By Esther Allweiss Ingber
Jewish entrepreneurs work to bring healthy options to Detroiters.
Many people enjoy eating potato chips and drinking pop, but wouldn’t consider living on them. The story is different for some lower-income Detroiters who don’t have healthier food options available in their neighborhoods.
According to Noam Kimelman, the founding partner of Fresh Corner Cafe in Detroit (www.freshcornercafe.com), an estimated 70,000 Detroit households lack a private vehicle to go shopping for fresh food at supermarkets in the suburbs. While more than 100 independent grocers of varying quality exist in the city, the default choice for some Detroiters is eating fast food or cheap snack items from corner party stores and gas stations.
With his business, Kimelman is changing the bleak picture by bringing high-quality food options into these same neighborhood places. He is among the growing wave of entrepreneurs, innovators, gardeners, funders, and all manner of volunteers and professional staff, who are working to achieve food justice and help Detroiters become healthier.
The various food distribution and growing projects in Detroit — sometimes in collaboration with one another — represent a network of hope for bringing about positive changes in a city that continues to reimagine itself. Perhaps, one day Detroit will lose its dubious title of “No. 1 in the United States for potato chip consumption,” as Kimelman once said.
Kimelman of Detroit, a member of Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS), holds a master’s degree in health policy from the University of Michigan. A Boston native, he decided to pursue improving nutrition for the poor after participating as an undergraduate in a national fellowship program through the U-M School of Public Health.
“I was placed at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and quickly learned that I didn’t have to go very far to find egregious disparity and poverty,” he said. “All the meanwhile, I was watching a health system spend hundreds of millions of dollars treating disease, but spending very little on preventing disease. It felt backward.”
In his senior year, Kimelman started a nonprofit called the Ypsilanti Health Initiative (YHI), which paired college students with senior citizens living in Ypsilanti.
“They would meet once a week, eat a nutritious lunch together, engage in a health workshop and go shopping together at the Ypsilanti Food Co-op, where they got half-off their groceries,” Kimelman said.
The experience taught him about starting an organization from scratch and working with a diverse group of stakeholders. He also became convinced that “nutrition, education and exercise were the answers to our health crisis, not liposuction or heart surgery.”
Fresh Corner Cafe, offering fresh food delivery and a catering service, was formed “in response to the troubling lack of access to high-quality healthy foods in Detroit,” said Kimelman, who recently received the 2014 Young Entrepreneur Award from SCORE, a national organization that aids small businesses.
“We pay acute attention to the nutritional density of our ingredients as well as where they come from, how they are produced and who benefits along the way,” he said. The result is a “well-balanced and delicious menu that maximizes what is fresh, healthy, sustainable and affordable.”
Peaches & Greens Produce Market (www.peachesandgreens.org) and Lunchtime Detroit (www.getmelunchtime.com), both near Detroit’s New Center, provide most of the meal preparation.
“We sell about 20-30 healthy meals per week per corner store and generate $8,000 a month in sales through that channel,” Kimelman said.
Various partners have helped Fresh Corner Cafe with its operations and aspirations. As a fledgling business, Kimelman was awarded the micro-grant contributions collected from a Detroit Soup dinner in 2010. He used the funds for in-store demos and sampling to engage customers at the party stores and gas stations. He got a subsidized, low-interest loan to buy a refrigerated truck from Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund, which assists small businesses in their initial stage of development as well as established businesses.
Fresh Corner Cafe won the People’s Choice Award two years ago at Detroit Harmonie’s Get Funded Challenge. In June 2013, the company placed first in the Emerging Company Category of the Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge.
Another venture for Kimelman is the Detroit Food Academy he founded in 2011. The experiential leadership development program (www.detroitfoodacademy.com) is dedicated to transforming the lives of young Detroiters through food and social entrepreneurship.
“We can make it easier to access healthy food,” he said, “but the crushing stresses of poverty make it difficult to bypass immediate gratification in exchange for future best interest.”
The Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, with a mission to enrich humanity by strengthening and empowering children and families in need, has provided funding to organizations bringing healthy food to Detroiters, such as a grant in January for Fresh Corner Cafe’s expansion into Brightmoor, a roughly four-square-mile neighborhood near the northwest border of Detroit. A cleanup and the introduction of gardens, a greenhouse and street artwork are brightening life for residents of the low-income neighborhood.
The Fisher Foundation has invested in a range of programs in Brightmoor, whose local partner, City Mission, seeks to break the cycle of generational poverty through education, mentoring relationships and outreach programs for at-risk children. The charitable Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation and the Jewish Fund are other donors.
A highlight of the community (www.neighborsbuildingbrightmoor.org) is cheery Brightmoor Youth Garden on Grayfield Street, just south of Fenkell (Five Mile). Under garden co-directors Riet Schumack and Carol Hawke, children ages 9-18 learn to grow and harvest vegetables. They share profits from market sales.
“Marjorie Fisher has been a great beneficiary and champion of urban farming, and made the greenhouse possible,” said Schumack, who has spoken about agriculture to Jewish groups brought to tour Brightmoor. They included Israeli visitors from the Jewish Federation’s Partnership2Gether Region.
A grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metro Detroit through the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue enabled the start of what former Detroiter and congregant Blair Nosan called “a faith-based farm in Eden Gardens.” Nosan was looking for a growing relationship between this predominantly African-American community and IADS. Planning the project with Chava Knox, an IADS member from the neighborhood, Nosan said they “saw this work as one small effort to repair relationships long-ago abandoned in our region.”
IADS has adopted Eden Gardens, now in its second summer, as “a place to make a difference in food and justice,” Knox said. Interested synagogue members get their hands dirty in the garden from 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays.
Eden Gardens “is a place for the youth to express themselves while also building a relationship with the elders through planting and learning new life skills,” Knox said. “We aim to address obesity and diabetes in our community by growing our own food and choosing healthy eating habits.”
Workers at the garden get to take home bundles of nourishing food for their families, she said, ticking off a list of crops that includes black-eyed peas, cabbage, butternut squash, squash, bush beans, kale, tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, arugula, radishes, beets, parsley, basil and jalapeno peppers.
Eden Gardens wants to start a farm stand because more than enough food is being harvested. Leaders also hope to build a community house, for teaching children about nutrition, plus cooking, sewing, farming and canning classes.
Such education is up the alley of Eitan Sussman’s Keep Growing Detroit (www.detroitagriculture.net), which takes a collaborative, “think globally/act locally” approach to achieving food sovereignty in Detroit. KGD is a member of the Garden Resource Program Collaborative, a network of more than 1,400 local farms and gardens receiving the support of hundreds of community-based organizations and residents. Earlier this month, KGD presented its annual bus and bike tour to see what’s growing.
“For a decade, our own Garden Resource Program has supported family, community, school and market gardens in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck,” said Sussman, noting that participants receive seeds and young vegetable plants grown at Keep Growing Detroit’s farm, the Plum Street Market Garden, as well as in partnership with Earthworks Urban Farm.
KGD can direct gardeners to neighborhood-based tool banks and retail outlets, and resource centers, such as Jeff Klein and Andy Ray’s Detroit Farm and Garden. It carries commercial compost and quality gardening, farming and landscape items.
ON THE HORIZON
Many additional organizations and individuals are involved in the food movement through organizing, advocacy and education.
When it comes to bringing affordable, healthy food to corner stores, Fresh Corner Cafe has relied on catering at Midtown and Downtown cafes to subsidize its core work.
The company’s newest offering, the Self-Serve Workplace Cafe service, may be the best solution to generating revenue streams, according to Kimelman. The honor-based, fresh vending concept allows customers to purchase prepackaged healthy meals with the swipe of a credit card.
Kimelman also sees its value to “ensure a strong connection between the workplace and its corollary corner store, so that employees know that every time they purchase a salad at their office, they are directly helping a lower-income Detroiter purchase that same salad at a reduced price.
“Every time they nourish themselves, they enable someone less fortunate to nourish themselves, too,” he said.