Reviving America’s Cereal City Through A New Generation of Food Entrepreneurs
Devon Wilson farms a two-acre plot that is about a mile from where he grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Battle Creek, Michigan. In an area more attuned to fast-food joints and convenience stores, Wilson’s farm is an oasis with kale, lettuce, and tomatoes sprouting in abundance.
This is a far cry from Wilson’s childhood foods. “Honey Buns and Hot Cheetos were a favorite,” he jokes.
Wilson’s journey to farming was seeded during his teen years as he watched his grandparents suffer from the effects of diabetes. “It was hard to see because it doesn’t have to be that way. But it starts with the food, and we didn’t have access to a lot of fresh food,” he says.
Wilson started volunteering at Sprout, an urban farm turned community hub that weaves together food access, youth engagement, and food sovereignty. He began to learn everything he could about food: how to grow it, organic practices, and most importantly, food’s essential role in a community where fresh fruits and vegetables can be hard to come by.
When he went to college at Michigan State University, Wilson joined the school’s Organic Farmer Training Program. As he learned how to manage the business side of a farm, he began to envision Sunlight Gardens as an “inclusive organic farm building community and fighting food insecurity.”
Today, Sunlight Gardens is realizing that vision. Wilson is joined by a host of part-time staff – hired from the community – alongside volunteers who together plant and harvest a bounty of vegetables including peas, kale, squash, tomatoes, peppers, okra, turnips, lettuces, and more. It sells its produce to local restaurants and at farmers markets with a focus on keeping prices low while accepting food assistance programs like SNAP, or formerly known as food stamps.
Maria Graziani of Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (MSU-CRFS) says that Wilson is typical of the type of food entrepreneurs they like to support through their work with the Michigan Good Food Fund, a statewide initiative that invests in good food entrepreneurs. Key to this initiative is the recognition that businesses need more than money: access to knowledge and other non-financial resources are also key to growing thriving businesses while also supporting broader systemic change.
MSU-CRFS is a founding partner of the Michigan Good Food Fund and today supports the initiative’s business assistance work leveraging its expertise in regional food systems. It also brings an integrated partnership with the MSU-Product Center, which supports entrepreneurs in developing and launching new products into food and agriculture markets.
In her role working across both efforts, Graziani hopes to serve as a go-to resource for local entrepreneurs. She’s able to spend one-on-one time with businesses like Sunlight Gardens, help them connect to different resources from business strategy to funding options, while also being a sounding board and thought partner. “These are micro-businesses that perhaps don’t have the budget for technical assistance or a consultant. But their success is key to better access to healthy foods in a community,” she says.
In total, Michigan Good Food Fund partners have supported ten Battle Creek businesses since the initiative launched in 2015 with 1-on-1 support and group trainings such as a multi-day business boot camp or a seminar designed for healthy food product makers.
Graziani is part of MSU-CRFS’s stepped-up engagement in Battle Creek. In 2021, it deepened its partnership with the city to leverage its staff time and funding to provide concerted support to the city’s food and farm businesses.
Another Michigan Good Food Fund partner, Northern Initiatives, has also deepened its presence in the city. In 2016, it began handling lending operations for the Battle Creek Small Business Loan Fund and has since made 38 loans totaling close to $4 million to small businesses throughout the city. Northern Initiative’s work with Michigan Good Food Fund mission-aligned businesses has been equally impressive: since 2016, it has closed 29 loans across the state totaling more than $2 million, supported businesses have in turn helped create 135 jobs and retain 187.
These are just a couple of many ingredients in a city recasting its food heritage for the 21st century. Once known as the Cereal City, Battle Creek is home to the Kellogg Company and the founding city of Post Consumer Brands. Despite its all-American heritage, it has struggled in recent years: the poverty rate has been at 22%; many residents have left for opportunity elsewhere; and the median household income sits almost $15,000 below the average for Michigan at approximately $40,000. And that is reflected in the food scene with many neighborhoods lacking healthy and fresh food choices.
Yet there has also been a groundswell of groups — philanthropic, local economic development, capital and business assistance providers, and grassroots organizations — coming together to build a stronger and more inclusive food economy. This includes more intentional engagement with the city’s immigrant, refugee, Indigenous, Black, and Brown residents, which they recognize as critical to reviving the local economy and too often neglected by traditional investors.
Another critical partner is the city’s Small Business Development office led by John J. Hart. Hart spends his days working with entrepreneurs like Wilson who are passionate about food but may not be as well versed in zoning laws, building codes and licensing, or the nitty-gritty technical aspects of building a food business. “Most people are not up-to-date on these technicalities and don’t have someone in their social network they can just turn to and ask for guidance on these matters.”
So, they come to his office, which partners with them from the very beginning of an idea to navigating regulations and even securing funding. While Hart’s office only provides small grants of up to $5,000, he’s able to steer entrepreneurs to other financial institutions in the area that can give them more and broker other critical connections.
“If I’ve done everything I can for them, but they need a loan now to ramp up their space and volume, I can send them to Northern Initiatives. If they need more technical assistance, I can send them to Maria. If they need a place to sell their products, we can help them navigate that as a first-time renter or have them come to our BC Cargo Pop Up Shop Marketplace.”
It is this concerted effort where individual contributions are coming together that is both commendable and able to accomplish more in helping Battle Creek redefine its past, says Hart.
In doing so, it is giving rise to a new era of good food businesses and leaders like Wilson. To date, he has piecemealed funds and other support from a variety of sources to get his farm running. This includes participating in a multi-day business boot camp hosted by the Michigan Good Food Fund in 2016, in which Sunlight Gardens won the pitch competition securing additional business assistance support.
More recently, Sunlight Gardens was one of eleven Battle Creek businesses selected to receive funding through the Washington Heights Entrepreneurial Fund, a new effort launched by Battle Creek Unlimited and New Level Sports Ministries that prioritizes low-to-middle income Black, Hispanic, and Burmese individuals, who have traditionally had limited access to capital. This grant will support farm updates and innovations including increased indoor production, new compost sales channels, an event space, and finally development of an onsite farm stand.
Wilson also continues to work with Graziani and Hart to secure additional funding including a combination of grants and loans to bring on more staff and other assets so that Sunlight Gardens can reach its full potential.
For Wilson, that means harnessing the power of food to help transform the community. This includes using his success to influence the next generation. He is already going to schools and getting kids excited about fruits, vegetables, farming and hopes to one day supply produce to local schools.
“I want to see more young farmers like me in Battle Creek. I don’t want to be just one of a few doing this. This is just the beginning.”