A Tale of Two Cities

Grand Rapidians aren't shy about bringing up our "Beer City USA" title given us by a variety of magazines and "best of" lists. I even saw it boasted on a billboard on the freeway. Something you won't see on a billboard, however, is our 2015 ranking as 2nd worst city for African Americans by Forbes.com. Out of the 52 biggest cities in the nation, Grand Rapids beat out only Milwaukee in home ownership, entrepreneurship, income, and change in population for African Americans. While some citizens and community leaders were surprised by and spoke out against the ranking, others used social media, specifically the Twitter hashtag #BlackinGrandRapids, to share their truth about gentrification, low employment, and high poverty rates among African Americans in the city.

Though unflattering, the new ranking brought a problem into the spotlight, and with it the question: what can we do about this? Start Garden and Grand Rapids Area Black-owned Businesses (GRABB), two organizations meant to help start ups and black-owned businesses thrive, teamed up to improve the disparity among populations. They created a new venture, GRABB5, aiming to help five black-owned businesses improve their capital and increase patronage. By focusing on five businesses at a time, GRABB5 works closely with each business, identifies their unique obstacles, and brainstorms solutions to navigate them.

One of the biggest barriers for the black community is being disconnected from the rest of the business world. It's a cliche but true. Business is about who you know. And if the relationships aren't there, the business will struggle. Many white entrepreneurs can look to family or friends to support their new business venture. They have a safety net. This just isn't as common in underserved populations. To encourage networking, GRABB5 hosts monthly dinners for entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers. They also have informative, "how to" presentations that help business owners learn to do market research, pitch an idea, etc.

A healthy ecosystem is a diverse one, and that's true of the economy as well. We need a range of people and businesses for longevity. And to reach that, we need to make Grand Rapids a place where everyone can find opportunity.

95 Years of Food, Farming, and Community

This year marks the 95th anniversary of the Fulton Street Farmer's Market. After nearly 100 years, the tradition of buying produce straight from the farmer in a simple, open market set up is still going strong. Although the market has gotten a few face lifts, most recently the $3M renovation in 2013 which put a roof overhead, the advantages of shopping in the market are still the same. Customers have a wide array of produce, plants, meat, dairy, baked goods, and prepared food to choose from. Buying directly from the farmer ensures the produce is in season, meaning it's at its peak flavor and nutritional value-a stark difference from produce in grocery stores that's been plucked before ripening, stored, and shipped hundreds of miles. Not to mention the environmental and economic benefits of supporting local farmers.

But the most valuable commodity the farmer's market has to offer is the relationships it curates. Buy produce from the person who grew it, and you have an opportunity to tap into their knowledge of how it was grown, how to prepare it, favorite recipes...there's a wealth of information available to you if you ask. It's better than the internet. The relationship is mutually beneficial as the farmers are able to see the end result of their hard work: customers enjoying their product. The market is also a place where vendors can network with each other and potentially create partnerships. 

There's something especially genuine about a trip to the Fulton Street Farmer's Market. It's an opportunity to connect with the people who cultivate our food, get in touch with the growing seasons, show our children where our food comes from. It's a place for food and community, a long-standing tradition, and something to look forward to on Sunday mornings.

Learn more on the Fulton Street Farmer's Market website.

B the Change

Over the years, the greed of businesses has created and magnified many problems in this world. So conversely, couldn't businesses provide the answers to such problems, using their powers for good before profit? "We envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good," begins the opening line in B Lab's mission statement. B Lab, a non profit organization that audits and certifies "B Corporations", is striving to create a community of businesses that seek to have a better impact on their environment. For a company to become a B Corp, it has to pass the 200 point impact assessment with a score of 80 or higher. The assessment covers a multitude of areas that measure how completely the company is doing what they say they're doing, including environmental sustainability, transparency, and legal accountability. It's incredibly thorough.

Last year, 616 Lofts became a B Corporation, joining the likes of Gazelle Sports, Brewery Vivant, and Cascade Engineering, among others. And while this status adds a lot of responsibility and motivation in becoming a better company, it all starts with knowing and understanding the surrounding community. Having a good impact on the community means preserving and enhancing the culture that already exists there. You can't know how to do that without first knowing the environment, the people, the need. This means getting involved, listening, joining neighborhood associations... It's an enormous amount of work on top of the already challenging workload of running a company. You have to be really dedicated to your mission and have the perseverance to maintain that focus. 

The 616 Lofts team was in the studio a couple weeks ago for new head shots and a group photo. I love hosting groups, particularly this one, because they have this fun energy that lightens the mood and radiates in the photos. I've shared a few below. Find out more about 616 Lofts on their website.

An Obvious Answer

There's quite a bit more young adults dealing with homelessness in Grand Rapids than you might expect. Forced out of the foster care system at 18, kicked out of their homes, or disowned by their families, these young people are transitioning to adulthood while dealing with the terrifying uncertainty of having no place to rest their heads at night. This issue can quickly become a cycle where the same problems are repeated over and over, culminating in a lifetime of chronic homelessness. It's incredibly important to end this cycle before it can begin. 

Grand Rapids has quite a few organizations that provide services for these young adults. They can get a hot meal, shower, a temporary bed for the night, a place to store their belongings... However, permanent housing is still difficult to achieve, and it's the most obvious solution to preventing homelessness. Enter Well House, a nonprofit currently developing a shelter specifically for young people 18-24 years old. Following the housing first initiative, it provides immediate housing, no strings attached. This means residents aren't expected to meet any conditions, complete treatments, or provide evidence of sobriety in order to receive services. This method is especially effective because it provides much needed security first, then helps residents solve the issues that led to their homelessness. 

This new youth shelter is designed to provide a stable environment for young adults as they adjust to the responsibilities of becoming an adult. The "house parent" resolves conflicts and disputes. Residents pay a small monthly rent and are protected by a housing contract. This means Well House has to go through the proper legal procedures in order to evict a tenant. The set up is pretty similar to a standard rental agreement, but tenants also have the option of working for Well House, tending the farm or renovating houses. 

While it's a pretty simple and logical answer to homelessness, not a lot of organizations practice the housing first method. There's this stigma that people who are homeless deserve their fate and thus should have to earn assistance. But the housing first initiative has had a lot of success, not just in ending chronic homelessness but also in decreasing the number of drug and alcohol-related hospital visits. 

To learn more or make a donation, visit the Well House's website.

Farm to School

It's ironic but many migrant farm workers have a difficult time eating fresh produce. The job is demanding, frequently requiring workers to spend 12 hours or longer planting, cultivating, harvesting, and packing fruits and vegetables. At the end of the day, they generally don't have time or energy to cook dinner for their families and rely on fast food all too often. Though they're constantly surrounded by fresh, farm produce, they aren't able to eat it much of the time.

Migrant Head Start is a program that helps migrant families get better access to local, fresh, healthy food. Receiving grants from the state for buying fresh produce from Michigan farms, Migrant Head Start provides three meals a day to children in the Sparta early child care center. The money is also used to educate parents on the benefits of a nutritious, healthy diet. Field trips to local orchards and farms were also worked into the program as the children became more interested in their food and where it comes from.

The program is about to start its eighth year and runs from June through November. Many of the children who come to Head Start have never been exposed to fresh food before. This program helps teach them about the growing process and helps them develop healthy eating habits early.