Michigan Tech partners with local agencies to strengthen western Upper Peninsula food systems during the pandemic and beyond.
It’s said that to survive and thrive in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it takes a healthy serving of "sisu" — a Finnish word that roughly translates as “grit.” The term is also apt for describing how scientists, health care professionals and planners have pivoted to ensure Yoopers have access to nutritious, local food and to gardening despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last fall, Angie Carter, assistant professor of environmental and energy justice, received a Michigan Technological University Research Excellence Fund grant to study local food systems in the Keweenaw Peninsula, including community gardeners, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farming, and farmers markets. When Michigan's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order went into effect, at first Carter thought she couldn’t continue her research, as it had included numerous face-to-face interviews and in-person meetings. Then she recognized the opportunity the stay-home order provided — it was a chance to strengthen the area’s food system for the long term. When people source their food locally, they aren’t reliant on far-flung supply chains, which have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, this new focus to Carter’s research could be conducted remotely.
While the news has been full of meat-packing plants closing and worries about the centralized food supply, Carter and her colleagues, Dr. Michelle Seguin at the Portage Health Foundation (PHF) and Rachael Pressley at the Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region (WUPPDR), have focused on facilitating conversations among farmers, farmers market coordinators and area food banks to ensure people can get the food they need while supporting local growers and increasing food access efforts in the UP.
It’s Healthy to Eat Local
“We need to increase food production in this region,” Carter said. “A lot of the work published about local food movements and infrastructure focuses on urban areas but forgets rural areas, where in some cases there is higher food insecurity than urban areas. Now that food scarcity is in the news a lot, it’s ever more important to strengthen the infrastructure and educate people about what we can do to strengthen the long history of local foods right here in the western UP."
“You don’t need to shut down farmers markets," she added. "You don’t need to buy your food at Walmart, and maybe it’s safer that you don't. Instead we ask, how can we make local food more easily accessible locally? Because our food supply chains are so integrated — a pork processing plant closes in South Dakota that’s responsible for 5% of pork sales in the U.S. inspires worries about access to meat, for example — we’re really vulnerable. It wasn’t always this way, and doesn’t need to be this way."
"We can restructure our food system to address our communities’ needs during the pandemic and into the future." Angie Carter
Through the Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Council, Carter, Seguin and Pressley have facilitated remote western UP grower check-in calls to share resources and strategize about how the food systems council can help by interpreting policies and tracking down information, so the people farming or gardening can focus on their work. The council, which helps route local food to area food pantries, also worked with the Upper Peninsula Food Exchange to clarify restrictions on garden equipment purchases during the earliest phase of the state's stay-home order. Carter says the food systems council continues to synthesize and share important information for growers and decision makers.
“We need to think about the connection between food and health comprehensively and holistically,” said Seguin, who is also the director of community health at PHF. “At the Portage Health Foundation, we recognize the importance of food access, particularly emergency food assistance in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever we’re seeing how vital that is to the community. We also recognize the importance of supporting our food system broadly, so we are asking, how can we as a philanthropic organization invest in our local growers? It will only strengthen our access collectively to fresh, local, healthy food in the long run.”
The council has helped community garden managers address important questions, including how to garden safely and how to manage tools.
PHF is working with the Western UP Food Systems Council to support farmers in Houghton, Keweenaw, Baraga and Ontonagon counties. Working with the Michigan Farmers Market Association, its aim is to assess the needs and capacity of area farmers markets and expand food assistance benefits available at each of them.
“We see the high unemployment rate and know food access is already a challenge in our community,” Carter said. “How can we grow more food and provide people more access safely? How can we get local people access to the local food — even the folks who don’t know what a CSA is and don’t go to farmers markets?”
“We know food is one of the biggest, if not the biggest driver of metabolic health,” Seguin said.
That’s why PHF is putting up to $50,000 into community garden infrastructure in the four-county area in the coming year.
“The answer is at the end of our forks, in our backyards, in our kitchens. This is a watershed moment,” Seguin said. “Our region is uniquely positioned to make positive changes toward a healthier food system and a healthier people. In our community, we have people who know the landscape, who know growing practices that work here, who have foraging knowledge. We live in an abundant place in an abundant foodscape. Many of those skills and knowledge aren’t as commonplace for the general public. We want to revitalize that.”
Food access and nutrition are core social determinants of health, and improving access to local, healthy foods prevents chronic diseases and improves the health of our children.
“We want to build upon this knowledge and get people connected to where their food comes from, which can change their relationship with food. We hope to make the healthier choice, the easier choice through improved access and education in the long term,” Seguin said.
If You Build It, They Will Eat
Carter notes the importance of building social infrastructure — peer groups and communities who can discuss COVID-19 response and share ideas for moving forward.
“There is the immediate need to run COVID-19 tests,” Carter said. “But how do we plan longer term for greater resiliency in our communities? That’s going to come through social research. We know how global food supply chains work, but how does food bartering and informal food exchange work regionally to support resiliency?”
For decades, WUPPDR has focused on collaborative development for the benefit of western UP communities and on long-term planning for community resilience. COVID-19 has shifted some of that work into supporting people, small businesses, and communities in the short term.
“When disasters happen, we realize the benefits of helping each other,” Pressley said. “We want to do everything in our power to help the farmers markets stay open in a safe way, especially as we see negative impacts to our food system on a national level. We want to make sure our local food is there when we need it, especially now."
"Here we have land available, the seeds, the knowledge of people who farmed here before or now and can share their knowledge with the community. We have all the tools we need." Rachael Pressley
Just as the June 2018 flood united Houghton County under the standard of Copper Country Strong, the pandemic is bringing together people who are planning to ensure the community has access to healthy, fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate food in the coming months. How deeply the global economy is affected has yet to be seen, but it has become obvious how important gardening and supporting local growers is.
“We won’t always have to do social distancing, but whatever we do now to make farmers markets more accessible, to make local food more available, to integrate local food into food pantries — that’s great in the long term,” Carter said. “This research doesn’t look like what I originally envisioned, but it’s still happening.”
About The Michigan Technological University
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.