Benton Harbor Emergency Manager ignores city food issues
When horticulturist and retired teaching assistant Emma Kinnard had trouble securing water for the children’s garden she coordinates in Benton Harbor she asked the city’s emergency manager, Joe Harris, for help.
“He told me that water was the least of his concerns,” she said.
Kinnard, who has been covering the expenses of the Fresh Start children’s garden out of her own pocket for four years, said that she figured the city government would offer some help for the project since the garden is part of the local food plan officially endorsed by the Benton Harbor City Commission.
In July, 2009 the city commissioned a study by the Center for Economic Security, a non-profit that helps communities transition into healthy local economies.
In a report delivered to the commission a month later, Center for Economic Security President Chris Bedford reported that in Benton Harbor, once a flourishing agricultural economy, only one percent of the 35 million that city residents spend on food each year goes to local farmers.
Sixty percent of the city residents have no car, he found, and are forced to survive on food from the city’s party stores and mini-marts, which feature mostly sugary, salty and high fat snacks and very few fresh vegetables.
As a result, he said, the city is experiencing an epidemic of nutrition related disease — 43.6 percent overweight, 34.4 percent obese, 18.6 percent diabetes and 42.6 percent hypertension.
Bedford interviewed gardeners in the city and found that many were willing to expand their gardens and offer advice and support to others who wished to start gardens.
He told commissioners that leveraging local resources to expand the city’s gardens from 22 to 100 should be the first step in a plan to provide a healthy diet for city residents, develop community self-sufficiency, create a just local food distribution system and promote local food entrepreneurship.
Food offers a principal opportunity for community economic reinvention, he said, and if 20 percent of Benton Harbor’s food dollars were spent with local farmers it could produce 30 million dollars in new economic activity.
The commission agreed and endorsed the plan in a resolution but that plan has not been carried out.
“My proposal, while warmly received, was not followed up on because of Whirlpool’s opposition and the poverty and dysfunction of the Benton Harbor community,” Bedford said.
Emma Kinnard, who was already gardening with local children on a donated lot near Mercy Hospital, continued the project, buying water from a neighboring property owner and growing okra, sweet corn, tomatoes, swiss chard , kale, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers, lettuce and more with teenagers and kids as young as two years old.
The project has supplied vegetables to the seniors center, donated garbage bags full of greens for local families and provided education about nutrition and problem solving skills for kids.
But Kinnard said the model is not sustainable.
“Every time I got a couple pennies together I spent it on the garden.“ she said. “It got to where I was short on my bills.”
The garden needs straw for mulch, cages to hold up the tomato plants and money to cover the water bill, she said.
Since 2010 state-appointed manager Joe Harris has been in charge of Benton Harbor’s finances and in March when Public Act 4 — the Emergency Manager law — granted him complete control over the city’s government he was quick to use that authority to ban the city commission from exercising any authority.
“He is working with the budget and all the other things the corporate world has mandated he take care of,“ said Commissioner Juanita Henry. “He has no interest in food. For the $11,000 a month he makes those are not issues.”
Henry said that people have expressed interest in gardening on some of the empty land in the city and Harris has refused to authorize the use of any space in the city.
Commissioner Marcus Muhammad called the local food plan “the perfect idea at a perfect time” and said that it fits in with a consensus among elected leaders throughout the region that agriculture will be central to building the local economy, which has been devastating by the decline in manufacturing.
“If there was a willingness from stakeholders and local government … this could really embellish and improve the state of Benton Harbor instantly,” he said, but he added that the state, which is now in control of the city, is, in his opinion, only interested in corporatizing and privatizing Benton Harbor.
There are signs that the grassroots movement that is mobilizing against the Emergency Manager law may step in to support the children’s garden and the local food plan that has languished in Benton Harbor.
When June Thaden of Traverse City learned about the difficulties faced by the children’s garden last week she recognized the situation as an opportunity to directly support a community that has been disenfranchised through poverty and the suspension of their local government.
Thaden, who had traveled to Benton Harbor to protest the Emergency Manager law last month, circulated an e-mail with details of the garden situation and within an hour had received messages from about a dozen people wanting to donate money and supplies, she said.
“I can image the people in Benton Harbor are kind of beaten down at this point,” she said. “It is a horrible situation when you take a town that is already down and beat it down further to where they kind of give up hope, which would be terrible.”
On June 18 people from around the state will gather again in Benton Harbor to protest the takeover of the city and as part of the effort this time, people will gather at the Fresh Start children’s garden, deliver supplies, and visit other garden projects around the city.
“We want to provide some assistance, tools and money and to encourage them,“ she said, “to show them that we care and we believe in what they are dong.”
Joe Harris did not return a call for comment.
Benton Harbor Local Food Plan Powerpoint on DVD from Christopher B. Bedford on Vimeo.