Food is Helping Flint Recover and Reimagine Itself
Addressing the water crisis head on, multiple healthy food initiatives are working to improve health, nutrition, and food security while jump-starting the local economy.
By Brian Allnutt, Health, Local Eats, Nutrition January 16, 2019
It’s a cold, snowy Thursday in Flint, Michigan, but business is more than steady in the Flint Farmers’ Market where Clinton Peck runs Bushels and Peck’s Produce. Locally grown micro-greens, beets, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage cover the booth, along with tropical fruit and other items he picked up at the produce terminal in Detroit. Elsewhere, the late lunch crowd is enjoying the offerings at the nearby restaurants. Later in the day, a group of kids from the city will participate in a cooking class in one of the market’s industrial kitchens.
It’s probably safe to say that this sort of diverse, foodie environment isn’t the picture most people conjure when they think of Flint—a town that is now synonymous with industrial decline and one of the worst public health crises in the nation’s recent history. Yet this market is booming—more than half a million people visited its 45 year-round and 30 seasonal vendors last year, according to farmers’ market managers.
What’s going on behind the scenes here is just as interesting. Peck’s produce stand operation is supported in part by a primary care pediatric facility called the Hurley Children’s Clinic (HCC), located in the same building. Through an initiative called the Nutrition Prescription Program, sponsored by the Rite-Aid Foundation, caretakers of children visiting the clinic receive a $15 voucher for fresh fruits and vegetables to spend at the market. Peck says he gets about $200 to $250 worth of business from these vouchers every market day.
The prescription program parallels other investments in the Flint food system designed to mitigate some of the worst effects of the water crisis. Programs like Flint Kids Cook—also coordinated by the HCC—as well as Double Up Food Bucks, Flint Fresh, and investments in community businesses such as the North Flint Food Market are helping Flint residents access fresh fruit and produce, as well as milk products, that are a proven to lessen the effects of lead on the body. For the most part, the produce that Peck sells and Flint Fresh distributes comes from outside the city proper, but Flint Fresh has a specific program of soil-testing and post-harvest handling for growers within the city limit to address lead concerns.
Double Up Food Bucks has grown since 2016, when it was used by 9 percent of SNAP households, to its present reach of over 50 percent. Other promising signs of growth include the facts that Flint Fresh is developing a regional food hub for food processing that could help area growers, and the North Flint Food Market just received a large grant from the Michigan Good Food Fund. In addition to getting healthy foods into the hands of more people, these initiatives are creating openings for the development of sustainable local businesses—and laying the foundation for radical change by giving citizens more control over their health and livelihood.
“Flint is a city like Detroit that is essentially having to re-imagine itself and rebuild itself from the ground up,” says Lisa Pasbjerg, market manager for the nonprofit Flint Fresh. “We want to get fresh produce to our community, but of course we also need to build and have a sustainable local economy.”
Balancing these two efforts hasn’t been easy. Although many nonprofit initiatives have expanded in the city and benefitted small businesses, 42 percent of Flint’s population lives in poverty, according the U.S. Census Bureau, and much of the development is clustered around a gentrifying downtown.
Increasing Access to Nutrition—With a Focus on Children
In 2014, the Flint Farmers’ Market moved to a new location next to the Mass Transportation Authority Transit Center—the source of 80 percent of Clinton Peck’s customers—and also near the YMCA and other amenities. The move preceded the water crisis, as did the co-location of the Hurley’s Children Clinic, but these changes took on a prophetic quality as the fallout from the disaster hit the city.
Since the water crisis, various programs have effectively helped residents—especially young ones—access the fresh food for sale in the market.
When the Nutrition Prescription Program launched in 2016, it gave patients small bags of fresh produce or $5 produce vouchers. As it continued, Amy Saxe-Custack, an assistant professor at Michigan State’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, who runs it along with other researchers, realized their clients weren’t just using these benefits to supplement their diets, but to meet basic food needs. With additional funding from the Rite-Aid Foundation, the HCC was able to increase the amount of the vouchers from $5 to $10 dollars later in 2016 and then from $10 to $15 in 2018.
This effort is groundbreaking for its focus on children and preventative medicine. Saxe-Custack says that most of the food prescription initiatives in other parts of the nation focus on low-income adults with chronic conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.
“From a dietary perspective, there is tons of evidence to suggest that dietary patterns are established early,” she says, and the attendant research she’s doing for the program may provide some data that could establish it as a model.
