Allegan, Mich.—The edible prize was nestled within four-foot-tall foliage. “Look!” Lori Evesque says, carefully moving aside the large leaves to reveal an immature artichoke. This vegetable, a member of the thistle family prized for its clean, earthy flavor, will be harvested either for the farmer’s own consumption or to sell.
Evesque and Pete Robertson own Natural Cycles Farm near Allegan. Their devoted customers may receive a fresh artichoke or two in one of their upcoming weekly produce offerings from the couple’s organic operation. There are no guarantees, especially given pandemic-related changes in buyer demand, business and distribution processes, but other fresh options such as greens and eggs will be available.
Given COVID-19 disruptions that have affected everything from customer directional flow down grocery store aisles to meat availability decreases due to sick processing plant workers, evidence abounds of increased interest in how food reaches our palates and the types of food available for consumption. Food security and commercial pricing have increasingly become a concern for many families. Therefore, the way we’re eating is evolving.
“More people are cooking and eating meals at home, mostly out of necessity. There seems to be a great deal of enjoyment in these changes,” says Evesque.
How is the pandemic changing the way we acquire and value food, and what can we learn from these experiences? Western Michigan University community members weigh in on locally sourced food buying from the standpoints of acquisition, nutrition and ethics.
Dr. Caroline Webber and Dr. Arezoo Rojhani, associate professors in WMU’s nutrition and dietetics program and registered dietitions, say shelter-in-place orders are compelling people to spend more time in their kitchens for many different reasons. Some are taking advantage of their additional time at home to expand their cooking repertoire; some are unemployed and accessing food pantries for the first time; and many have become more alert to food-handling practices because of the pandemic. What can be discovered, Webber and Rojhani say, is a culinary world filled with additional, and possibly superior, options.
For those interested in locally sourced food, “there is the potential to buy fresher foods and a chance to discuss how the food was grown with the farmer. If shopping at a farmer’s market, you might be tempted to buy more vegetables and fruits than usual,” Webber says.
Now that the growing season is in full swing, Southwest Michigan’s edible abundance is evident, thereby providing the perfect incentive to taste test and enjoy.
Michigan is a food-lover’s cornucopia that’s laden with different kinds of meat, dairy, eggs as well as vegetables and fruit ranging from apples to sweet peas to zucchini.
While the nutritional value of fresh produce at grocery stores and local farms is comparable, depending on how it is handled and stored, seasonal local produce offers more variety than mass-produced, Rojhani and Webber say. For instance, consumers are more likely to find a tart Black Krim heirloom beefsteak tomato at a local market during the summer than at a grocery store in winter. Likewise, Evesque’s farm offers heritage eggs that vary in hue and taste.
Even if growing things—in a plot or on your patio—isn’t your thing, plenty can still be learned from farmers. As those who are the first to eat what they grow, and who grow a wide array of foods, Evesque and Robertson say the unexpected, sometimes in great abundance, is cause for celebration. The surprises of each season, thanks to their intentional desire to grow and raise diverse plants and animals, along with nature itself keep them from having longstanding favorites.
“One of the treats of our diet is the anticipation of what’s coming next. Right now, some of my favorites include asparagus; we just picked the first asparagus for this year. When something is in season, we may eat it many times in one week, or while it’s available. We are eating rhubarb-containing desserts right now and are looking forward to strawberries,” Evesque says.
At Natural Cycles Farm, optimal nutrition begins with soil health and is enhanced by the short time it takes to get from the farm into customer’s hands.
“Just like feeding the microbial life of our guts is essential to our individual health, feeding the soil is the key to the health of what grows from that soil,” says Evesque, whose Certified Naturally Grown farm uses USDA organic methods as a minimum standard, is pesticide free and adheres to the Slow Food movement’s mission to preserve local food cultures and traditions.
The senses are more in play with locally grown food, too.
“Freshly picked produce has a more pleasing aroma due to the presence of naturally occurring compounds. Many of these compounds disappear within hours of harvest. In addition, other sensory attributes of foods, such as color and texture, are more appealing when the food is freshly harvested,” Rojhani points out. “Shop for food in the season that it is harvested for the best quality, flavor and prices.”
Food safety remains a concern, but Webber and Rojhani say smaller regional farming operations have historically had fewer problems than commercial operations. Most food-borne disease outbreaks result from centralized food production systems where several varieties of produce are grown, come in contact with each other and are then shipped hundreds or thousands of miles away. Conversely, they point out, a customer at a local market can simply have a conversation with a farmer about production and transportation methods.
Nutritional, safety and monetary factors aren’t the only reasons to consider purchasing locally sourced food. The consequences of doing so also extend to realms, such as the interpersonal and environmental.
