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Michigan Diversifies Economy With Food Innovation Districts

Michigan Diversifies Economy With Food Innovation Districts

May 1, 2014 |

Farmer’s market setup in Battle Creek, MI Photos courtesy of Northwest Michigan Council of Governments

Farmer’s market setup in Battle Creek, MI
Photos courtesy of Northwest Michigan Council of Governments

Michigan has undergone an economic transformation in the last few years, diversifying from its historic role as an industrial center and emerging as a leader in the sustainable agriculture and local food sector.

One way the state is diversifying is through Food Innovation Districts,  one of the tools proposed in Michigan’s Good Food Charter. The Charter, compiled between 2009 and 2010, was created in the wake of the economic downturn and provides goals for Michigan to help establish viable regional economies and communities.

The districts place local food-based businesses in close proximity, combining agriculture with value-added products and services. For example, a farmer’s market might be placed next to an organic food store in the same building as a local organic restaurant.

A Food Innovation District is not the same thing as a regional food hub, but a food hub could be a component of a district. The district takes things a step further, not only connecting small producers with consumers, but also acting as a startup business incubator while educating the community and creating a well thought out shared space. According to the Food Innovation District Executive Summary, there are three main steps in creating a district: assessment, project initiation and implementation.

Along with prioritizing a local food economy, Michigan stakeholders created a “Gardening Tool Kit,” a simple guide for creating a Food Innovation District.

Sarah Lucas is the Regional Planning Program Manager for the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments and helps towns and cities in her region implement the toolkit.

“Both regional and statewide organizations are helping to promote this new tool throughout the state, and interest is growing in how to implement the idea statewide,” says Lucas.

The toolkit saves small towns across Michigan from reinventing the wheel, according to Lucas, providing guidance for entrepreneurs, planners and zoning committees while leaving enough room for towns to tailor the concept to best suit their needs. The toolkit provides guidance on assessment, how to determine needed zoning changes, identify stakeholders, attract businesses and manage city support for the district.

Although still in its infancy, the concept of Food Innovation Districts has caught on quickly in Michigan. Lansing’s Eastside neighborhood has a 4-square mile district that houses a farmers’ market, several urban farms, new restaurants, an incubator kitchen, and a food hub, as well as space for the local history society. And elements of the Food Innovation District concept are popping up all over the state in the form of year round farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and mixed-use city-owned incubators, says Lucas.

The Food Innovation District concept may have originated in Michigan but the hope is that other states will follow suit.

“The concept of food innovation districts is one that is applicable to communities throughout the country, not just in Michigan,” says Lucas. “Many communities nationwide are looking for ways to bolster their agricultural economies while building jobs, business opportunities, and a sense of place in their community.”

The toolkit cites similar projects in Vermont, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Food Innovation Districts provide infrastructure for a growing segment of the American economy, adds Lucas.

“The exact elements of a food innovation district will likely vary from community to community, but the wide variety of ways in which this idea has been, and can be, developed mean that it can be customized to meet a community’s specific needs and goals, regardless of its size or location.”

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