By Gratia Lee, Access of West Michigan Good Systems Food Director
Access of West Michigan Good Systems Food Director Travels To Riverside, CA for Invest Health Initiative.
Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Riverside, CA as part of the Invest Health Initiative, a project of Reinvestment Fund, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I went as a part of the food systems team, to learn about what changes to the local food system the folks in Riverside have been able to make and are working on as part of this project. Together with teams from Tallahassee, FL, Buffalo, NY, and St. Paul, MN we heard firsthand what is happening (a lot!) with the local food system there in Riverside. It was so encouraging and inspiring to hear about all the hard work that has gone into creating several city/non-profit collaborations to strengthen their food system. As a city in a year-round growing climate, the city of Riverside can focus on agriculture in a way that we in more northern climates can only dream about. They realize the important role of farmers and are working hard to provide opportunities for young farmers to learn and grow into the profession. They are working on creating a large community agriculture innovation center in the north side of the city, with greenhouses, an incubator farm, community gardens, and much more. Their school system is fully invested and runs a food hub for other local restaurants and businesses.
One of the most exciting projects we heard about is the Eastside HEAL zones project happening on the Eastside of the city thanks to grants from Kaiser Permanente and the Riverside Community Health Foundation. It is a resident-driven program that works to promote a culture of health, hope, unity, and leadership in Eastside. Residents have the unique opportunity to attend a leadership training program and become advocates in their own community, where they work on community improvement projects. Through both the adult and youth programs, the residents have played a major role in improving both the physical spaces and the safety of their community. The entire project is a true testament to the power of community engagement and the type of changes that can occur when a community works together.
With their focus on local agriculture and community empowerment, Riverside is a model as we in Grand Rapids think up ways to enhance our own local food system. The formation of our Kent County Food Policy Council is a huge step in the right direction as we bring together leaders from a variety of sectors to discuss important issues of food from all angles, from production to processing, to distribution, to access, and to waste. It will be crucial that members of our city government stay involved with the Policy Council and figure out ways to support local agriculture initiatives. The collaboration that I witnessed between multiple organizations out in Riverside was so strong, and indicative of the need to continue to form partnerships. As we develop new plans for a stronger food system, we must listen to our community and involve them at every step of the way.