Local entrepreneurs advance food justice

Founders of Malamiah Juice Bar, South East Market plant and water seeds for a more inclusive ecosystem.
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The shelves at South East Market are filled with healthy items for a neighborhood that previously suffered from lack of access to food. Courtesy Ashley Wierenga

The movement for a more equitable future within the food industry is growing, and two local players are among those planting and watering the seeds.

Alita Kelly Photo by Ashley Wierenga

Alita Kelly is owner of the South East Market at 1220 Kalamazoo Ave. SE in Grand Rapids, which opened in January, and Jermale Eddie is owner of Malamiah Juice Bar & Eatery, founded in 2013 and now located at 122 Oakes St. SW, Suite 110 at Studio Park. He also is CEO of Malamazing Juice Co., a new wholesale cold-pressed juice brand.

As business owners and thought leaders in Grand Rapids, Kelly and Eddie both adhere to the triple bottom line objectives of prioritizing social justice and environmental concerns alongside wealth-building.

Both have woven the priorities of community wellness and a more sustainable and inclusive food system into their mission, values and everyday actions as food and beverage sellers, mentors and changemakers.

The food justice movement of which Eddie and Kelly are a part has grown over the past few decades and is about communities exercising their right to grow, sell and eat healthy food, with healthy food being defined as fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate, and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals, according to the Just Food organization.

“When we think about food justice, we recognize that oftentimes, communities of color have historically been left out of that conversation,” Eddie said.

Kelly, whose market is located in the predominately Black and underserved 49507 ZIP code, said any solution has to start with access.

“Access is such a huge part of food justice, and the market doesn’t have great ways for us to empower food justice in the sense of supporting local — and I’m talking about the economic market as a whole. It doesn’t really speak into supporting Black business, Black farms, diverse farms in general, local farms or local businesses,” she said.

Eddie agreed.

“I think access to good, quality, fresh food is a human right, as well access to fresh, quality, untainted water,” he said. “I also believe that we can do a lot better by coming together as a community to try to solve these issues. We need to ensure that as we set the table, it includes people from all different socioeconomic statuses, and it can’t be a top-down answer. It has to be a true collaborative.”

That’s why Eddie and Kelly have gone all in — not only to support themselves and their families, but to push for sustainable change within the food ecosystem.

Malamiah Juice Bar

Jermale Eddie Courtesy Teri Genovese Photography

Eddie’s business idea was born after he watched a documentary on the nutritional benefits of juicing in 2012. He became an advocate for the practice and discovered there was enough community interest in healthy fruit- and vegetable-based drinks to start a juice bar at the newly opened Grand Rapids Downtown Market in 2013.

He and his wife, Anissa Eddie, christened the business after the combined names of their three sons, Malachi, Nehemiah and Josiah. They always knew they wanted Malamiah to be a legacy they could someday pass to their children — but there was more to it than that.

“We cared about the triple bottom line before we knew it was a thing,” Eddie said.

Malamiah’s mission as formalized today is to elevate community wellness through healthy products, local partnerships and youth employment.

Eddie said under the “people” pillar of the “people, planet, profits” philosophy, his goal is to treat employees kindly and fairly and to pay them well, to spread joy and health among the customers and communities Malamiah serves, and to cause people to leave there feeling better than when they arrived.

But Eddie’s work with people goes a few layers deeper through what he calls “food evangelism.”

He encourages and teaches customers how to grow their own food and what to do with it after harvest through demonstrations, classes, recipes and/or connecting them with community organizations that can help with those goals, to give them more control over what they put in their bodies. He gives away plants and herbs each year on Earth Day to help people grow their own gardens. He works to create relationships within his neighborhood by hosting block parties and front-yard barbecues that connect people with each other through food. The block parties and cookouts have helped foster a closer-knit community through which people lean on their neighbors to find jobs, services, babysitters and friendships.

When COVID-19 hit, he went door to door asking people what their needs were and offering to use his bulk purchasing power to get people discounts on PPE and other supplies.

Eddie also pushes retailers and other businesses to diversify their suppliers by pitching not just his own products to them but by bringing samples and a list of other minority- and women-owned suppliers with him to meetings, such as Daddy’s Dough Cookies, Luxe Artisan Preserves, Mosby’s Popcorn and Daddy Pete’s BBQ.

“One thing that we get tired of hearing, and we don’t want to hear anymore, is that so-and-so cannot find any qualified candidates for positions (who) are people of color, or they can’t find a certain product or a certain item or a certain service. When I hear that, I say, ‘Let me give you a few right now, and then I’m going to email you another list when I leave,’ and that way the excuse is gone. No more excuses,” he said.

Eddie practices what he preaches when it comes to using diverse suppliers.

