Spring 2015 Article

Case Study of Urban Agriculture Redeveloping Detroit

By Shannon Kinne
Photo credit: ©2012 Food Forward Productions

The city of Detroit is unique in comparison to other major cities in the United States because, over the past sixty years, it has transformed from the world capital of car manufacturing into a blighted city typified by vacant lots. Detroit seems to be the butt of every joke regarding American urban decay because its decline was so abrupt that it left many people searching for new ways to make a sufficient income. Today, the people of Detroit struggle to find work and affordable, healthy food for themselves and their families. As a result, urban agriculture has become an outlet for people of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles to work together to produce healthy food that can be distributed within the city, or sold for profit. In the past, we have observed individual or family victory gardens, but urban farming has begun to take a larger role, based on community empowerment and social justice. Community based urban agriculture provides people who live in food deserts with more healthy food options, ultimately decreasing food insecurity within the city's the population. The most vulnerable members of the population, including single mothers, children, and low-income persons, benefit the most from urban agriculture because it is a sustainable way to cheaply grow healthy produce. Urban agriculture is responsible for a significant portion of the much-needed urban redevelopment of Detroit, and is drawing in new, green innovative residents. Drawing lessons from Cuba, many non-profits and community-based organizations, such as Earthworks, are working to build a vibrant urban farming community in Detroit.

The Rise and Fall of Detroit

In 1903, Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company in the city of Detroit, which borders Canada, Lake Erie, and Lake St. Clair. Ford’s methods of manufacturing were revolutionary: he created large-scale assembly lines that were able to assemble cars very quickly and cheaply. Ford also created an environment that was worker-friendly with high hourly wages, benefits, safe working conditions, and vacation time. These characteristics were unheard of in other industries, making Detroit car manufacturing companies an attractive option for young workers. The population of Detroit peaked in 1950 at 1.8 million people, making it America’s fourth largest city (Snyder). Since then, both the population and economy have been in decline.

The economic decline of Detroit’s industries has led to many sad consequences. According to economist Michael Snyder, in the last sixty years the number of manufacturing jobs in Detroit has fallen from 296,000 to 27,000 positions. According to the United States Department of Labor, the current official unemployment rate in Detroit is up to 14.6%. The high unemployment rate caused many people to move out of the Detroit area. In the last sixty years there has also been a 63% decrease in population. As a result, there are over 70,000 abandoned buildings, 90,000 vacant lots, and 31,000 empty houses within the city limits (Snyder). Detroit has become a graveyard of the collapsed auto industry.

The average household in Detroit makes less than half of the national average income. In 2011, the national average household income was $50,502, while Detroit’s average household income average was a measly $25,193. It is nearly impossible for a household with more than one member to support itself on such a low average income. There remains a lot of racial tension that discourages new businesses from coming into the area: the current population of Detroit is 82% African American, 11% White, and 7% Hispanic/Latino (Snyder).

Crime rates have also risen to five times the national average, caused by both high unemployment rates and a 40% budget cut for city police (Snyder). In 2009, 44% of Detroit’s residents lived below the poverty line. Sixty-six percent of those in poverty are members of female headed-households (Snyder). The U.S. Census Bureau found that 15% of students in Detroit Public High Schools dropped-out before graduation in 2009. It was also estimated that only 12% of high school graduates of Detroit Public Schools will graduate from college (Wirth). These demographics make for an increased amount of unskilled labor, yet no manufacturing jobs to sustain them. This is a major cause of the city's pervasively high crime rates.

