Farming builds food security, community in inner-city Detroit by Mike and Denise Thompson
the nation that convert vacant property in poor neighborhoods into thriving oases of agriculture—and hope. A good number of the groups involved, such as Detroit’s Capuchins, openly describe themselves as faith-based. Other groups are more secular in how they present themselves, but many of the individuals involved see their work as an expression of their faith. Rick Samyn, a brother with the Capuchins, explains that Earthworks seeks “to restore our connection to the environment and community in keeping with our spiritual patron, St. Francis.” The Capuchins were ahead of their time when they established Earthworks in 1997. But in the past few years, the “Motown” to “Growtown” phenomenon has experienced a tremendous flourishing. According to spokespeople for Mayor Dave Bing, the number of Detroit’s urban farms will soon approach 800, although few are the size of Earthworks. Many consist of a single vacant lot, or several combined, used to grow food. People involved in urban farm work— whether as modestly paid staffers, volunteers, or work-study agricultural students—are usually motivated by social justice issues. They note that Detroit no longer contains a major supermarket chain within its boundaries, which means that residents pay more for food, either at small local shops or through transportation to the suburban megastores. If they lack the transportation to get to the suburban outlets, their meats and produce are far less likely to be fresh and appealing. Lack of healthy food contributes to today’s rise in obesity, especially among children. Urban farm gardens provide a means to break this harmful cycle.
Praying with dirty hands
rom Old Testament gleaning laws to the gospel story of Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes to feed a hungry crowd, a key biblical theme involves providing food for those in need. Responding to that theme is Detroit’s Earthworks Urban Farm, a program of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. The farm is one of a growing number of back-to-basics ministries across
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Patrick Crouch, Earthworks program manager, feels that working the soil is a form of prayer. “It’s definitely a deeply spiritual event for me,” he explains. “I think of it as being more of a meditation. One of the beauties of working in the garden is to do the task at hand.” This doesn’t prevent Crouch from seeing the political and social justice issues involved in the urban farm movement. Like the vast majority of urban farmers, he avoids chemicals and pesticides; Earthworks is a certified organic farm. He says that people are beginning to understand the ills of massive erosion of soil on corporate farms, as well as the horrors of packing animals into cramped and unsanitary stalls and cages. Crouch believes that farming malpractice is so severe that the entire food chain is at risk. He notes with irony
Preceding page, top to bottom: The EAT program’s farm stand; lettuce aplenty in the green house; students plunge in to pick potatoes.
that if a “food crisis” eventually occurs, poor people involved in urban farm gardens may be in the best position to cope. Crouch grew up in Salisbury, Md., along the Atlantic shore, in a family that grew vegetables and showed concern for ecology. When he arrived in Detroit to serve with Earthworks, he took time to study the city’s history. “Throughout American history, growing in urban areas has waxed and waned,” he explains. “Detroit has a history of farming in the city, going back to the 1880s, before the auto industry emerged. I don’t necessarily think of this as something new. It’s getting publicity nowadays because of the internet.” Lisa Richter, Earthworks outreach coordinator, is a Michigan native who recruits neighbors and organizes activities, including a community prayer to bless the garden each spring. But they do more than bless the attractive green sprouts. “We also bless the compost,” Richter says. “We spread the leaves down, and in the dying of the leaves we are blessing new lives within ourselves. We demonstrate how some-
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This page: Honey from the Earthworks hives will be enjoyed at the Capuchin Soup kitchen and sold at market; volunteers de-cap the beeswax so the honey will spill out.
body may express their values and faith through how to live and how to treat the earth.” The majority of the produce grown by Earthworks is served up fresh to patrons of Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which serves about 2,000 hot meals each day at their two locations.
Growing new agriculturalists
The Earthworks Agricultural Training (EAT) program is designed to develop the skills that adults 18 and older need to create their own community-based food enterprises or to enter the quickly developing urban food system. For nine months participants work hands-on in all areas of the food system, learning about everything from production to processing, from marketing to distribution. “We started this program because economic insecurity is often suffered by those suffering from food insecurity,” explains Shane Bernardo, who helps coordinate outreach. “In this way, we move from simply offering social services (in the
form of serving meals) to providing opportunities for folks to provide meals for themselves.” Among the widespread Earthworks projects are a pair of intensive youth programs. Open to kids living within a two-mile radius of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Youth cooking spinach for an artichoke dip Growing Healthy Kids is geared to elementary students while Youth Farm Stand serves middle and high school students. The first teaches the basics of gardening, nutrition, cultural awareness, environmental stewardship, and healthy living. The latter takes these same issues a step further, engaging the kids in farming and then marketing the produce at local farm stands. “The kids can learn how what they eat relates to their faith,” Richter says. “What they eat affects the quality of life for other people.” The students learn about self-sufficient agriculture, cooperative work, and the environment. They are connected with adult mentors. They engage in physical exercise and learn about healthy foods. And as they reap and sell their harvest, they learn about running a business. The program has seen the birth of a spin-off program in Saginaw County, 90 miles north of Detroit. Bakari McClendon is coordinator of the Saginaw County Youth Farm Stand Project. In 2008, vandals destroyed the gardens the day after they were featured in the local Saginaw News. When the newspaper published a follow-up story, hundreds of residents
from the city, the suburbs, and the rural outskirts donated everything from seeds to garden tools to cash. “The way that the gardens were ruined seemed terrible, but the community response was so overwhelming that the overall result was positive,” McClendon says, explaining that the students gained more appreciation for the importance of what they were doing. As the young farmers grow up, McClendon hopes urban farm gardens will create “green” jobs, just as alternative energy industries such as solar and wind power have done. Learn more at CSKDetroit.org/EWG. Mike Thompson was a reporter at the daily Saginaw News for 31 years. Denise Thompson works in food service at a nursing home and is a part-time writer.
What can you do to be a food justice advocate?
Get involved with your community. Investigate if there is a community garden in your area. If not, organize one.
Question why there is enough food in the world to feed all people yet many experience hunger. What systems are in place that create this dynamic? Ask how racism has played a role in determining who has access to healthy food and who does not.
The Garden Resource Program at the soup kitchen teaches attendees how to can fresh produce.
Buy food that respects and values all people, creatures, and features of the world. Farm work is some of the most dangerous work due to exposure to pesticides and demanding schedules. Buying local and sustainable whenever possible can help to ensure that your food and food workers were treated with care.
Research where your food comes from and how the people, the land, and all the creatures were treated in its production.
Buy local food and products from locally owned businesses or ask your favorite businesses or restaurants (even your school’s cafeteria!) to source more produce and products locally. Shop at your local farmer’s market and ask your farmers questions about their food and growing practices. Talk with your friends, family, and coworkers about issues of agriculture, race, and equality. We cannot move forward without having these conversations.