Traverse City Finds a New, Progressive Breed of Leadership for Michigan
“You gotta give back something. I don’t want to see people suffering.” — Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers on what drives him as a public servant.
Asking political leaders about the cost of a gallon of milk remains the quintessential “gotcha” litmus test of their experience as a “common person.” At the national level, candidates immersed in the rarefied air of the campaign trail continue to get tripped-up by similar queries on the basics of life. Traverse City, Michigan however has a new leader who could score big time as a contestant on The Price is Right.
Sworn into office just this week, Jim Carruthers has opted to make his first act as mayor to take-on the SNAP Challenge. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the “challenge” is an attempt to live within the restrictions of the program — spending $28 a week on food, that’s four bucks a day, or $1.33 per meal. According to FeedingAmerica.org., the average cost of a meal in Grand Traverse County, where Traverse City is located, is $2.91 — well over twice the SNAP allotment.
The week before Thanksgiving is Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless, and November is Awareness Month for many organizations. In that spirit, the Northern Michigan Community Action Agency, Northwestern Michigan College, and Goodwill Industries are sponsoring a series of events to highlight this problem which often remains hidden within our communities. FeedingAmerica.org shines a light on food insecurity problems across the nation. They offer a county-by-county interactive hunger map of Michigan revealing that overall, Michigan has over 1.6 million hungry residents — that’s 16.4 percent of its population. No county was immune — at the low-end we find Livingston at 10.5 percent, with over 19,000 people suffering from food insecurity. A number of counties are well above 18 percent. And it’s not just an urban problem — only three of the Upper Peninsula’s 15 counties had rates below 15 percent. In Michigan, hunger is an equal opportunity affliction.
Carruthers, who previously served as a city commissioner, is video documenting his experience on a daily basis through social media. The first day was devoted to amassing his $28 larder. As a healthy adult male, he should be taking-in between 2400 and 2800 calories per day. A tall order if he intends to consume cost-prohibitive healthful fare, as is his custom, mostly.
Cheap, calorie-dense processed foods, lacking in basic nutrition, are more than a temptation for SNAP recipients — often they’re the only available choice within Michigan’s many “food deserts”, where more worthy options simply don’t exist.
Mayor Carruthers lives in a community with an abundance of food sources — from traditional grocery stores, to big boxes, corner markets, pricey organic co-ops, fleets of food tucks, and roadside farm stands that dot the bucolic landscape — Grand Traverse County enjoys a cornucopia of potential nutritional privileges, all in plain sight, but just out of reach to 12.9 percent of its citizenry — 11,350 people.
Carruthers gathered his week’s cache of consumables from a local Spartan store, taking advantage of store brand pricing, and discounted items with a looming “sell by” date. Purchasing fresh produce is problematic for those on a tight budget — for example, a single apple runs between $1 and $2 — and that’s in an apple producing region of the state. Fruits and vegetables are a luxury on 28 bucks. Another concern is that those healthful market fresh foods are often low in calories — that high-end apple yields only 95 calories. It seems that rice and pasta may be the big winners at the checkout lane for the mayor.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to get enough to eat and feel satisfied with it, and not feel hungry.”
Mid-week into his SNAP Challenge, I sat down with Carruthers at a coffee shop in the trendy Warehouse District of Traverse City. Just a few steps away, within his line of sight, was an artful pastry display case full of tempting treats. We ordered nothing. The shop owner being sympathetic to his plight, provided us the table space to simply chat. Carruthers readily admitted that he was feeling a bit tired and physically chilled on the restricted diet. Accustomed to spending up to $100 a week on sustenance in our admittedly pricey foodie-destination town, he was not quite himself. Yes, he had already seen a slight weight loss, and was expecting more to come.
This being his first week in office as mayor, he discovered his attendance was mandatory at myriad functions — all where food would be the centerpiece of the event. That morning he had dropped-in at a daily community breakfast for the hungry put on by a local church. But, had he even wanted to grab a plate, he found himself swarmed by people seeking introductions and wishing him well. No time for food there.
After our late morning chat, Carruthers was headed home to get his first meal of the day. With his $28 allowance he had managed to procure some produce — a discounted tub of spinach that was about to stale date, a bag of carrots, another of broccoli slaw, and some mushrooms. He also brought home some frozen peas, tortillas, cheese, canned beans, pasta, rice, and a 99 cent frozen lemonade. He took a pass on luxery items like milk, butter, and mayo.
Carruthers, a born activist who’s not afraid of putting himself on the line, successfully championed an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance proposal in the city that earned him threats of all manner, often viciously directed at his sexual orientation. Pasta and rice aren’t going to deter this gutsy guy. Public service is in his blood. His grandfather served as mayor for 43 years in a sleepy little hamlet in northern Ohio. Driven by compassion and the golden rule, Carruthers explained “You gotta give back something. I don’t want to see people suffering.”
If not with food, our new mayor will certainly have his plate full of issues — some dividing the mostly progressive community. Growing pains over development and allowable building heights, establishing a permanent Safe Harbor homeless shelter in the city, and the possible acquisition of a community swimming pool from the financially strapped county are all front and center. And that’s just his first week.
Mayor Carruthers however, is up to the challenge, and in it for the long haul.
Want to help combat hunger in your community? Click HERE for a database listing agencies working against hunger.
Amy Kerr Hardin