Growing Michigan’s Food Economy: Whole Foods Co-CEO, Others Ready to Dig In

We know fresh, nutritious food is life-changing when it comes to good health.

Leaders at this week’s Mackinac Policy Conference think focusing on food can also translate into jobs and a healthier economy in Detroit and the state as a whole.

Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, said opening a store in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood in 2013 fundamentally changed the way the company does business. Whole Foods has always practiced what Robb calls “conscious capitalism” with a focus on contributing to greater health in the areas it serves.

The fact that Detroiters have a life expectancy that’s ten years shorter than nearby Oakland County residents is a “moral dilemma”, according to Robb. He hopes Whole Foods can help to close a fresh food disparity in the city. A second Detroit store is in the works and another is planned for East Lansing.

Almost two years in, the Midtown store has exceeded sales expectations and Robb said the chain plans to keep expanding into areas previously unthinkable for the grocery chain.

“I’m quite sure this can be replicated anywhere else,” he said.

“People want local, genuine, authentic food,” said Dave Zilko, Vice Chairman, Garden Fresh Gourmet, the Ferndale-based food products company known for their fresh salsa.

Zilko said Michigan is positioning itself to foster an entrepreneurial food community and that small businesses should think about cashing in on the local food movement.

A 2014 report commissioned by the Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative, showed that Detroit’s food economy produced $3.6 billion in revenue and employed more than 36,000 people. The report projected that growing the current food economy by just 30 percent would likely add $2.7 billion more to the regional economy ($1.3 billion inside Detroit) and generate 52,000 more jobs.

Zilko said the era of big food is over. He joked that nobody’s figured out a way to outsource local food yet, a sentiment echoed by U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.

“We don’t have an economy unless we make things and grow things,” she said.

Stabenow said initiatives such as the Michigan Good Food Fund help expand access to healthy food for Michigan residents as well as connect local food producers with local retail partners.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is the Diamond sponsor of this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

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Photo credit: Kimberly Vardeman

 

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