New City Urban Farms — which is located a little more than 2 miles from Malamiah — has grown all of the juice bar’s leafy greens for the past three or four years, and twice a year, it sends youths who work at the farm to learn customer service at Malamiah Juice Bar. Eddie partners with Wormies Vermicompost to offload produce and paper pulp to be composted. He sells granola bars at Malamiah from the Grand Rapids-based woman-owned business Granola Goddess, candles from the woman- and Black-owned business 5:14 Candles in Interlochen and honey from another woman-owned business.

To make widespread and lasting change in the food industry, Eddie said he would like to see more mentoring of young people who want to enter careers in the food ecosystem, customers supporting local diverse-owned companies, foodservice establishments reducing waste by finding a way to serve surpluses to those who have little access to consistent food sources, and health care providers willing to prescribe fruits and vegetables to patients in a food-as-medicine approach.

South East Market

Alita Kelly had been passionate about food justice and planning to open a socially conscious market for years before she co-founded the South East Market with Khara DeWit in 2020 and opened the store to the public in January.

“The South East Market was created out of seeing a lack of food access in my community, and that’s how the dream was really started,” Kelly said. “I finished my degree last May, and I had been thinking about this concept for quite some time, but COVID really expedited the need, and it uncovered some hard truths about health disparities, food access, food insecurity (and) the fragility of a globalized food system. That kicked us into gear, and we have always been operating out of that space. … We’ve been able to set up our systems in light of COVID and informed by how COVID has changed things.”

Kelly said her vision to operate a market with a sustainable and equitable lens was by no means radical, as West Michigan has an abundance of smart, talented people of color and women in Grand Rapids who could just as well have been the ones to achieve this if not for the barriers they face, including lack of access to land and opportunity to secure supply contracts with major organizations, among other hurdles. Kelly and DeWit were able to make their dream come true through a combination of crowdfunding and a business model that allows customers to donate funds to bring down the price of goods in the store.

“We have a pay-it-forward program that anyone can donate to (where) we take those funds, and we apply it to all of our meat, which is mostly local pastured meat, and we also apply it to reducing the costs of produce from local, Black, organic farms. That allows us to one, reduce the price of the produce and two, be able to sell all of the meat at cost to our customers” at prices such as $3.99 a pound for ground beef and $6.99 a pound for big, thick-cut, high-quality bacon, she said.

Kelly said she would be remiss to try to address food justice without a climate justice focus, as well. That said, the South East Market offers a produce subscription service to reduce waste (and that has a “soul to soul” option in which people can pay for a food-insecure neighbor’s produce), “take me as I am” cases of nearly expired produce at the door, and a bin of food compost that goes to Wormies Vermicompost.

On a macro level, the market strives to keep its carbon footprint low by sourcing as much food as possible from local suppliers, with the exception of some items such as oranges and mangoes and out-of-season items brought in from other states during the winter.

The South East Market sources its products first from Black, brown, indigenous, local or women-led farms and businesses, particularly those that respect environmental sustainability, and then from larger food distributors to keep prices affordable. Some current suppliers include Groundswell Farm, Agape Organic Farm, Full Hollow Farm, Shady Creek Farm, Hehlden Farm and Green Wagon Farm.

The market also offers some prepared foods, and its four employees help educate customers on how to use and cook with unfamiliar ingredients. Kelly said she is planning to eventually lease the building behind her store and convert it into a demonstration kitchen to teach the community more about healthy cooking.

The South East Market is rooted in 49507 and offers free delivery in the ZIP code because it is one of the most diverse spaces in the city and has been estranged from resources and opportunity as a result, Kelly noted. Residents of 49507 tend to have higher instances of stress- and dietary-related conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, and therefore there are abundant opportunities to lift up and empower the neighbors who live there.

Kelly said she would like to see people become uncomfortable with the way things are in the food industry right now and begin to challenge the status quo in the spaces they occupy.

“I’ve been encouraging people to take note and take stock of the spaces that you hold power and influence and start challenging those spaces in ways that move the dial on equity and sustainability,” she said.

For example, she recently spoke to students at Grand Valley State University on the topic of food sovereignty and challenged them to persuade the university to switch to local and diverse food suppliers.

Kelly said food sovereignty also requires access to fertile, safe soil in order to learn to grow food, and she is working to secure a larger patch of land on which to operate the MLK Freedom School Program for MLK Park neighbors.

She said she doesn’t expect overnight change, but she is determined to keep moving forward.

“When we’re talking about true justice work, you have to plant those seeds and water them for years and years to see the fruits come from that, and so I just really hope that people realize what we’re embarking on specifically at South East Market. It’s going to take a long time for our community and this neighborhood to fully understand that we’re here for them and what we’re doing. … 

“I’m just so grateful that so many people here are interested in what we’re doing, and I think it really speaks to the hunger for justice work in this community. The more that we can get innovative and creative and support each other, the faster we’ll see it happen.”

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