinvent the wheel.

    Patti :)

       —TeacherPatti    Feb. 19 '08 - 07:50PM    #
  13. Regarding local food sufficiency: does the Environmental Commission have a policy on backyard chickens?

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Feb. 19 '08 - 08:14PM    #
  14. Juilew, I agree with you, which is why I said that eating locally involves compromise.

    You’re right people want everything, at any time. What we (farmers, suppliers, consumers, all of us) need to recognize is that the solution is not the path of least resistance. The farmers grow corn and soybeans because they know how to do it and if they could they’d eliminate the soybeans and just grow corn; and some do that. Monoculture. Restaurants have set menus so that their employees know what to make and patrons know what they can order before they walk in the door. In short it is easier. Monocooking. Consumers who cook can, if they want, avoid seasonal issues by buying frozen, canned, or shipped food from across the globe. And consumers who do not cook can simply buy pre-made food. Monoeating. Our relationship with food has become pathetic and it starts at early.

    We feed our infants canned food as soon as they can eat, manufactured by such caring and nurturing companies as Gerber, and continue to throw processed foods at our kids as they get older. We teach our kids to be mono.

    And that bigness comment by Ari is on my mind. It seems that biggering food businesses plays a tremendous role here. I assume that many of you know how ADM have, and continue to, squeeze out little farms who do not have monocultures and replace them with ones that do. Then there is the factory approach to cattle which used to have a place on that small farm but they are now all corn. Salmon and shrimp are getting hard to find caught wild. We have indeed gone through the looking glass.

    I just came across the following information today and it really struck home. The U. S. food industry consumes 20% of all the fuel used in the US. Of that, only 20% is used on farms. The remaining 80% (or 16% or the total fuel consumed) is used to process and ship food. Basically that 16% is being used to deny the seasons and the locales we live in.

    Let me say again, I like Zingerman’s food and many people I know from across the country also like it BUT why does the big Z need to ship a ham sandwich to someone in Minneapolis? Just because they can? Is this not a kind of decadence that is diametrically opposed to the precepts around buying local?

       —abc    Feb. 19 '08 - 08:42PM    #
  15. Regarding local food sufficiency: does the Environmental Commission have a policy on backyard chickens?

    Just to clarify, we don’t have policies, we recommend them to council. That said, I did suggest to Steve Kunselman a while back that he/council ask us to weigh in on his proposed ordinance change (assuming there’s anything significant involved—I saw the existing ordinance language at one point but I don’t remember the details.) No word yet.

       —Steve Bean    Feb. 19 '08 - 09:11PM    #
  16. It was a great turnout. There was a wide variety of people: farmers, restaurateurs, researchers, consumers, food market buyers. There really is a lot going on in Ann Arbor, but the biggest problem seems to be communicating it all to each other. I saw a lot of “networking” going on there between farmers and restaurants, which was really intriguing. I agree that a lot more interaction could have gone on. The produce buyer from Bella Vino (he was their former farm manager) came and said that they are really interested in working with local farmers to buy produce so anyone interested should contact him. Alex from Zingermans was looking for local chickens and lamb. That kind of thing is exciting. There is a market here, now we need the farmers.

    BUT why does the big Z need to ship a ham sandwich to someone in Minneapolis? Just because they can?
    Well yes, I think that is part of it. They are a business and they are supporting 500 staff (who have health care and retirement benefits). They want to be the best everywhere. This discussion came up last night and I think Paul Bantle put it the best in his bee example. Apparently in a bee hive most of the bees gather pollen very close to the hive but there are always a few who venture out quite far away. This helps the flowers in other fields, adds diversity to the local mix, and generally makes for a better situation for all the bees. So you can look at food in that same way: if you get most of your food locally and add in citrus, spices, olive oil, avocados or whatever doesn’t grow in your area, that isn’t so bad. What is bad is when you import “all” of your food. My sister used to live in Pennsylvania and her next door neighbor bought all of her meat, bread, and cheese from Zingermans and all of her produce from Diamond Organics in California. Well, that just doesn’t make sense. But we have had trade for millennia. It does make sense for a lot of things. What we do now though is import and export the same goods. Some of the Midwestern states (I had the numbers once but can’t find them now) export something like 90% of their produce and import 90% of their food. So something is going on here. This isn’t just a small percentage of high-value trade, this is craziness.

    So I’m not too worried about Zingermans shipping their goods around the world. They work with small suppliers all over the world and support many farmers who might otherwise have to sell off their land. The Roadhouse stopped using fresh tomatoes because it is winter (which is actually a pretty scary move for a restaurant). So it is all a give and take. Zingermans isn’t the bad guy here by any stretch of the imagination. One very interesting potential project Zingermans is involved in is a facility (probably in Ypsi) where local individuals could preserve their own produce. The only cost would be a donation of a percentage of the final product to help feed the hungry in our community. Food Gatherers (which was started by Zingermans and is still highly supported by them) buys four shares of Community Farm’s CSA and that produce is given to Avalon Housing for their residents, who in turn work shifts on the farm. So there are some creative ways to support buying local and local farmers and the community.

