By Matthew Kirby, UMass Sustainable Food and Farming student in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture
Many symbols of American culture have come out of Detroit, Michigan. Motown Records and classic American cars are some of the things that come to mind when someone mentions Detroit. However, since the collapse of the American auto industry and the economic decline that followed, the city is also known for its high crime rate, poverty and abandoned buildings. The city filed for nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013. Detroiters however, have not given up on their city and what has now become one of the largest urban agriculture initiatives in the United States is a testament to their determination and the power of local food.
The population decline in Detroit has led to 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 abandoned houses and 90,000 vacant lots. Poverty and unemployment has limited Detroiters access to fresh, nutritional food. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative however believes that vacant land, poor diet, nutritional illiteracy, and food insecurity are several problems in Detroit that can be reversed by grassroots urban agriculture. By using abandoned land to produce food, Detroiters have begun to increase their access to real food and create jobs.
There are several businesses and non profit organizations that have taken the lead in Detroit’s urban farming movement. Food Field, for example, is a business that started in 2011 by turning an abandoned school into a four acre organic farm. With nearly 20 square miles of vacant space and a poor economy, the city is very willing to sell its vacant lots to people interested in urban agriculture. Food Field produces a wide range of vegetables including spinach, tomatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, radish pods and squash blossoms. They also have apple, pear, cherry, plum, chestnut and paw paw tress as well as over 50 laying hens and ducks, a pond of 500 catfish and blue gill and honeybees. This food is sold through a cooperative called the City Commons CSA, which sells food from several farms in Detroit to local businesses and CSA members.
The Greening of Detroit is a non profit organization which plants trees, gardens and farms throughout Detroit. Not only do these grassroots organizations produce food and jobs, but by beautifying the city, they can boost residents’ morale and make the place more desirable for visitors. Furthermore, the Greening of Detroit started an organization called Green Corps, which hires about 200 high school students each summer to tend these gardens. Since the start of Green Corps 45 schools in Detroit have started their own raised bed gardens to supply their cafeterias. Rebecca Witt, who runs the Greening of Detroit says that “We’re teaching [students] how eating the stuff that they’re growing is different than going to the gas station and buying Cheetos. People always talk about the difficulties of getting kids to eat vegetables. When they grow those vegetables, it’s not hard at all.”
Another element on the forefront of urban agriculture in Detroit is Detroit Grown and Made. The campaign was created in 2014 as a collaboration between the Detroit FoodLab and farms in Detroit. The FoodLab is a network of local restaurant owners and food entrepreneurs. By organizing with local farms, Detroit Grown and Made seeks to have all food based businesses in Detroit source their products from Detroit farms.
Guns and Butter is one such restaurant which sources a lot of their food from Detroit farms and hires Detroiters. In this way, urban agriculture helps create jobs in other sectors of society. General Motors, too, wishes to see their city revitalized and has recently begun to donate old engine shipping containers to be used as raised beds in vacant lots. This way the owner of the lot doesn’t have to tear up the asphalt to produce crops.
Detroit’s motto is “We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes”. It seems that the city has lived up to the motto and has been able to turn decay and ruin into productive and beautiful spaces. As we have seen in Cuba’s urban farming revolution, economic hardship often causes people to rethink how they use their urban space, and hopefully Detroiters’ determination and ingenuity will help them to continue to recover their vibrant city spirit.