Fields of Opportunity: Urban farms serve at-risk communities
By Emily Fox, WKAR
Lansing's first urban farm has popped up on the city's east side. The Urbandale Farm Project is part of a larger movement to utilize vacant land and provide fresh produce to urban communities, including Detroit.
In Lansing's Urbandale neighborhood, a handful of volunteers get their hands dirty on the half-acre Urbandale Farm Project.
The neighborhood is prone to flooding. There are vacant lots in the area and development is limited. Like many places in Michigan, the area has also fallen on hard economic times.
Retired MSU professor Linda Anderson is one of the founders of the Urbandale Farm project. One of the reasons Urbandale was chosen for the location of the farm was to help out the community economically.
"It certainly had to do with our knowing many people who lived around here were having to stretch their food dollars as far as they could and we wanted to help make more healthy food available for them to purchase with those limited food dollars," says Anderson."
She says the project hopes to sell the farm's produce at reduced prices to residents of Urbandale. But, Anderson says, urban farming is not a new idea.
"I think urban agriculture has come and gone in different times in history. It comes back in full force when there are economic downturns," she says.
Another reason the farm project started in Urbandale is to provide access to fresh produce in an area considered a food desert.
Kristine Hahn is with the MSU extension office in Detroit. She works with the garden resource program, a program that works with various agriculture groups in the city. On a recent trip down Gratiot Avenue, one of Detroit's main arteries, she pointed out how hard it is to find places to shop for food.
"And I don't know if you've noticed but in all our travels, have you seen any grocery stores?" Hahn asks.
Fast food restaurants, gas stations and liquor stores lined the road, but all day, we didn't see a single grocery store.
Roughly half a million people in Detroit live in a food desert. Residents have to travel twice as far to access healthy food than the junk food offered at corner stores.
Like Urbandale, Detroit has taken advantage of its vacant lots and has tried to create access to healthy food for communities. Urban farming has really caught on in Detroit. Hahn says when she started working with the Garden Resource Program in 2003; there were 80 community gardens in Detroit. Now there are over 1,200 with the program.
One of the urban farms in the garden resource program is called "Earthworks." Earthworks has been around for 13 years. When driving up to Earthworks, we pass a plot of land with around two dozen volunteers harvesting crops. Hahn says Earthworks not only provides food for the local residents but has transformed the community.
"And these houses have also improved phenomenally. All of these houses used to be much more run down and I think just the garden there improved the traffic," Hahn says.
Darryl Howard has lived in the neighborhood for over 40 years and has seen it go through many phases.
"I've seen a decline in the housing, but I've seen a growth in the people and attitudes have gotten better, because it's pretty tough if you know what I'm saying," Howard says.
Despite the hardship Howard's neighborhood has faced, he says being involved in urban farming has given him a better attitude on life. He volunteers at Earthworks five or six days of the week. He donates a lot of his produce to the Capuchin soup kitchen which is affiliated with the Earthworks.
Across town, at River Rogue Park is a two-acre farm called D-Town. D-Town is a part of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
Samuel Newsome is a volunteer at D-Town and a few other urban gardens throughout the city. Newsome says urban agriculture can help Detroit's economy.
"The automobile, they can't hire as many people as in the past since 1910 people came from the South up here seeking a better way of life and that better way of life is fading away and it's time to do something different," Newsome explains. "We can't depend on the automobile industry alone you know; we gotta make it a mixture. The automobile and the community garden...I think it is going to turn Detroit around. Like I said, from Motown to 'grow town' and hey, it's catching on."
At the D-Town farm, Newsome teaches Detroit youth how to garden. He says many kids in Detroit don't even know what many vegetables even look like. Besides providing education and nutrition, Newsome hopes gardening will give his students a sense of responsibility and purpose.
"These kids, they go to the supermarket and they think that this is where this food comes from," says Newsome. "I think we need to get more of these kids involved because I think it will change some of these kids life as far as there outlook on life.."
And that's what's starting to happen on the east side of Lansing. Urbandale Farm Project co-founder Linda Anderson is teaching four boys from the neighborhood how to plant seeds for the first time. It is just the beginning of Lansing's urban farm, a project designed to help build the social and economic structures in this neighborhood through urban agriculture.
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan