Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) unveiled

Over the last year, when speaking with different people in disparate circumstances, I began to notice a new vocabulary word. The word "efsepp" came up again and again. As in, "farm to school is an efsepp project," or "they worked with efsepp to start this," or "Jen Fike of efsepp is working on that issue."Borden - Food System Economic Partnership logo At the Homegrown Summit I had the opportunity to clarify my listening of this wonderful organization that works on so many facets of our food world in and around Ann Arbor: the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP). Recently I was able to sit down with Jennifer Fike, executive director, and educate myself beyond what can be gleaned from their website or conquering their initials.

FSEP came into being in 2005 when a myriad collection of organizations were brought together to comprehensively “localize the food system and preserve our agricultural lands,” Fike explains. The resources and institutional knowledge of each of these organizational “members” create a synergy of shared commitment and co-opportunity. Here is a list of the member organizations, for you to see for yourself the great wealth of experience and connections sitting at FSEP’s table.

- Agrarian Adventure - AVI Foodsystems - C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU - Eat Local Food, LLC - >edible WOW - Gould Farms - Growing Hope - Jackson County - Legacy Land Conservancy - Lenawee County - Locavorious - Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers - Michigan Farmers Union - Monroe County - MSU Extension - MSU Product Center for Agricultural and Natural Resources - Slow Food Huron Valley - State of Michigan - DELEG (Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth) - SYN Associates, LLC - The Conservation Fund - University of Michigan - Washtenaw County - Wayne County - Zingerman's Community of Businesses

The five-member counties are the focus of FSEP’s current docket of programs. Fike tells me that FSEP might spread beyond our corner of SE Michigan, but only after all of the programs offered are in each of the five counties first.

FSEP has four main program areas: Business Innovation & Networking, Farm to Institution Program, Market Research & Development, and Education & Outreach. I will explore each one in turn.

Business Innovation & Networking

Jane Bush, FSEP’s Business Development Specialist and owner of Appleschram Organic Orchard, “has a great knowledge of farming and she is a certified business counselor,” extols Fike. As the founder of Grazing Fields Eggs Cooperative, Bush has experience bringing farmers together to maximize returns on their efforts. According to Fike, Bush is currently helping farmers in Jackson County create a hoop-house cooperative to extend the growing season. I can imagine Bush’s experience in branding, financial logistics, and marketing is invaluable for those individuals venturing into new territory.

Farm to Institution Program

The Farm to School and Farm to Business Programs are the most visible part of FSEP’s work. The programs facilitate sourcing local food for institutions.

Farm to School began in 2006, courtesy of a grant from the Community Foundation of SE Michigan, to bring in more local food to school cafeterias. They started with three different types of school paradigms: Ann Arbor Public Schools, Chelsea Public Schools, and the Henry Ford Academy.

Fike explains, “we chose those three different types so we could learn about the challenges of each and find out what the barriers are and what some of the advantages are to the different sizes.”

FSEP is the facilitator between the food service directors and the farmers. “We work to bring the parties together. We have been so removed from where our food is coming from often people don’t know where the farms are, or what is in season, or how to prepare it. Many of the schools have moved to heat and serve - so people aren’t used to preparing fresh food. The farmers aren’t sure how to sell to an institution, so we have done workshops"

Fike continues to educate me on the complex route vegetables take to a school salad bar. “One of the things we learned was that when there are multiple layers within a school district - like Ann Arbor Public Schools - they have Chartwells that runs it - Chartwells buys the food through Compass Group, which is a multinational corporation - and Compass Group buys from food distribution companies - so there are these different layers that make it more challenging - than say Chelsea Public Schools where the food service director can say, “I just want to buy directly from the farmer.””

Fike shares a story that brings her much happiness. “Our first foray working with Farm to Institution was working with the U of M in the fall of 2006. There was a chef in South Quad - they contacted the Lesser Farm to see whether they would be willing to sell local apples to the University. He swapped out the apples in the fall from apples from the Lesser farm and apple consumption doubled. Wow - students love it!” She starts to laugh.

FSEP sees itself as the catalyst and educator for institutions. After the first year of a program, the contacts have been made and FSEP is ready to serve as the facilitator for a whole new cadre of schools, while maintaining an advisory presence for those school alumni of the program. The Farm to School Program has expanded to 5 school districts in Jackson County and this past year they launched, again with grant monies, the program with Detroit Public Schools.

Thinking of the recent Nutrition in Schools article in the Economist, I ask Fike about the response from students for fresh vegetables. Fike’s response illustrates her understanding of the consumer side of the equation. “If we just have local food on the salad bars from Chartwells in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and the students aren’t eating it - it is not going to work. And so that is where we work with partners in helping to making the connection with the students about why it is good, why it is tasty, why it is important."

Volunteers have visited the school to help educate the students as to the produce and what to do with it. Deb Lentz of Tantre Farms and Alex Young from Zingermans Roadhouse have both donated their time. As Fike says, “it needs to be a comprehensive program so that the students are consuming the food.”

In addition to schools, FSEP is working with restaurants. I learned Matt and Rene Greff of Ann Arbor Brewing worked with FSEP to funnel most of the $400,000 a year they spend on food to local suppliers. “Rene spoke at a Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting in support of FSEP talking about how their food purchasing has shifted because of FSEP, that warms my heart,” shares Fike, as she laughs a happy laugh. Mine too.

In addition to schools and restaurants, FSEP is working with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit. Allegiance Health in Jackson County has just launched a new farmers market on site at the hospital with help from FSEP.

Market Research & Development

FSEP keeps its eyes out for best practices across the country that it would like to implement in SE Michigan. For example, Thursday is the fifth annual FSEP Conference and the keynote speaker is Michael Sands, executive director of the Liberty Prairie Foundation in Illinois. According to Fike it is a “farm incubator program” and is a program “we are very interested in launching ourselves.”

Education & Outreach

FSEP has been making appearances at local festivals to spread the word of what they are doing. This year, they were the local host for the National Farm to Cafeteria conference held in Detroit. Nearly 700 people attended the conference. Fike was appointed this February to the Agriculture Commission for the state and is keeping an eye on policy both in Lansing and D.C.

I asked her at the end of our talk what brought her to this world. Fike glows as she shares her background, “I took a trip out to Vermont in the fall of 2004 and I just couldn’t believe what was happening there - in terms of how they use land and promote local farms, the Vermont Fresh Network, and I thought, wow that is so cool - I want to do that here. And here I am. Wow.” She laughs.

Here is the article on annarbor.com!