Ann Arbor aims to lead by example while promoting sustainable, plant-based diets

Susan S. Johnson

ANN ARBOR, MI — Ann Arbor’s A2Zero carbon-neutrality plan calls for spending over $200,000 promoting plant-rich diets over the next decade to get residents eating less meat.

“Eating less meat and more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds is known to reduce one’s environmental footprint and improve one’s overall health,” the plan states, outlining a strategy to educate the community about the benefits of more vegan and vegetarian meals.

In addition to looking outward at the community, city officials are now taking a look inward.

City Council voted 11-0 this past week to approve a resolution brought forward by Council Member Elizabeth Nelson, D-4th Ward, to examine the city’s food procurement policies.

“This is just about giving staff (a timeline) to look at the food that we are buying, the city is buying, and looking to make sure that those choices are as sustainable as they can be, thinking about choices around locally sourced food or plant-based foods, and just thinking about making better choices,” Nelson said.

The city makes regular food purchases for activities at city parks and recreation facilities, Nelson said, citing hot dogs sold at city golf courses as an example. The city also hosts the Tasty Green cafe inside the first floor of city hall.

Council Member Lisa Disch, D-1st Ward, joined Nelson in co-sponsoring the resolution.

“Ann Arbor aims to lead by example in improving food procurement policies for the city that promote sustainability goals, support and advance racial equity, and encourage our community to move toward a plant-based diet,” it states, directing the city administrator to identify potential changes for city food purchases and report back to council by next February with recommendations and costs.

Washtenaw County has a food policy council that also is having conversations about the topic, Nelson said.

“In institutions that buy a lot of food, this is a really huge deal,” she said, adding the city doesn’t buy that much food.

Council Member Ali Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, said he’s personally trying to eat less meat, but he still sells meat-based dishes at his downtown restaurant, Jerusalem Garden.

“I know the University of Michigan does quite a bit around this already,” he said of food procurement practices. “They require their suppliers to use compostable materials when possible, sourced locally if you want to become a strategic supplier or vendor of theirs. You need to go through a process where you’re committed to trying to get locally sourced food that is within 150 miles of your location.”

The university instituted those practices about a decade ago and the city is behind the times, Ramlawi said.

“We talk a lot, but we don’t walk the walk,” he said of values city officials support and promote but don’t always live up to. “And I can list the ways, but I won’t here tonight.”

Before the city switched to virtual meetings last year, Ramlawi said he can recall meetings at city hall where there was food catered with single-use plastic items that aren’t compostable.

“But yet we’re declaring a climate emergency,” he said.

Nelson’s resolution, which she developed with city staff, initially called for having the city administrator coordinate with the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and others in local food production to develop a plan for improved food procurement policies.

Ramlawi proposed adding UM to the list of entities with which the city administrator should collaborate, at which point Acting City Administrator John Fournier pushed back and asked council to give him more flexibility.

“As a matter of professional courtesy, what I would ask from the council is that the resolution direct the city administrator to address the issue and put a plan together and bring that back to the council with some resolution,” Fournier said. “I’m not sure that it’s necessary that the council give specific instruction … on who the administrators should be talking to.”

Ramlawi said he was shocked by the pushback from the administrator.

“I’m just rattled as an elected official,” he said, adding it’s council members’ job to set policy.

In a 9-2 vote, only Ramlawi and Council Member Jeff Hayner, D-1st Ward, were in favor of directing the administrator to collaborate with UM. In another 9-2 vote, council stripped all references to entities with which the city administrator should collaborate, with Nelson and Hayner opposed.

Council Member Travis Radina, D-3rd Ward, said he appreciated the resolution coming forward, but he noted people’s poor food choices are often driven by cost because they can’t afford, for example, organic foods.

“A lot of the food choices that we highlight here can potentially impact the cost of the food as well,” he said. “And I want to make sure that we identify that.”

Those concerns are valid, but bad food choices result in more disease and medical costs, Ramlawi said.

“Sure, it might be cheaper on the front end, but on the back end we’re all going to be paying substantially more if we continue to eat the way we are currently eating,” he said.

Mayor Christopher Taylor said he’s delighted the issue of food is part of the city’s A2Zero plan and that the city’s sustainability office is working on it.

The sustainability office encourages community members to make food choices that consider organic products, support and preserve rural communities, are healthy and nutritious, respect farm animals, provide farmers with fair wages, are free of added toxins, are grown locally, do not harm the health of farm workers, are in season, and have minimal packaging, states the resolution council approved unanimously.

Acknowledging “food deserts” exist in the region, the A2Zero plan includes an equity focus, calling for ensuring everyone in the city, especially low-income residents, can have access to healthy and nutritious food options.


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