February 12, 2012

I had a great idea for this week’s blog. I was going to start out talking about the local food conference that was held at Pattengill Middle School here in Lansing over the weekend. It was called “Everybody Eats: Cultivating Food and Democracy”. I was going to stress the keynote presentations by Katherine Kelly, founder and executive director of Cultivate Kansas City and Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. My plan was to summarize some of the cool things that are happening in Kansas City and Detroit around the local food economy. Both communities have had unexpected success with community development initiatives that encompass the entire food system, from producing crops and animals on the farm to community gardens and locally oriented distribution through unique restaurants and, in the case of Kansas City, a small grocery chain named Ball’s Foods that has used its local connections to hold off Wal-Mart and Kroger. In Detroit, the emphasis has been on restructuring activity in local neighborhoods to improve both access to food and the quality of a resident’s diet. In both KC and Detroit, these developments have had the dual consequence of creating employment possibilities and also enhancing the livability of urban neighborhoods.

My plan was to continue in this vein by writing a little bit about Portland, OR, where I’m spending some large chunks of the year during my sabbatical from teaching at Michigan State University. Some time back Portland was a defunct manufacturing center reeling from the decline of its deep-water port. Seems they don’t call it Portland for naught. But Portland has resisted the worst of the economic decline that has visited Michigan cities throughout the first decade of the 3rd millennium by focusing intently on being a better place to live. Some of this involves limiting sprawl and investing in public transportation, but I’m particularly impressed at the way Portland has managed to cultivate a large number of neighborhoods each with walking-distance local economy with everything you need for daily life: a drugstore, a cleaner, even little clothing shops. But especially attractive bars and eateries and human-scale markets selling Oregon’s wonderful wines and fresh meat and produce. Like Ralph’s Pretty-Good Grocery where “If you can’t get it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it”. The upshot is a sense of Gemütlichkeit that actually has economic value.

I was going to call the blog “Elsewhere” because that’s where all this stuff seems to be happening. I was going to make a contrast between this model of urban development and the one to which our Mayor Virg Bernaro and Lansing developers seem to be held in thrall. That one emulates Donald Trump, with casinos and flash seasoned by boutique shops that sell chic wares made in China and bearing European labels. It reduces development to jobs, and neglects the difference between a job and an opportunity to grow the economy through self-reliance and personal initiative. It seems that KC now has something like 37 farms operating within the city limits. I had some second thoughts about this, because I don’t want to sell what’s actually happening in Lansing short. Diane estimates that about 300 people turned out for “Everybody Eats,” and that the excitement was palpable.

But I flew into Lansing last Wednesday from Portland by way of La Jolla, CA and Missoula, MT. Missoula and La Jolla are also places where things are happening, though La Jolla is hardly a model for anyplace else. I was immediately enmeshed in a ton of commitments and responsibilities associated with my job at MSU, and by Friday night, I just need to kick back and chill for a while. So I didn’t actually go to the conference, and I didn’t actually hear Katherine Kelly or Malik Yakini give their talks.

It seems I was elsewhere.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


4 thoughts on “Elsewhere

  1. Paul

    Near-plagiarism? Pure Abbott and Costello, as you know

    Abbott: I’ll bet you 10 bucks I can prove you’re not here

    Lou takes the “sure thing” bet

    Abbott: are you in Boston? (No) New York City? (No)
    San Francisco? Paris, France? Rome, Italy? (No, no, and no)

    Then, Lou, if you’re not in those cities, you must be somewhere else. And if you’re somewhere else, you can’t be here. Give me the 10 bucks.


  2. We’re sorry we missed you this weekend, but the Lansing area is trying some interesting things. Not as much as some landmark cities around Michigan and the US, but plenty of promising developments.

    Thank you for writing so openly about re-configuring the food system and landscape.


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