Every farmer and food system worker who grows, harvests and distributes products has a story, and every plant impacts its surroundings.
Evesque’s interest in farming began when she moved to West Michigan in the 1980s as a mother of two small children. She holds a master’s degree in food science, has taught food systems classes and also earned a master’s degree from WMU in computer science, but she discovered her passion lies with the land and teaching others about plants and animals. There is still a great need for the latter, she believes.
“It is amazing how little the average person knows or understands where food comes from,” says Evesque. “We all need to educate ourselves about where our food comes from. Only then can we choose what is right for us.”
Evesque and Robertson are constantly educating themselves and altering their farming methods to better align with their values. They have taken some webinars offered by Food Animal Concerns Trust, which promotes safe and humane farming of food and fiber animals. “They offered a grant to small farmers impacted by COVID-19, which we received,” Evesque says. The funding was used to develop a website for the necessary pre-ordering at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market that must now occur because of the pandemic; Allegan Farmers Market customers may still shop traditionally.
Dr. Fritz Allhoff, philosophy professor and board member of WMU’s Study of Ethics in Society, says food occupies a crucial position in our decision-making lives.
“I think about ethics as how we behave, how we order societies, how we put our communities together, and ethics is the glue that holds all those things together. Ethics is about, most fundamentally, how we treat each other,” Allhoff says. “I don’t really like the super technical definitions. I like the more inclusive folksy definition like that. It’s easier for people to come to our talks if they can figure out what we’re doing. Ethics is just about the sorts of things we should do, our obligations to our families, our communities, our countries and the world.”
The pandemic, Allhoff maintains, is causing many to face a reckoning about our consumerism and its effects on individuals and society at large. How can we help support our local communities? Alternatively, what are the environmental effects of online ordering? Do we consume too much? Is this a good time to relearn skills like how to make our own bread or spend more time with books and less time on our screens?
“When we’re in difficult situations, I think one thing we have to figure out is, what are the morally important features of this case? So, part of what ethics trains us to do is to situate ourselves within some problem and then sensitize ourselves to what are the things that matter. Not things that are scientific, as it were, but in terms of what is important. What do we care about here? Why should anybody else care?” Allhoff says.
A key component of ethics, he says, also pertains to the greater good, which can be challenging in the United States where certain cultural mores favor individualism over collective benefit. One of Allhoff’s ethical stances centers on local purchases—he and his family frequent the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, which is “a way to directly support our community,” he says. “And the food is awesome. It’s all fresh, locally grown and organic.”
The Allhoffs also annually team up with other families to do a “cow share” from a regional farm, which provides them with beef that is humanely raised.
“Another way to distinguish locally produced food are relationships,” Evesque points out. “Sometimes food from the conventional food system seems remote—it’s just a package.”
Buying local “is kind of a cool way for people to reinvent their relationships with local growers and farmers, and it keeps the money more tightly in the community,” says Allhoff. It’s also a great way to learn more about the food being sold and the farmers who are selling it, Webber says. Many farmers, including Natural Cycles Farm’s owners, will welcome visitors and otherwise answer questions ranging in scope from seed sourcing to allergen-free products.
A recent visit to Evesque and Robertson’s farm, which they bought a few years ago and are conscientiously nurturing to maintain its native elements, included a closer look at concord grape vines, a honking goose on the nest, a flock of sheep that are used for Evesque’s fiber art, colorful swiss chard thriving in the greenhouse, Egyptian walking onions and leafing serviceberry trees that will begin to produce fruit in June.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many farmers to operate and interact with customers from a digital distance, the couple’s love for the farm and what it produces is evident. It offers a quiet sanctuary to self-described introverts, a haven for wildlife and a beautiful location to produce nutritious food in sustainable ways. Those factors translate to the products they sell.
Evesque hopes the increased focus on local food endures.
“Resiliency requires multiple redundancy in systems and knowing how these many systems work alongside each other,” she says. “We need local farmers. The farmers won't stay farming unless they have customers. Those customers need to understand what goes into growing nutritionally dense food. We need that nutrient-dense food for healthy bodies, resistance to disease and to minimize how much we have to rely on our crippled health care system—or perhaps I should say disease management system, because it doesn't prioritize health.”
For more information, visit:
PFC Markets (which operates Kalamazoo Farmers Market and the city’s Night Market): http://pfcmarkets.com
Michigan Farmers Market Association: http://mifma.org
Natural Cycles Farm: https://www.naturalcyclesfarm.com
WMU Nutrition and Dietetics: https://wmich.edu/academics/undergraduate/dietetics
Slow Food International: https://www.slowfood.com
Food Animal Concerns Trust: https://foodanimalconcernstrust.org
Certified Naturally Grown: https://www.cngfarming.org
United States Department of Agriculture information about organic products: https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.