Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
To mend the city’s food system, urban farmers and entrepreneurs are working to funnel fresh produce and artisanal goods to local tables.
DETROIT, Mich.—On a June evening around sundown, birds’ chirping dominates the soundscape on Pine Street in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. A robin flits around ankle-high grass, cocking its head. A family of pheasants bobs past on a road mottled with potholes.
Then you notice the hum of cars barreling down the six-lane Fisher Freeway at the end of the block. Beyond the interstate is the façade of Michigan Central Station and, less than two miles past that, the red letters of the Ambassador Bridge, connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. There’s a gas station, and, in the distance, lights from casinos. As the sun melts toward the horizon, it slinks behind trees and telephone poles. To them, someone has nailed a request: “Don’t pick the veggies, thanks.”
This is the urban prairie, and it’s where Ryan Anderson, the co-owner of ACRE farm, is setting up for the first CSA pickup of the season. He pours snap peas into wicker baskets and spritzes radishes with water from a spray bottle so they look perky and dewy. He swirls lavender lemonade and stacks jars of honey.
ACRE is one of many urban farms in Detroit that distribute what they grow locally. Earthworks Urban Farm, for instance, grows food for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen; Lafayette Greens, close to the city center, bundles fresh greens and other produce to hand out for free each Tuesday. Volunteers dole out portions so that it doesn’t all go to the first person through the doors, but there are no other stipulations. “It’s food justice, for real,” says Romondo Woods II, the farm manager.
These organizations are working to ford considerable chasms in terms of access. Across the transit-strapped city, where nearly one-third of Detroiters don’t own a vehicle, many residents have a hard time reliably procuring nutritious produce. County-wide, nearly 23 percent of residents are estimated to be food insecure. Research from the National Poverty Center found that in Metro Detroit, food insecurity was exacerbated by the recession and disproportionately affected black families; the effects are particularly pronounced among families with delinquent bills or other debts, found a survey conducted by the University of Michigan.
When produce is available, it’s often of a much lower quality than shoppers would find in higher-income neighborhoods, such as the suburbs north of the city, says Malik Yakini, co-founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. A 2012 study of the city’s food system found that the Detroit stores that did sell produce often did so in unsanitary or unappetizing conditions. Of the 207 food purveyors the researchers surveyed, nearly a quarter were selling expired meat products; the same number were stocking decaying fruits and vegetables. Health code violations were especially frequent—and most egregious—in the areas that had the highest poverty levels and concentration of black and Latino residents.
Maybe the solution could be plucked from the city’s vibrant urban farms. Detroit’s 1,400 urban growers are generating a lot of produce—by some estimates, as much as 400,000 pounds a year. A crop of farmers, nonprofits, and small-scale entrepreneurs hopes to leverage that bounty to help mend a food system they describe as broken.
Getting local food to locals
In Brightmoor, on Detroit’s northwest side, kids grow and sell produce through local youth gardens and market stands. One roadside stand bears a sign reading: “This garden is by kids, for kids. Please respect our profit: Look, don’t pick!”
Often, though, the food grown in the city quickly leaves it, heading to markets closer to the suburbs. The kids are tending the food, but not necessarily reaping nutritional benefits. Across Wayne County, more than 102,000 children live in food-insecure households, according to a 2015 report from Feeding America. “They know how to prepare a space, grow an eggplant… but have they eaten one?” asks Brittany Bradd, a 24-year-old Americorps volunteer who lives and works in the area.
Previous research has offered murky insight into remedying food deserts. When it comes to encouraging healthy eating habits in areas that lack fresh options, availability is only part of the equation: access to fruits and vegetables doesn’t necessarily translate to eating them. To bridge the gap between production and consumption, Bradd is working with a local nonprofit, the Brightmoor Artisans Collective, to open a community kitchen. The space will offer nutrition and cooking classes, as well as work stations to make value-added products such as pickles and jams. A grant from the USDA allowed the organization to buy dehydrators and other equipment. The finished products will extend the lifespan of produce harvested from the Farmway, a vibrant patchwork of urban gardens in the neighborhood. Value-added products can help farmers and their neighbors stretch the harvest throughout the year.
Though there are a few local convenience stores that sell odds and ends, the closest grocery store, Bradd says, is two miles away. So, next to the kitchen, they’re opening a community space that will offer soup and sandwiches on consignment: a neighbor can make a vat of soup, drop it off, and the kitchen will sell it by the cup.
They’ll accept EBT, and will also try a work/trade system, where volunteers receive coins to trade in to rent a selling space at the market or a workspace in the kitchen. The facility is designed by and for the people in the neighborhood, Bradd says, with the goal of “helping them love the space in whatever way you can.”
Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes have canvassed dozens of farms—sometimes as many as eight a week. They’ve been working to build relationships with local growers who will sell via consignment at their new market, The Farmer’s Hand, in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Local farmers can price their own goods; they’ll see 70 percent of the profits.
The neighborhood, in the shadow of Michigan Central Station, is flecked with gardens, weekly farmstands, and CSAs like Anderson’s—but it’s bisected by a freeway, and between market days, there’s currently no place to go for fresh food. “The market screamed for a grocery store,” Louya tells me over coffee at Ponyride, an entrepreneurial incubator in a former warehouse. Louya and Foulkes hope to weave their business into the network of nearby urban farms. They’ll stock some of the harvest from Anderson’s ACRE farm, as well as some of Greg Willerer’s yield from Brother Nature Produce. “We want to co-exist and complement each other,” Louya says.
