I live in a suburb of Detroit, in southeastern Michigan. For many years, large swathes of Detroit have been food deserts – areas where there are no supermarkets, meaning no fresh meat or produce, just the nutritionally unhealthful stuff like chips and snacks available at liquor stores.
80% of Detroiters are Black, many living in poverty because White people have historically seen to it that Black communities remain underfinanced. As Sonali Kolhatkar puts it:
“U.S. cities are deeply segregated, often with streets or highways separating higher-income predominantly White neighborhoods from lower-income predominantly Black ones.
This is not an accident of history, but rather a geographical modern-day manifestation of age-old institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation…predominantly Black neighborhoods are marked by lower income levels, poorer quality education, lower access to employment, greater violence, and more racist policing.”
The list of discriminatory practices in the history of Detroit is long: denying Black homebuyers and entrepreneurs bank loans (Black soldiers did not receive housing funds and education vouchers given to White veterans after World War II); punitive policing; limiting public transportation so that Blacks can’t “integrate” the suburbs or get to better jobs there; not to mention bulldozing the one neighborhood where Blacks owned businesses and upscale housing and running a highway through it.
With White officials long refusing to respond to their demands for reform, it is not surprising that Black Detroiters have historically distrusted the idea of “integration” (working together with Whites) to favor Black solidarity in political and community action. Although the present Mayor, Mike Duggan, is White and an enthusiastic proponent of reform, Blacks elected him and Black self-determination remains the predominant force in Detroit politics.
The solution to food deserts: Black Detroiters’ urban gardening
Since Detroit area supermarket chains have long been loath to build outlets in their neighborhoods, in a vibrant project to grow their own food and do away with food deserts, Black Detroiters use vacant lots where underfunding and evictions have led to widespread demolition.
I remember the excitement when the Brightmoor gardeners discovered that they not only had enough food for their own families (the original goal) but sufficient abundance to take a stall at Detroit’s Eastern (Farmer’s) Market.
Such initiatives directly address the problem of food deserts: There are community gardens all over Detroit, providing not only fresh and nutritious food but also services like food banks, clothing giveaways and school supplies.
An important impact of these local circular economies is that they fill participants with a sense of agency – “We make good choices! We can do it!” – and a solid sense of community. As our online encyclopedia puts it:
“Essentially community gardening is seen as a way of creating a relationship between people and a place through social and physical engagement. Most urban gardens are created on vacant land that varies in size and is generally gardened as individual plots by community members. Such areas can support social, cultural, and artistic events and contribute to the rebuilding of local community spirit.”
From their first inception, urban gardens have sought the good of the environment. Some farmers integrate discoveries about regenerative agriculture into their practice.
For example, at Sanctuary Farms on Detroit’s East Side, Parker Jean and Jøn Kent, with their team of volunteers. lay out cardboard and paper bags to starve invasive weedy plants instead of using herbicides, plant marigolds and lavender amid squash, melons, and collards instead of using pesticides; and turn food scraps into compost.
In cities like Detroit, urban gardening enhances not only nutrition and community building doing away with the nutritional imbalances caused by food deserts; it also addresses Environmental Injustice: The disproportionate impact of air and water pollution on neighborhoods where the poor and people of color live.
Sanctuary Gardens seeks to mitigate the issue of polluted water by using regenerative methods. Detroit’s Urban flooding and garden are also addressed by urban farm managers.
How is all of this urban farming financed?
Urban Gardening uses a variety of public and private stakeholders – businesses and faith organizations along with city, state, and federal funding.
One source of grants is Detroit’s branch of the 2030 initiative for green urban architecture, which tackles the problem that few Black farmers in Detroit actually own the land they are cultivating. Often, communities with urban farmers raise money for their projects with local funding drives.
Jerry Hebron of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm cooperated in setting up the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund which was able to raise an initial budget of $55,000; now he cooperates with the City of Detroit and a variety of stakeholders to overcome the entrenched disparity between Black and White land ownership, providing Detroit’s dedicated urban farmers a sense of financial security in the land they work.
Closing the loop between crops and consumers in Detroit Urban farming is part of a worldwide move for cooperation between local producers and local economies.
In a linear farm economy dependent on a widespread distribution system, crops might be grown and harvested in California and move along a “supply chain” or chain of events (processing, transport) to be sold to consumers thousands of miles away. Prices go up with every link in the chain.
The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) explains that, in a linear economy, “Food systems actors, such as farmers, processing industries and retailers, have limited interaction with stakeholders outside of their segment of the food value chain. As a result, impacts down or up the value chains remain unaddressed.”
“Circular food systems, ” in contrast, are “committed to sustainable urban development” influencing “sustainability policy and driving local action for low emission, nature-based, equitable, resilient and circular development.”
The gardens flourishing in Detroit’s vacant lots are based on the same concept as the English village commons that were free for mutual sustenance until the Enclosure movement destroyed villagers’ access in favor of large-scale cash crops.
It seems to me that such historical abuse of the land for the benefit of the few is being felicitously reversed in today’s urban gardens, where communities are restoring ownership of their commons and creating food oases out of food deserts.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Brother Nature Produce Urban Farm in Detroit Source: Michigan Municipal League photo taken on April 21, 2011 Flickr cc