“Support Local Food” discussion did not address Downtown Market concerns

On Monday Sept. 14, Urban Roots hosted a panel discussion at the Wealthy Theatre titled “Support Local Food: A conversation on access, growing, and the local food economy.” An organizer of the event contacted Our Kitchen Table to ask if we would like to represented on the panel for the event, which was to continue the conversation started by Urban Roots‘ Levi Gardner in his recent opinion piece, a critique of the Downtown Market’s failure to address food insecurity in the neighborhood where it is located. We were excited to at long last be part of such a public conversation.

Since the Market was in its planning stages, OKT has raised concerns about it to planners, city commissioners and our own constituents via our website and food justice classes. Initially, OKT raised concerns that such a market project, using substantial public monies, should only proceed with input from food insecure neighbors and have a goal of improving food security in the neighborhood, which offers income challenged residents here nearly no access to affordable, healthy foods (other than through charities). After the Downtown Market Farmers’ Market opened, OKT again raised concerns that it did not provide a welcoming atmosphere for income challenged people and most of its product was far too expensive.

During last Monday’s event, the panelists did deliver an animated discussion about the challenges of building an equitable food system; the high costs and small returns experienced by small local farmers; and the need for an alternative to the failing industrial food system as well as a heart touching testimony shared by a long-term Heartside resident.  However, OKT had hoped to challenge the Downtown Market with these questions:

  • Millions of public dollars were used to build the Downtown Market. Hundreds of thousands more are maintaining it. Because the market is publicly funded, should it not serve the public, specifically the people living closest to it, seeing as income-challenged neighbors living nearby have very little access to affordable, healthy foods?
  • Many people living near the market have limited or no access to a good working kitchen. Since the market’s kitchen facilities were built using public funds, is there not a moral imperative to give people with income challenges — living in its neighborhood –access through community kitchen programs where they could prepare healthy foods?
  • The Downtown Market farmers’ market participates in government food assistance programs. Why is not more effort made to create an environment more welcoming to people with income challenges and people of color? For examples, the sign advertising the Double Up Food Bucks program also warns against loitering and soliciting. What kind of message does this send? Most of the foods are high end gourmet items. What does this product selection tell people with income challenges?
  • Vendors have shared that fees at the Downtown Farmers Market are prohibitive and force them to charge higher prices. Why can’t this publicly funded market subsidize or waive fees for small-farm vendors selling local fruits and vegetables as this would increase food access for neighborhood people with income challenges?

Let’s get back together and get some answers to these questions. Together, we can make the Downtown Market a place Grand Rapids can really be proud of. Not only because foodies from across the country make it their destination, but also because it is helping to bring food security to its income challenged neighbors whose health is currently being ravaged by nutrient-poor diets.