Viewpoint: Make local food affordable for all

BY CLARE TOENISKOETTER

Published December 5, 2011

The Farmers Market, the People’s Food Co-op, the Produce Station, Harvest Kitchen, the Homegrown Festival, the Jolly Pumpkin — in Ann Arbor, the list of places where residents can buy and eat locally grown food goes on and on. But is it as easy for residents of other cities to buy community-based agriculture? And how affordable is this lifestyle?

Take two Michigan communities: Ann Arbor and Pontiac. Residents of Ann Arbor tend to be wealthy and white. With a population of 113,934, 73 percent of residents are white, the median income for a family is $71,293 and only 4.6 percent of families are below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Pontiac, on the other hand, is a less wealthy city made up of more minorities. Pontiac has a population of 59,515, of which 51.1 percent are African American, 26.6 percent are white and 16.5 percent are Hispanic or Latino. The median income of a family is only $36,391 with 18 percent of families living below the poverty line.

Comparing the two cities, local food options are drastically different. Ann Arbor offers dozens of regional food options year-round, including grocery stores, markets, restaurants and cafés where patrons can buy and eat local.

Looking for local food in Pontiac? Good luck. Two small grocery stores feature “Market” in their name and sell some produce from nearby farms, but for a true farmers’ market or restaurants featuring dishes from community farms, Pontiac residents would have to commute to affluent neighboring communities such as Rochester or Birmingham.

Even if Pontiac did offer the cornucopia of choices seen in Ann Arbor, it is unlikely that Pontiac residents could bear the price tag that often goes along with local produce. However, the prices are not exorbitantly expensive — at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, a dozen eggs can be bought for $3, 8 pounds of potatoes for $4 and a head of lettuce for $2. Still, this is more expensive than buying similar products at Meijer where a dozen eggs is only $1.68, 8 pounds of potatoes are $2.30 and a head of lettuce is $1.29. A few dollars in savings can go a long way for low income residents.

Perhaps economically struggling people would resort to the even cheaper $1 McDouble hamburger at McDonald’s or 89 cents cheesy double beef burrito at Taco Bell, which are not local or healthy, yet they flaunt a much more affordable bill for impecunious residents of Pontiac. This dilemma was recently looked at by researchers at the University of Washington who found that nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods are pricier than their high-fat, unhealthy counterparts. Additionally, each year nutrient-dense foods are becoming more expensive at a quicker rate than the calorie-packed foods. With this price discrepancy, we can only expect people with financial problems to become more reliant on cheap, unhealthy food like McDonald’s and Taco Bell.

Yes, buying local food has its benefits, including supporting the regional economy, knowing where your food comes from, lessening your environmental impact and, depending on the person, even enjoying better tasting food. However, locally grown food options tend to be not only more expensive, but also simply not present in slightly poorer communities. Cities like Pontiac should look to expand local food options and offer this food at equal or lower prices to grocery stores. To make food affordable, local farms could accept food stamps, make donations to food pantries, encourage community programs where people can volunteer on farms and receive food in exchange for their services or the government could offer subsidies to lower prices.

Pontiac, and other cities in similar situations, can also turn to Detroit as a model for improvement. In addition to farmers’ markets and local food vendors, Detroit has spearheaded an urban farms initiative. One of these farms, the D-Town Farm, is 4 acres and grows 35 kinds of fruit and vegetables. Planted by volunteers, the farm helps feed a community and bring people together. Farms like this make Detroit a progressive city when it comes to providing affordable alternative food options to its residents. Urban farms are bringing jobs, healthy local produce and a better environment to the struggling city of Detroit.

Would a similar program succeed in Pontiac? For urban farms like those in Detroit to expand to other poverty-stricken areas, word needs to spread about the benefits of urban farms. Through schools, community programs and media, the success of urban farms in Detroit should be stressed to residents of other struggling areas. This will create a demand, and once Pontiac residents want these farms, the farms are more likely to succeed.

Though the situation in Detroit is looking up, let us not forget Pontiac. Pontiac is only one example of an economically struggling community that offers few local food options due to both availability and affordability. There are many more cities in Michigan and across the country in similar situations where residents have no option but to buy unhealthy imported food. Cities should start looking to Detroit as an example and make local food affordable not just for the affluent, but for all.

Clare Toeniskoetter is an LSA junior