    One theme that definitely resonated with all the presenters is the need to not skimp on paying for food. Americans pay the least amount for their food (I think it is calculated per calorie) and are the most obese. If you are looking at food as a cheap commodity, you will get what you pay for. The cheapest food is usually high in sugar, high in fat, less ethical (for animals and farm workers), less nutritious (interesting discussion last night on phytochemicals), and more damaging to the environment. Being willing to pay more for organic or more for local really indicates how much you value your health and your environment. Now, ideally local organic food should be less expensive than shipping it and we may get there, but for now our land values, shipping, slaughterhouse policies, and subsidies really don’t support the local small farmer, so it is up to all of us who can support the farmers to do so.

    What we have found by buying local food is that the costs may seem to be more up front, but what you get is worth it in taste, nutrition, community support, availability, usefulness, and so on. I regularly make ten meals out of a $25 John Harnois or Ernst Farms chicken and every meal will taste good and chickeny, but I tried to do that with a Kroger chicken someone gave us a few months ago and after the first couple of meals, we threw it out. It just didn’t taste like anything. Last year at the end of the corn season we bought 12 dozen ears of sweet corn from a local farmer for $25. We had lovely frozen corn all year for pennies a bag. We buy red peppers by the peck at Farmer’s Market when they are just about giving them away and freeze them. We buy a half pig at a time. So if you can plan ahead, I think food costs actually go down by buying locally.

       —Juliew    Feb. 20 '08 - 02:50AM    #
  17. A number of years ago when I lived in a much larger city I was driving behind a guy in my old, run-down, neighborhood when I saw him throw trash out of his car window. I was pissed and pulled up beside him and told him that this is my neighborhood and I didn’t appreciate his trashing the place. He responded that it was an apple core and it will simply decay. I asked him to look around at all the other trash strewn about and consider if the other litterers will be so analytical. He got my point and apologized.

    “What we do now though is import and export the same goods. Some of the Midwestern states (I had the numbers once but can’t find them now) export something like 90% of their produce and import 90% of their food. So something is going on here. This isn’t just a small percentage of high-value trade, this is craziness.”

    This is craziness, which was my point also. The bee analogy is fine, for Zingerman’s. Culinarily they raise the bar, they support small farms across the world, and I think something from their deli should be in everybody’s pantry. The problem is all of the other ‘bees, who venture out quite far away’ are not quite so analytical either. Why can’t McDonalds, Coca Cola, or Dominos use the same argument? The fact is they can and do use some version of it, but to push the analogy further Zingerman’s, I guess, is a honey bee and the latter group killer bees.

    The trouble for me is the craziness. No matter where I go every town has the same restaurants and every grocery has the same stuff; we have homogenized the food world. Amazingly you go to a seaport and the local grocery has the same farm-raised Indonesian salmon you see on sale here. Why? Because, the people who buy the food for that grocery are in Kansas or Dallas or wherever. Also the consumer expects to be able to go to the grocery and buy salmon anytime, anywhere just as consistently as they buy crackers. Craziness, yes.

    So I think that the only way to counter the craziness is with the right message. Clearly my beef (no pun) is not with Z but with the killer bees. And in some ways I don’t care if they Zing sandwiches to Minneapolis, sure it helps them pay their bills. But there is that message thing. If they sent olive oil for that Minneapolis pantry it would be used for weeks or months sparingly, but the sandwich will last eight minutes. This does not pass the long-traveling, cross-fertilizing bee analogy for me.

    Clearly the big Zingers are looking to find ways to adjust to counteract the craziness, but is eliminating shitty winter tomatoes the panacea? I think it is a small gesture. If I ran a restaurant I would not view it as such a big step to design a winter menu without terrible Mexican tomatoes; they have no flavor anyway. Since, culinarily they are a liability, this offering feels a bit hollow. If Z wants to make a point about the craziness they might consider stop offering to ship lunch across the county, and save the fuel.

       —abc    Feb. 20 '08 - 07:57PM    #
  18. Michael Specter is being interviewed by Terry Gross right now and his article about carbon footprints is here

    Pretty interesting discussion

       —abc    Feb. 20 '08 - 10:29PM    #
  19. The Food System Economic Partnership is holding its Third Annual Conference on April 3, 2008. This group deals in producing and distributing of food from local sources, and is sponsored by Washtenaw County and four other counties. Click on the conference for details.

       —Leah Gunn    Mar. 8 '08 - 02:10AM    #