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Diverse food cultures intersect at Downtown Market

Downtown Market emphasizes cultural diversity as foundational to market infrastructure. From Thailand to Costa Rica, Downtown Market offers a variety of ethnic culinary dishes.

/Courtesy of Downtown Market

Underwriting support from:

Healthy Eating for All

Learn more about classes and scholarships available here.

/Courtesy of Downtown Market

/Courtesy of Downtown Market

Urban markets were once central components of the urban food system in American cities. The density of cities lended to their growth and prominence. Generations of farmers brought their goods to these centralized, local food hubs to be bought by individuals and families of all backgrounds.

The rapid industrialization and commoditization that brought the United States great success during World War II also resulted in a massive nationalization of our food supply. Complicating things was our rapid flight into the suburbs.

With fewer people in cities, urban markets declined in number and importance by the middle of the 20th century, and our food system became standardized and homogenized. Nutritional resources transferred from local options, to industrially processed mega-food.

Despite a diminished role in feeding the city, urban markets are re-emerging and interest is increasing across the country. The Grand Rapids Downtown Market follows a tradition of those former urban markets, which fostered positive relationships among diverse groups of people, favored local farmers, encouraged sustainable food production and promoted artisans and their crafts as well as healthy living.

Current trends in food production largely favor local, sustainable farmers. Chefs, restaurant owners and consumers are hungry for cultural diversity, and they want to spend a larger share of their food dollars in their own communities.

The Downtown Market is known for delicious, local food vendors and fresh produce, but many customers don’t know about the diverse group of customers, stakeholders and tenants that work together to make the Market a success.

Market Hall: Sharing cultural diversity through food.

The Market Hall provides a unique shopping experience with 20 local food vendors under one roof, selling an array of fresh options for lunch, take-home goodies or desserts. Many of the tenants combine their heritage and American upbringing for a unique take on ethnic cuisine.

Mario Cascante and Hector Lopez of Tacos el Cunado bring authentic Mexican street food to Grand Rapids. Along with tacos, burritos and quesadillas, this Downtown Market eatery also features Latin American grocery items and a self-serve salsa bar. The duo sources many of their ingredients from Michigan and rotates dishes that are popular in Costa Rica and other Central and South American countries, with the goal of getting customers to taste real Latin American food.

With a background in his parents’ “mom and pop-style” Chinese restaurant and a yearning to try out modern food trends, Yang Hang opened Rák Thai with his wife, brother and sister-in-law. Hang originally came to America from Thailand with his parents, and he has fused his traditional Thai upbringing with his American childhood to create Rak’s menu, focusing on innovative flavors combined with the warmth of his parents’ family restaurant. (Did you know Rák means "love" in Thai?)

Andreas and Nicole Papangelopoulos, the owners of Penelope’s Creperie, recently relocated to Grand Rapids from Athens, Greece. Andreas Papangelopoulos, who owned a creperie in Athens for five years, has created a menu for the restaurant that combines his wife’s American upbringing and his own Greek heritage. In addition to sweet and savory crepes, Penelope's also offers Mediterranean salads and yogurt parfaits, and sells a variety of imported gourmet Greek items.

At Malamiah Juice Bar, owners Anissa and Jermale Eddie came up with Malamiah's name by combining their sons’ names, Malachi and Nehemiah. Most of the juice and smoothie names are plays on common themes and ideas from African-American popular culture, and the Eddies are constantly finding new ways to connect with community.

Shun Chen, Johnny Lin and Wen Wang are the owners of Sushi Maki, a sushi restaurant coming soon to the Downtown Market. The new business will bring a new, fresh sushi bar to downtown and expand the family’s presence in Grand Rapids from their existing location, Fuji Yama, a popular Japanese restaurant on East Beltline.

At Relish Green Grocer, ethnic foods and veggies are part of the everyday produce stocked on the shelves in in coolers. Jicama, yucca, jalapeños, serrano chilis, plantains, various dried peppers and coconuts are just a few of the fresh foods shoppers can purchase to create ethnic cuisine at home.

Incubator kitchen

Comprised of entrepreneurs of all backgrounds, tenants at the Downtown Market’s Incubator Kitchen are a diverse group as well. Families working on multigenerational businesses as well as college students and experienced entrepreneurs have all used the Incubator Kitchen to start food businesses. Even high school students are using the kitchen, through the Kent Career Technical Center, which offers educational opportunities at the Downtown Market for students from more than 70 schools in the Grand Rapids area.

“Over the last few months, we’ve received many requests to use the kitchen from chefs of varying cultures and backgrounds,” says Crystal LeCoy, Incubator Kitchen Manager. “Soon, we’ll have curry, tamales, eggrolls and southern barbeque all produced in the kitchen, along with kombucha, spice rubs, cupcakes and many other specialty food items. The diversity of the kitchen is emphasized when multiple businesses work side by side. The kitchen is divided into five rentable sections, lowering costs for business owners, and encouraging collaboration between businesses.”

LeCoy makes a strong effort to attract a diverse group of businesses by working closely with the Health Department and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, who often receive the initial requests from potential business owners looking to understand rules and regulations. LeCoy invites these entrepreneurs into her Wednesday morning Food Works office hours as a first step to have open conversations about goals and business planning.

Healthy eating for all

Urban food systems and healthy food recommendations are beginning to share similar features, including an increase in dietary diversity. Unfortunately, most cities have an unequal access to the available dietary diversity in their area. Most urban food is skewed toward empty calories, and gastronomically unsatisfying eating experiences. This leads to nutritional inequalities and diet-related health inequities in rich and poor cities alike.

Among the Market’s foundational goals is to increase equality and accessibility to healthy, local and satisfying food.

Through the “Healthy Eating for all” program, income-based scholarships provide community members of all ages the opportunity to attend selected Downtown Market classes that emphasize healthy living at no cost. Those awarded class scholarships may also receive vouchers for fresh produce at Relish Green Grocer and/or Rapid Transit passes to ensure they can get to the Downtown Market if they don’t have other transportation available.

From June through October, SNAP/EBT/Bridge Card users at the Outdoor Market can match the amount spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, up to $20 per day, with the Double Up Food Bucks program. Vendors also accept Market Fresh/Senior Project Fresh and Project Fresh/WIC from June through October.

The urban food hub

Nearly a year into Grand Rapids’ love affair with the Downtown Market, it is still working toward solutions to our region’s issues, such as how to get fresh, healthy, locally grown food from farm to neighborhood at a competitive price, and how to strengthen our economies in the process. How to build, in other words, a food infrastructure.
If we want to increase our food diversity, celebrate cultures beyond our own, expand healthier food options and create local jobs and help smaller-scale, local farms, it begins with food infrastructure. Food diversity, cultural diversity and nutritional transition all begins with a food infrastructure because urbanization is accompanied by social and economic trends that encourage the transition. The Downtown Market is moving these efforts forward, and will continue with the support and efforts of this great city and region.

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