Sunday, August 29, 2010

D-Town Farm (Sort of) and Detroit's Urban Farming Movement (Mostly) and Detroit as a Urban Prairie and Food Desert (a Lot of That Too)

Because I did not receive a passing grade on this exam, I failed the Fall semester of one of my publications. However, this does not mean that my many hours of hard work in writing and research (*cough*) can't still be shared with the world. And let this be a lesson to, well, ME: phoning it in may work 97% of the time, but that other 3% is going to get called out. I wonder if this egg on my face would make a good omelette...


With its sprawling acres of vacant, underutilized land parcels, the city of Detroit has earned the designation of “urban prairie,” a term coined to characterize an urban area’s seemingly endless acres of vacant land covered in weeds and litter often as the result of extensive demolition and urban decay. While some have viewed this as being symptomatic of the city’s blight and degradation, others see hope and opportunity in the open fields, arguing instead that the city is being reclaimed by nature and as a community we are returning to our roots. The past two years have seen an almost explosive trend of urban farms and community gardens throughout the city, tended by everything from schools to churches to restaurants to neighborhood communities. As a result, Detroit is at the forefront of a nationwide effort towards healthfulness and sustainability through urban agriculture, a significant factor in any dialogue on the subject due to our uniquely low agricultural density.

For many of the groups and organizations that tend their own farms and gardens, the concept itself means a lot more than simply growing your own produce. Another contributing factor unique to such a large city as Detroit is the lack of “food security.” The term “food security” refers to all the members of a community having easy access to adequate amounts of affordable and nutritious food. In the city of Detroit, the reality is that many city dwellers do not have a grocery store within a mile of their homes, making gas stations and convenience stores such as CVS or Rite-Aid primary food sources with fast food replacing home-cooked meals in many households. So it is our urban prairie has also become a food desert.

It was this community-wide food security deficiency that led to the development of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) in 2006. The DBCFSN is a grassroots nonprofit organization which aims to change the way we think about food -- where it comes from, who controls it -- through several key programs designed to promote healthful eating habits and foster awareness of urban agriculture and sustainability. One of these programs is D-Town Farm.

In June 2008, the DBCFSN acquired the use of a two-acre site in the City of Detroit’s Meyers’ Tree Nursery in Rouge Park after two years of negotiations with City Council and the Planning, General Services and Recreation Departments, licensed for $1 annually for 10 years. This plot of land is D-Town Farm.

The urban farm movement is practically indigenous to Detroit. It has very strong roots in the city, with such well-respected nonprofit organizations as Urban Farming making international headlines with outposts all over the US and Caribbean Islands and headquartered, well, HERE. Especially over the last few years Detroit’s urban agriculture efforts have grown exponentially, currently totaling over 100 individual farms and gardens -- from the smallest shared community plots to larger, more industrialized operations (factor in small family gardens and that total becomes a towering 1200).

What makes this agro-socioeconomic movement so specific to Detroit is the very glut of vacant land that has otherwise been considered a representation of the city’s decline. The city’s total landmass spans a sprawling 140 square miles -- in other words, large enough to fit Manhattan, Boston AND San Francisco inside its borders with room to spare -- with much of it standing unused, whether playing overextended host to long-abandoned buildings and burnt-out houses or simply razed lots overgrown with grass and weeds. According to a block-by-block survey conducted by the Detroit Data Collaborative late last summer, there are a total of 91,488 vacant lots in the city, or roughly one-third of all residential parcels.

D-Town Farm is a model urban farm. Their operation includes organic vegetable plots, two bee hives, a hoop house for year-round food production, and a composting operation. Their produce is grown using sustainable, chemical-free practices and is sold on the farm as well as at Eastern Market and in urban growers’ markets throughout Detroit. The farm also hosts an annual Harvest Festival, which offers hands-on “learnshops,” free health screenings, children’s activities, farm tours, and of course all of their fresh produce is available for purchase.

Aside from simply practicing sustainability and providing the community with the fresh, healthful food it lacks, what makes D-Town Farm such a “model” urban farm is the way in which it engages the community. Every Saturday and Sunday from 8:00am – noon volunteers are welcomed to give a helping hand on the farm, which aids in the DBCFSN’s goal of facilitating mutual support and collective action among their members. They are also partnered with three African-centered schools in the Food Warriors Youth Development Program, which encourages young people to pursue careers in agriculture, aquaculture, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, and other food-related fields.

But what separates D-Town Farm, and more specifically the DBCFSN, from other organizations espousing similar ideals regarding health, community and sustainability is their particular focus on the African American community, which comprises the majority population of the city of Detroit and is the community most profoundly affected by this food desert (such as with diet-controllable health ailments like diabetes and obesity). Viewing the food security deficiency issue as being not only an issue of community health but a greater socioeconomic issue directly affecting the majority African American population, the DBCFSN has written public policy on food security, citing economic injustice in the food systems and identifying the shocking absence of African Americans in participation and ownership within them. They speak of food literacy, culture as dynamic, and economically vulnerable families living with a constant threat of hunger whose nearest access to inexpensive food is the heavily processed and severely unhealthy items found at gas stations, party stores, dollar stores and fast food chains. All taken together, theirs is a carefully articulated argument regarding the interdependency of food, health, access and affordability as it affects this specific population and its restricted resources.

D-Town Farm is a pinnacle example of how urban farming can directly and positively affect a community and exemplifies all that which can be achieved through community outreach and education. For the members and leaders of the DBCFSN, it is not simply enough THAT people eat the sustainably-grown, healthy produce, but also that they understand why they SHOULD, and how food security so deeply impacts the community. For all its woes, the city of Detroit is rich with people who are passionate to effect this change, and ironically it is because of its declined population and vast vacancy that they have the opportunity to do so.