Detroit’s Fresh-Food Guru
September 16, 2013 | by Rachel Reed
Fiona Ruddy’s official title at Detroit’s Eastern Market is “Alternative Food Program Coordinator,” but in her view, there should be nothing “alternative” about the food distribution models that she oversees.
Ruddy is responsible for coordinating various programs associated with Detroit’s Eastern Market, and with other smaller community markets around Detroit. A 2010 LSA graduate, Ruddy runs the Eastern Market Farm Stand Program, which serves 18 different locations around Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. The stands bring fresh produce directly to local hospitals, office buildings, nonprofit organizations, and neighborhood farmers markets, giving members of the community a convenient way to buy healthy food.
“Everyone should have access to high quality, nutritious food,” Ruddy says.
“Detroit has one of the highest national rates of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. How can we talk about making Detroit a vibrant place to live if the population can’t sustain itself in a healthy way? This isn’t simply about food justice, it’s a human rights issue.”
Ruddy, whose efforts earned her recognition as one of Crain’s Detroit Business “Twenty in Their 20s” for 2013, credits her experience at LSA as a contributor to her success. A political science major and peace and social justice minor, she also earned a certificate in Arab American studies in American culture, and says her time on campus was transformative.
“My undergraduate experience prepared me to critically analyze situations and quickly solve problems as they arise,” Ruddy says. “It also gave me strong writing skills, which really help with my job. In the nonprofit sphere, it’s important to accurately convey the meaning, goals, and impact of your work.”
Ruddy was also the driving force behind the launch of Eastern Market Tuesdays, a midweek market designed to offer another option for fresh-food shoppers in addition to the traditional Eastern Market Saturdays. The City of Detroit had attempted several times to create a weekday market with limited success, and so vendors were initially skeptical. However, thanks to Ruddy’s marketing efforts on social media, coupled with her close work with colleagues on vendor recruitment and innovative programming, it has become a vibrant shopping destination with a thriving customer base. Since its inception, the Tuesday Market has expanded from 35 vendors to 50—and has broadened its shopper base.
If that weren’t enough, Ruddy also organizes Detroit Community Markets, a network of 17 community-based fresh food access programs including neighborhood farmers markets, food box programs, farm stands, and produce trucks. Due to their size, many of these markets struggle with attracting customers and with inadequate publicity. In 2011, after a community organizing course, Ruddy felt that there must be a better way to promote and coordinate the markets to increase their chances of success.
Using some ideas gleaned from the class, Ruddy brought the smaller markets together as a collective to share resources and information. Together they created a common website (detroitmarkets.org) and social media pages, as well as colorful billboards that can be spotted around town. They even had advertisements placed inside buses in order to better reach members of the community coping with food insecurity on a household level.
“These markets are great because they’re community meeting spaces where people can convene…and hopefully buy some kale,” she says, laughing.
Ruddy looks forward to continuing to get the word out about Detroit’s fresh food markets, from the popular Eastern Market to the smallest community vendors. She hopes that in addition to the food they sell, the recipes and nutritional information customers receive will keep them coming back for more. To Ruddy, dedicated customers are healthier customers, and, together, they can make a healthier Detroit.
Photo: Evan Hansen
Video production: Rob Hess