Families using the center also expressed a desire to teach their children how to cook. This inspired Flint Kids Cook, which launched in 2017, sponsored by an anonymous family foundation in New York City that wanted to do something about the water crisis, says Saxe-Custack. Initially the program had trouble attracting enough young people to participate. But now the class at the market has a waiting list and is expanding to other sites in the city.
Saxe-Custack believes the success of the classes stems from the fact that it’s not just a nutrition class or cooking demo: “They’re measuring, they’re mixing, they’re cutting, they’re over a stove … It’s actually hands-on cooking,” she says.
And chefs from the market, such as Ian Diem of Chubby Duck Sushi, help teach the class. “The kids are enamored with the chefs,” as Saxe-Custack puts it. The class could also prepare kids for jobs in a sector that appears to be growing in the city.
Food System Investments Putting Power in Residents’ Hands
The economic benefits of charitable investments in the food sector have grown thanks to programs like Double Up Food Bucks as well. Administered by the Fair Food Network, a national nonprofit that has been using federal, state, and philanthropic funding to match SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables for a decade. At the Flint Farmers’ Market, the effort has translated into more than $110,000 of additional sales annually, according to market manager Karianne Martus.
After the water crisis, the Fair Food Network set out to grow the program by stepping up their outreach to the people of Flint, where they had already established a strong base for the program. They also allowed people to use Double Up Food Bucks on dairy products because calcium has been shown to decrease the absorption of lead in the body.
Since October 2016, the number of residents using the Double Up program has grown from 4,000 to over 13,000. And Holly Parker, senior director of programs at the Fair Food Network, estimates that over 50 percent of SNAP recipients in the city are using the program, which brings more business to people like Peck at the farmers’ market, who says it has boosted his sales by between 8 and 12 percent.
Flint Fresh was also created to respond to the water crisis and is aimed at improving nutrition and food security while supporting local business. Along with mobile farmers’ markets, they deliver around 300 boxes of fresh produce to local families and individuals every month. Both platforms accept Double Up Food Bucks and Nutrition Prescription vouchers, as well as prescriptions from other programs. In the summer, 50 percent of the produce comes from local farms, some of them in Flint itself.
Flint Fresh’s Pasbjerg says that her organization is in the initial phases of building a regional food hub that would help the organization distribute produce. “The idea is that, long term, we would be able to process stuff for local farmers,” she says, “and then use that in the school systems and for local grocery stores.”
In addition to Double Up Food Bucks, the Fair Food Network is partnering with Capital Impact Partners, MSU’s Center for Regional Food Systems, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to invest in Flint as part of the Michigan Good Food Fund, which provides financing and counseling to organizations promoting healthy food access, economic development, and other goals. Among this year’s award winners is the North Flint Reinvestment Corporation, which will be receiving $40,000 to help create the city’s first member-owned co-operative grocery store, the North Flint Food Market.
The co-op is another example of the way the water crisis—as well as the disappearance of two large grocery store chains—engendered the desire for radical change. “The conventional food system isn’t going to come back into that neighborhood,” says Rick Sadler, assistant professor of Family Medicine at Michigan State and a member of the store’s steering committee. Starting the co-op was, in Sadler’s words, a way of “putting the power of the investment in the hands of the residents.”
The Challenges of Radical, Food-based Change
Despite all these positive changes, however, the city still faces structural problems caused by overall disinvestment in most of its neighborhoods and the clustering of new investment around Flint’s small downtown.
For these reasons, Flint businesses will still face a lack of a customer base for the immediate future, Sadler says. “It’s just so hollowed-out, and the momentum of getting investment back into the city has been so slow-going,” he added.
There’s also the fact that most grant-based initiatives don’t offer permanent funding. Double Up Food Bucks, according to Emilie Engelhard, senior director of external affairs for the Fair Food Network, seems to be secure after the Senate voted to protect healthy produce incentives in the most recent farm bill. And the Nutrition Prescription Program is funded through 2019 at the farmers’ market and through May 2020 at a second location. But relying on grants for economic stimulus will always be an uncertain proposition.
The exact potential of food businesses as an economic driver in Flint is also unknown. One study based in Detroit, which is 60-some miles away from Flint and dealing with similar structural issues, found that food was the third-largest employment sector in the city and could soon move to second.
Similar research hasn’t been done in Flint, but the city’s master plan projects that “food and hospitality” jobs in the county will be increasing 51.9 percent by 2040, second only to “health care and social assistance.”
Given this projection—and the progress these initiatives have made so far—Flint’s ability to use some of its current nutritional programming to bring investment back to the city could then be a very important for Flint residents. Although Pasbjerg emphasizes that in one of the nation’s poorest cities, “there’s a ton that needs to be done still.”