One way they’ll aim to accomplish that is by serving as a convener between producers and consumers, freeing up farmers to focus on their land. Many growers shoulder commitments to a handful of restaurants and markets. “What time do you have left to farm?” Louya asks. “We hope our model can help a little bit… we can be that marketing face and retail platform for them and take one step out of their process.”
The market will open in a neighborhood with both long-term residents and newer transplants. It’s home to a smattering of record shops, bars, and vintage stores but there’s also a low-income housing community across the street from the site (itself a long-shuttered market). The owners are cognizant of the need to carry goods that are accessible to both established residents and the higher-income newcomers to the area.
That balancing act speaks to a challenge that many local startups in Detroit are trying to navigate, says Devita Davison, the marketing coordinator at FoodLab Detroit, an incubator program for local food businesses. Food grown in Detroit travels from the producers to the packagers, but not necessarily back to local consumers. In order to turn a profit, some small businesses might buy produce from local farms, but then process it into jam or pickles that may be priced too high for local residents to afford.
“Can they compete with a $0.99 jar of Smuckers? Underemployed poor people can’t afford a $5.99 jar of jam,” Davison says. One solution, she says, is insisting on local manufacturing. Even if locals are not necessarily the target demographic for the products, companies “could employ a Detroiter who can earn a fair living wage and provide food on the table,” Davison says.
At the Farmer’s Hand, Louya and Foulkes hope to sidestep this tension by scaling down the sizes of some goods in order to make them available at lower prices. And they’ll experiment with bulk or loose items, so customers can weigh out precisely the amount they want to spend.
They also hope to unfasten words like “artisanal” from an association with any particular socio-economic bracket. Such words sometimes signal luxury goods, Foulkes notes—but they don’t have to. To Louya, they telegraph “good, quality, slow food—and the proceeds go directly back to the farmers, who may live across the way.”
“I understand that in the neighborhood where we’re going to be selling, most people aren’t going to be coming in looking for organic quinoa and kale chips,” says Malik Yakini. “We want to meet people where they are and provide what they’re used to, but also provide other options.”
Yakini—who, with his colleagues, operates D-Town Farm, one of the largest urban farms in the city—is working with fellow DBCFSN members to open the Detroit People’s Food Co-Op, a 7,500-square foot grocery store, 50-seat café, and licensed commercial kitchen on Woodward Avenue near Grand Boulevard. The $8 million project will be partially funded by equity fees; they expect to raise $240,000 from member-owners paying $200 apiece. One of their aims is to capture more of the profits from retaining, processing, and circulating locally grown produce within the community.
Though Yakini is a vegan and eats organic food, he says the co-op will stock a mix of items that are culturally and economically accessible. A just food system, he says, requires business owners to engage with the community. “That could look like growing a large percentage of the fruits and vegetables we consume locally; creating the infrastructure to process those into finished food products, locally; and capturing economic value that’s generated as a result of the sale and distribution of those products,” he says. The co-op, to him, is one step toward dismantling a system that’s dysfunctional from top to bottom.
Connecting producers with more resources
Around 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Eastern Market’s sheds are already teeming with customers pawing through tubs of lettuce or holding up bouquets of radishes. On busy weekends, as many as 80,000 shoppers amble through the historic produce market. That bustle can translate into many potential sales; one farmer told me he can make as much as $1,000 during a shift. And the number of customers could be poised to increase, now that the city’s transit agency is considering expanding bus routes to shuttle residents from six neighborhoods to the market. The “Fresh Wagon” could start chugging along this fall.
But for small-scale urban farmers, there can be pragmatic and financial barriers to taking advantage of the opportunity to sell at Eastern Market: Every hour a grower is selling at market is one that he or she isn’t able to tend to the crops. Farmers must also carry $1 million in liability insurance in order to reserve a booth. For many, it’s just not feasible to go it alone.
The Grown in Detroit collaborative offers a way for smaller operations to bring their goods to market. Grown in Detroit takes on staffing and provides insurance. When I arrived, farmers were still dumping heads of lettuce out of the bags they’d used to transport them from their farms, fluffing the leaves in wicker baskets on brightly colored tablecloths, amid bok choy, rhubarb stalks, and some of the season’s first strawberries. Growers can plan collectively at the beginning of the season, or just bring what’s fresh each week. It’s a pretty loose arrangement, says the wholesale coordinator, Eitan Sussman. “We can anticipate what’s coming, but not 1, 2, 3, x, y, z,” he says. Annually, about 60 growers participate in the consortium—some a few times a month, some just once or twice a year.
Looking forward, the architects of the Eastern Market 2025 plan—a development initiative to expand the organization’s footprint and reach—suggest that on-site manufacturing could be the connective tissue between producers and consumers. In order to catapult their businesses to a wider consumer base and increase profitability, Davison says, small-scale businesses need options beyond what church basements and other borrowed spaces can provide.
Detroit’s farms and gardens serve many purposes, Davison says: they’re green patches where neighbors converse and build community; they teach kids about healthy eating; they can be sources of revenue. They can also be a homegrown solution to the problem of disappearing grocery stores and the proliferation of fast-food joints and corner stores. “Simply growing,” Davison says, “is an act of resilience.” And when that produce feeds local mouths, that resilience comes full circle.
This story is the final installment of a three-part series about urban agriculture in Detroit. The first story looked at farming as resilience; the second focused on how agriculture co-exists with redevelopment efforts.