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Healthy, local, food options are all around us – Opinion – Monroe News – Monroe, Michigan

Winter’s here. All is safely gathered in. Farmers are getting equipment ready, reviewing finances and plans, placing orders. Seed catalogs magically appear in mailboxes. Gardeners are deciding what to plant, come spring. Greens are growing under lights, with starter veggies and flowers following soon, despite the long nights. There’s a season for everything.

That’s the thing about hope. No matter how devastating the loss suffered, helping a ewe deliver a lamb under a single light in a warm barn stall on a dark, freezing February night or the sight of a tiny seed sprouting in the spring sun has the power to restore faith.

Healthy, local, food options are all around us. We can grow vegetables in containers or in raised beds in a small yard. I’ve changed from a traditional row garden at the farm to a tiny, mostly vertical garden, with great results. We can plant neighborhood gardens to share.

Buying locally grown food benefits the customer, who gets great quality, and the farmer, who gets those dollars. We’re blessed here with excellent farmers’ markets and farm stands. We can choose from many community-supported agriculture (CSA) offerings. We can ask where the products were grown, and by whom – “home grown” can be anywhere on the planet.

I like markets that post the grower’s name and location on each bin. We can ask what, if any, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals or drugs were used, and if the livestock were raised on pasture instead of in confinement barns. We can choose products from farms that don’t use lagoons or pits to store untreated livestock waste. “Sustainable” and “natural” are just marketing terms and the label “organic” can be confusing, so getting questions answered is important.

Across Michigan, there are food co-ops of all kinds, from stores where members can buy shares or trade labor in return for discounts, to web-based food buying projects where buyers can shop online, and local farmers fill the orders and deliver them to a pre-arranged location. We can buy directly from farmers who will even deliver to homes.

More people could make these choices if expanded broadband access was available. Parts of Lenawee don’t have reliable internet or even cell phone service. A local vendor directory would help, too.

Most livestock and harvested food crops are shipped to a processor or wholesaler, and finished products are then shipped to a store. The farther products travel and the more processing done during those distant steps in the supply chain mean less money for the local economy. Each supply-chain step adds to the price of the product, and who profits from those steps is critical. Choke points pop up, as we saw when meat-packing plants closed and we experienced other food shortages last spring because people got sick.

To reliably feed us, local food production needs to be scaled up and expanded. Farmers won’t switch from heavily subsidized commodity crops without a profitable market for ‘people food’. This means vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, and eggs, must be packaged, stored, and delivered as institutional buyers like schools, hospitals, restaurants and grocers want them. Our small, local meat and poultry processors are near capacity.

Food hubs and incubators help fill this need. Food hubs provide ways for small farmers to process, package, store, and ship their own products. Food incubators provide a place to develop new products and businesses. Most small farmers and entrepreneurs don’t have the resources to make the large initial investments required, so hubs and incubators remove some market-entry barriers. The massive West Michigan Food Processing Association in Michigan in Muskegon, started in 2017, will be a major food hub with a much different model from the traditional wholesaler or farm-to-table operation.

Local, self-sustaining food systems can be built where people can find affordable healthy food, jobs are created, farmers profit, more money stays in the community, and it can happen here.

Pam Taylor is a retired Lenawee County teacher, an environmental activist and a former recipient of the Lenawee Democratic Party’s Democrat of the Year Award. She can be reached at ptaylor001@msn.com.

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