Broccoli, collards, and stir fry mixes sourced from Detroit farmers are hitting freezers across the city, courtesy of In The Mix-Detroit.
Since March, the woman-owned Black business has been flash freezing produce from Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck farmers, and selling it to consumers in grocery stores. The company seeks to provide Black farmers with an additional revenue stream, reduce food waste, and provide healthy and organic food options in the frozen section. It is perhaps one of the only companies in the country that is flash freezing produce grown by Black farmers.
Founder of In The Mix-Detroit, Imani Foster, previously worked for 13 years as a farmers’ market coordinator with Keep Growing Detroit and often saw extra produce at the end of the season being composted, instead of eaten. Although composting is a good alternative to throwing food in the trash, where it would be sent to a landfill to release harmful greenhouse gas emissions, composted food is still food waste. In the United States and in Detroit, food waste is a huge problem, with an estimated 30 to 40% of all food in the country thrown away.
“There were a lot of crops left at the end of the season, and that just bothered me,” said Foster, citing the hard work farmers put in to sustainably grow high quality crops.
The reason the produce was getting composted, she told BridgeDetroit, was due to numerous difficulties in getting the produce to market.
“There were no outlets. Trying to get into grocery stores is difficult,” she said, because “a lot of times our small farmers and gardeners in less than an acre or two weren’t able to process their produce through a licensed facility.”
To sell in grocery stores, food businesses are required to operate out of a facility licensed through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. There are specific requirements around labeling and nutritional facts that Foster said act as barriers as well.
And up until a few years ago, Foster said, access to Detroit’s Eastern Market for smaller farmers was hard, and expensive.
“It was just not having access to the most important things that we needed,” she said. “We had too much leftover and we didn’t know what to do with it.”
So Foster and Detroit-based Michigan Farm to Freezer came up with the idea to freeze the product.
Now, Foster acts as that liaison to help farmers get their product on the market, which creates additional revenue for farmers, and prevents produce from going to waste.
The produce is frozen at Michigan Farm to Freezer, a 14,000-square-foot warehouse near Eastern Market that freezes produce from all over the state of Michigan. It’s frozen in just a few hours at extremely cold temperatures to maintain the quality and nutrients, a process called “flash freezing.” Frozen foods from In the Mix Detroit are then sold in Detroit at Folk Market and Cafe, Seasons Market, Eastern Market and at Health Wise Food in Warren.
“We were excited to bring In The Mix into Seasons Market because we were familiar with Imani and her track record around food justice in Detroit,” Sara Sample at Seasons Market told BridgeDetroit. “This product is new to our store, but we are excited to introduce it to our customers and share its story,” she said.
If it weren’t for Michigan Farm to Freezer, Foster said she wouldn’t be in business.
“There’s not much infrastructure that exists in frozen food manufacturing on a small scale,” Brandon Seng, founder of Michigan Farm to Freezer, told BridgeDetroit. “All of the infrastructure, typically, is very large, requiring 100,000 pounds or 200,000 pounds of volume to get a product through to the finish,” he said.
Michigan Farm to Freezer helps Southeast Michigan entrepreneurs overcome these barriers by working with “folks that have needed that support, but don’t have the financial capacity to make a million dollar investment to get it off the ground,” Seng said.
Seng also works with Eastern Market Partnership as the director of food business development. At Eastern Market, he said, they’re wanting to advance local agriculture in Detroit in any way possible.
“One of the biggest opportunities I think exists is in aggregating the product from multiple farms to get a volume that they can hold on shelf space,” he said, calling In The Mix-Detroit “a piece that’s been missing.”
For nearly a decade Seng has been a leader in the frozen produce industry in Michigan. “To my knowledge there’s nobody else in the country that’s source identified from small Black growers in the same way that In The Mix is,” he told BridgeDetroit.
“It was an excellent idea to have a collaboration with Black farmers to come together to be able to do more than just an individual small stand thing here and there,” said Evette Whitlock of Serenity In The Garden, one of the city farms that sells to In The Mix-Detroit, “To actually come together and develop a large business that would assist the African American community and farmers.”
Whitlock told BridgeDetroit she is also interested in teaching children to farm, and said that In The Mix-Detroit serves as an example for youth of things they can do that are positive and help benefit the community.
In The Mix-Detroit also sources produce from Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, Walton Plants, Knagg Creek, Brother Nature Produce and Helen Street Garden.
Foster said a serious long term vision of hers is to sell at a new cooperative grocery store opening up in the North End. The Detroit People’s Food Co-op, spearheaded by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, will be a full service grocery store that sources from local farmers and increases food access for low-income and Black residents in the neighborhood. In April, Co-op leaders broke ground on the grocery store. It is expected to open in 2023.
“I want to make sure that that is one place that we always keep stocked,” Foster said.
In the future, Foster also hopes to sell frozen foods at Kroger, Meijer and Westborn Market. Eventually, she said, she would like to become a national business that sources from Black farmers across the country.
“I really, truly have been in this game a while now, and I just want to make sure that there’s additional progress happening with Black farmers in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park,” she said.