Urban Farms, Gardens, and Food Desert Myths
Detroit is famous for a lot of things and more and more the city is becoming known for urban farming. During our week-long visit as part of the Price School’s LEAP Detroit Lab, we saw the range of urban farming and gardening first hand.
Lafayette Greens was just down the street from our hotel. It sits in the heart of downtown Detroit, appropriately (ironically?) on the site of a demolished high rise. An oasis of raised beds and fruit trees with places for office workers to sit and have lunch and charming scarecrows fashioned out of old car parts. It’s a clean, modern, and charming space originally funded by Compuware and recently donated to the long standing non-profit organization, Greening of Detroit to manage.
A world away from the resurgent downtown is the northwest Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor. In 2011, one headline dubbed it Detroit’s Deadliest Neighborhood and if you’ve ever seen a picture of a depopulated Detroit neighborhood with scores of empty lots, you’ve probably see a picture of Brightmoor. But like so many things in Detroit, there’s another side to the story. On our initial bus tour of the city, Brightmoor was our first stop and showed us a surprising range of urban farming, from hydroponics, to side lot gardening, to a goat filled B&B, all run by people who actually live in the neighborhood.
Artesian Farms, a vertical, hydroponic, indoor farm has slogan “For Goodness Sake” and is run with clear-eyed enthusiasm by Jeff Adams, a former auto executive and longtime Brightmoor neighbor. Growing lettuce, spinach, basil and the like inside a low rise concrete block building surrounded by light industry may sound odd or bleak, but Artesian Farms hooked us. After a quick tour of the facility and seeing and hearing about the upside of hydroponic farming (90% less water, 96% less land, organic, no need for pesticides, and local) we were all believers. Yvette Martinez Martin, also a Brightmoor resident, led us through the growing process and shared a bite of crisp lettuce before sending us off to see some more traditional farming and gardening going on in the neighborhood.
Neighbors Building Brightmoor is just what the name says, a group of neighbors working on a range of neighborhood initiatives including blight remediation, community planning and greenspace development that all started with a youth garden. Brightmoor is now said to have over 35 gardens, pocket parks, orchards, a community greenhouse and even a popular airbnb with the previously mentioned goats plus rabbits, bees and chickens. In addition to helping with the blight, we saw first-hand how these urban farms can build community – a neighbor and community organizer hopped on the bus to tell us about various projects and state resources for urban gardening, another organizer joined us to talk about the group of intellectually disabled adults who work in a one of community gardens as therapy and, in addition to the gardens, we saw lots of artwork on display, mostly the handiwork of neighborhood children. Make no mistake, Brightmoor still has more challenges than kale but the positive impact of community gardening/farming were evident.
The largest urban farm that we toured was D-Town Farm, a program of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. DBCFSN was formed in 2006 to address food insecurity and to organize the Black community to play a more active leadership role in the local food security movement. Located inside a city park, D-Town Farm is a beautiful place and well worth a visit. We toured the seven acre farm with founder, Malik Yakini, an activist with a capital A who schooled and challenged our group on everything from terminology, (minority? in a city where 85% of the population is Black…) to crop rotation and compost. Malik was not shy about his politics or his farm. D-Town Farm employs sustainable, chemical-free practices, and sells its produce at Eastern Market, farm stands, and has a buyers club/farm share.
Finally, a word about food deserts. Inevitably, when I talk about Detroit, someone always brings up food deserts, the lack of grocery stores and, of course, the Whole Foods Detroit store. According to the firm Data Driven Detroit, there are 77 “full line” grocery stores that sell dry groceries, canned goods, and nonfood items as well as fresh produce, meat, and dairy products in the city. The Whole Foods is the best known of those 77 because most of the other stores are not national chains and/or they’re small neighborhood places that Detroiters like to call “party stores” (‘cause that’s where you buy your booze, chips and other sundries for a party). And with all the urban farms come lots of farmer’s markets. Detroit Community Markets works with growers to organize “neighborhood food access outlets” like farmers’ markets, produce stores, food trucks, and food box programs. Detroit certainly has problems with access to healthy food and many of the local markets are hidden in plain sight but let’s stop calling it a food desert.