Detroit has also become one giant food desert. According to Mari Gallagher’s research on food deserts in Detroit, the average person lives .2 miles from a local liquor store, dollar store, convenience store, party store, or gas station that sells food, yet the closest full-service grocery store is two to three times further from each resident’s home. There were an estimated 500,000 residents of Detroit who lived in food deserts in 2009. Gallagher observed that 22% of Detroit residents in 2009 used government distributed food stamps, and that 60% of food stamps were used at liquor stores, gas stations, and convenience stores in the Detroit area, which she believes are ‘the last front before hunger.' There are no large-scale chain grocery stores left within the city limits of Detroit such as Safeway, Kroger, Costco, or Whole Foods. The last chain grocery store decided to move out of the area in 2007 (Harrison). Instead, people have to rely on independently run, small-scale grocery stores, most of which have higher prices than large chain grocery stores, which low-income households cannot afford. CNN economist Sheena Harrison has observed that, “poor perceptions of Detroit's market strength, the costs of doing business in the city, and the difficulty of hiring and retaining good local workers scare away the big retailers,” even though there are ever-increasing calls for chain grocery stores to come into the area with more affordable products.

Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and Food Justice

In order to examine the ways in which urban agriculture can revive a community such as Detroit, we must define food security, food sovereignty, and food justice. Food security is achieved when people have access to affordable healthy food that is safe to eat and culturally appropriate. Community food security is defined as “a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice” (Bellows). Food justice implies the examination of food security through history, society, and economics that cause widespread inequality, which results in food insecurity both locally and globally. “Food security is more about analyzing problems, ameliorating issues and providing answers…[Food justice] involves local people from seed to sale. It educates, organizes and mobilizes new social relations around food. It touches hands, hearts, and pockets,” notes Ian Marvy, co-director of a successful urban garden located in Brooklyn. Food sovereignty is also a factor of community food security that the first Global Forum on Food Sovereignty of 2007 defined as,

“The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.” (USFSA).

In Detroit, urban agriculture has become a viable solution to creating more food security and sovereignty among its residents. Communities working together to alleviate food insecurity caused by vast food deserts in the Greater Detroit Area also creates food justice. One of the main groups working to alleviate food deserts, increase urban agriculture and create food justice is Earthworks, a non-profit revolutionizing Detroit's blighted neighborhoods.

Food Sovereignty in Cuba

The model of self-sufficient urban agriculture Detroit is pioneering in America has a model in Cuba. During the Cold War, Cuba formed an alliance with the Soviet Union shortly after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Under Fidel Castro’s rule Cuba became a communist nation, similar to the Soviet Union. Cuba became economically and militarily dependent on the Soviet Union under strict economic sanctions from Democratic nations. By 1989, 57% of Cuba’s caloric intake was imported from the Soviet Union . When the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in 1991 Cuba found itself isolated in the midst of a food crisis, in which much of the countries population was experiencing food insecurity (Quirk). People became desperate for fresh produce and started growing their own crops in gardens on their balconies, rooftops, and in vacant lots.

Cuban government officials recognized the positive impact on food security and nutrition that urban gardens provided and formed an Urban Agriculture Department in 1994 to facilitate the development of urban agriculture. There were four major acts that this department created that promoted urban agriculture: it adjusted city laws to make it legal and free to adapt unused, public land into food production plots; it trained community members to monitor, educate, and promote gardeners in their neighborhoods; “Seed Houses” were constructed to provide agricultural resources to locals; and it helped establish Farmers’ Markets so that farmers could sell directly to the consumer and earn a profit. By 1998, there were over 8,000 independent and government-owned urban farms in Havana, Cuba’s largest city. Cuban farmers are also unique in the sense that virtually all of their farms are organic because pesticides were not imported (Quirk). In 2002, Cuba produced 3.4 million metric tons of produce for 31,000 acres of urban farms. Currently, experts estimate that there are 81,000 acres of urban farms. Havana produced 90% of fresh food in local gardens in 2006 (Buncombe). Cuba’s promotion of urban agriculture gave a nutritionally vulnerable population food sovereignty.

Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union’s markets is comparable to that of Detroit’s dependency on the auto industry. Both collapsed quickly, leaving many people struggling to put food on the table. Cuba is proof that with government support partnered with community-based participation, urban agriculture can create food sovereignty for an entire population. If Detroit’s city government made further strides to promote urban agriculture, such as tax deductions for people working in urban farms or increased government grants to construct urban gardens, it too could gain food sovereignty.

