Worth the Trip: Local Food Distribution in Northeast Michigan

This story was originally published in the 2023 Local Food Guide.

Local Food Distribution in Northeast Michigan

Tucked away in Michigan’s fingertips, Northeast Michiganders experience life surrounded by forests, rivers, and the sunrise shores of Lake Huron. It’s no surprise the region is considered a sanctuary by many.

However, the area’s distance from major highways makes distribution efforts difficult, especially for businesses in the region with goals of sourcing local Michigan food. It’s also a matter of demand; for many rural families, seeking out local food isn’t a priority.

“Everyone has to gauge for themselves what they’re willing to spend within their food budgets to consume seriously better-tasting and more nutritious foods that are ‘small batch’ and local. For some, the trade-offs in budget may be truly impossible,” notes Kristen Fairey, owner of Birch Hill Grocery in Presque Isle.

At Birch Hill Grocery, Fairey recognizes the importance of sourcing local products. Aside from a personal preference for fresh food, Fairey sees it as an economic contribution that “strengthens the social fabric of the area.” Everything offered in her store is baked in-house, sourced from local farms and online small-batch distributors, or acquired via monthly trips to Traverse City. Fairey notes that sourcing local food for a business like Birch Hill Grocery “requires a community effort and an excellent network” due to the time-consuming nature of gathering products and the need for appropriate storage space.

A tattooed pair of hands slice red cabbage at the Fresh Palate in Alpena.

For Eric Peterson, owner of The Fresh Palate restaurant in Alpena, sourcing decisions don’t just come down to local impact, but global as well. He notes, “If we don’t become more localized globally, then we’re taxing the earth more than it needs to be.” He points out that the cost of manufacturing and shipping throughout the world is not a sustainable option. “We live in Michigan. We shouldn’t expect fresh raspberries in the winter, especially when we’ve survived throughout generations on squash.” The Fresh Palate’s menu changes with the seasons, although customers sometimes expect more variety than the land and water provide in the leaner months.

Like Fairey, Peterson faces the challenges of sourcing hyperlocal products and must drive to Grand Rapids or Traverse City to make mission- aligned purchases. As it stands, community buy-in is too small to warrant regional routes by local food distributors.

So, why even try?

Rest assured, local-sourcing Northeast Michigan businesses aren’t displaying local greens to capitalize on a cultural trend. These grocers and restaurateurs care deeply about their local economy and community, and the environmental elements of local sourcing. Although it’s physically and mentally taxing, they view the work as worthwhile. Fairey believes store owners “have a responsibility to address the wider population’s circumstances and needs as appropriately as [they] can.” Making local products accessible to folks in Northeast Michigan is how businesses like Birch Hill Grocery and The Fresh Palate are advocating for their communities on the sunrise side.