Diversity of people and perspectives on display at the Michigan Good Food Summit

It's a rare privilege to share a meal with interesting company. Such was my luck when i got to have breakfast with an epidemiologist and lunch with a platinum-album musician/would-be pizzeria owner all in one jam-packed day at one extraordinary event.

These meals took place at the recent Michigan Good Food Summit that showcased what it really takes to have Good Food in our state—food that's affordable, healthy, green, and fair (no one along the supply chain was exploited in its creation).

 The summit, put on by Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (MSU CRFS), took place in East Lansing with the theme, "Good Food for All: The Road to 2020." More than 500 folks attended, and there were 16 sector-specific breakout tracks. Scores of presenters, moderators, and panelists examined everything from farmland conservation, to food justice, to policy approaches for sustainable food, to connecting kids to healthy food in schools.

 I just as easily could have sat next to a small farmer, dietitian, or ambitious high school entrepreneur trying to launch a food business at those meals. While the summit gathered us together for networking and learning with others from around the mitten and across the food system, the work of MSU CRFS happens year round. 

The activities of MSU CRFS, broad and inclusive in scope, attracts people from all walks of life. Likewise, the Michigan Good Food Summit attracted a sundry crowd. 

Guy Miller, the epidemiologist I sipped morning coffee with, works for the Berrien County Health Department in Southwest Michigan. Concerns about diet-related disease in a community dense with farms, but replete with food deserts, brought him to the conference to learn more about the Good Food movement, in particular new approaches in programming and policy that will help underserved people get the food they need to thrive.

Rock guitarist and record producer, Tomo Milicevic, of Thirty Seconds to Mars fame, and colleague Kevin Kay, who I lunched with, plan to open a pizzeria in the West Village neighborhood of Detroit next year under the umbrella organization Detroit Foods, Inc.

They're passionate about creating a business that adds value to Milicevic's hometown of Detroit (he lives in Indian Village). Looking to procure local food and furnishings, pay fair wages, and offer healthy, quality food to neighbors, Milicevic and Kay came to the conference to learn more about the Good Food movement and learn about doing business in an informed, conscious way.

Along with the wide palate of professions at the summit was also a range of ages. The presence of young people around tables and in breakout sessions brought new energy to old themes. The day provided opportunity to learn about incorporating youth into the movement, from farm to school initiatives, to nutrition education and school gardens, to how FoodCorps service members, which number ten in Michigan, are working with youth from Muskegon to Flint to Detroit and beyond.

Mike Hamm, a senior fellow at MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, said that the Michigan Good Food Summit was an occasion to "revel in the rise of young leaders."

Indeed. As the under-18 sect sponged up knowledge from their elders, they shared of themselves unabashedly.

I was particularly impressed by Doriawn Rogers, who was one of many young panelists in a session titled, "Developing and Building Organizational Capacity for Youth Involvement." The high schooler from Frederick Douglass Academy in Detroit is involved in a youth program at Keep Growing Detroit and has a self-proclaimed "passion about agriculture." The conference allowed him to share what he's learned about farming and leadership and glean more information to take back to his community.

Sarah Scarborough, a 20-year-old employee of Detroit Food Academy, was a panelist alongside Rogers. She recalled not having a voice when she was in school.

"If you're talking about youth, youth should always be at the table," she said.

In her work in schools, she's passionate about giving youth have a platform to make decisions. She said that while many youth have their heart and soul in food and farming, "We need to create the structure for them."

Along with both youthful and seasoned attendees, there was also a representation of both the urban and rural Good Food movements, brought to the spotlight in a keynote panel discussion called, "Where We've Come and Where We're Going."

Brian Bates, owner and farmer at Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, and Devita Davison, marketing and communications director of FoodLab Detroit, were both panelists.

While their experiences are diverse, their messages were united. Both brought with them shared worry about marginalizing others in the Good Food zeal.

For Bates, a first-generation farmer, it was about protecting small farmers: "To not have farmers devalue themselves or not get marginalized in the process … to make sure nobody is underselling themselves, especially the producer of the goods we're trying to support."

Bates cautioned that in the affordable and fair categories of the Good Food movement, there are farmers who need to make a living. He sells 95 percent of his product within 90 miles of his farm.

For Davison, it was about not forgetting those who helped kick start the Good Food movement in Detroit with urban farms and farm stands and locally owned food businesses. The places and people who have contributed immensely to Detroit's revitalization.

While bringing in businesses like Meijer and Whole Foods might be a victory in some ways for Detroit residents, Davison warned, "Progress can mean gentrification—stores being built for the people they want to attract."

We all sat back and digested that statement. How do we level the playing field so everyone, even a small, local food entrepreneur with limited resources, can compete among larger companies that receive tax breaks?

Food for thought, for sure. And that's what made the Michigan Good Food Summit such an insightful experience, whether attendees were interested in healthy corner store projects, food certifications and labeling, or access to land as a fledgling farmer.

Or, for a journalist like me, who writes about food access and food justice, seeking to learn more from those doing important work on the ground.

 This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
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Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and editor for Model D and other IMG publications. She is project editor of Resilient Neighborhoods, a series of stories on community-building in Detroit Neighborhoods, and project manager and editor of the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. View her online portfolio here.