Earthworks: Pioneering Food Security in America

Earthworks is the first and oldest certified-organic farm in Detroit, and has been working there for over a decade to improve the lives of Detroit's residents. It is a community-based farm and educational organization that is one of the few addressing the difficult food situation in Detroit. While common in developing countries, non-profits dedicated to teaching urban-dwellers how to grow their own food is a novel concept in America, the richest country in the history of the world, but one in which wealth is unevenly distributed. Drawing on lessons from development projects throughout the world, and especially in Cuba, Earthworks is dedicated to improving the lives of Detroiters while proving that urban agriculture can be a force for good in the United states. It is compost-based and does not use any harmful chemicals in their processes, providing a sustainable and healthy alternative to locally-available food sources. Since Michigan has a harsh climate, only seasonal plants native to Michigan are grown on Earthworks’ urban farm such as apples, blueberries, raspberries, corn, spinach, beans, carrots, and flowers. The greenhouse built in 2004 made it possible for Earthworks to continue their farming during the winter months. A 30-hive beekeeping facility has also been installed, which has allowed Earthworks to produce jams, honeys, and hand balms.  These products can then be sold year round at their markets where the proceeds are then returned to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen (Earthworks).

Earthworks has two different programs that benefit youth in the community, a key part of Earthworks' goal of empowering communities in the realm of food production. For younger children Earthworks hosts a weekly class called Growing Healthy Kid which teaches basic gardening skills, nutrition, cultural awareness, environmental awareness, and physical education. The kids also get to help with planning flower and vegetable gardens, painting signs, basic food preparation, and beekeeping. For older children, Earthworks developed the Youth Farm Stand program in 2005. The participants learn all aspects of Detroit’s urban community food system. Not only do the kids learn how to farm, harvest, plan, and prepare food, but they also market and run a farm stand. (Earthworks)

Earthworks also partnered with The Greening of Detroit to create a Youth Growing Detroit program, which brings youth participating in urban gardens all over the city together to discuss food security issues, marketing strategies, and local poverty. The youth participating even receive stipends for their market work (Earthworks).

In 2008, Earthworks began to redirect its efforts to community food justice and security issues. After reexamining these issues, Earthworks reorganized to bring the majority of their produce back into the Capuchin Soup Kitchen to bring fresh food to those with the least accessibility to it. Weekly meetings were created to bring members of the community together to develop ideas to overcome community food insecurity. As a result, Earthworks was able to begin sponsoring community gardens at local senior centers. Earthworks has also held a series of Food Justice Community Gatherings, in which they have invited soup kitchen guests, neighbors, volunteers, partners, and Detroit residents to come together for a potluck and engage in discussion about what can be done to improve food security among the community. Earthworks has also made a conscious effort to have its staff members be more representative of the community and be more grassroots based. They have encouraged more members of the community to step into leadership positions (Earthworks).

An estimated 7,000 pounds of produce is harvested in Earthworks’ gardens yearly. This helps contribute to the 2,000 meals served daily in the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, as well as the estimated 25 million pounds of food distributed yearly by Gleaners Community Food Bank. Earthworks’ greenhouse has produced more than 100,000 vegetable seedlings for community gardens, local families, and school gardens across the city. Earthworks has also contributed to creating greater community food security and advocated for food justice (Bonfiglio). Earthworks’ programs have reconnected people of all ages back to the Earth and their relationship to food, and given a sense of power to people who must normally find food at convenience stores or in soup kitchens.

Earthworks is merely a small-scale case study of what Detroit will look like in the near future. Since Detroit has an abundance of vacant lots and the real-estate market is at an all-time low, small-scale farmers are finding it affordable to move into the area (Snyder). This has lead to a dramatic increase in urban gardens. In 2010, there were already 1,300 urban gardens in the Detroit area (Feeding the World).  Detroit is rapidly being transformed from the Motor City to the Green Revolution City, looking to an island in the Caribbean as a model of how to make this transformation a reality.

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