Little did former Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree know in 1894 that his fervor for growing produce in Detroit would return in 2016. But that is exactly what is happening, according to three Detroit nonprofits at the 24th Annual Congress for New Urbanism. Pingree was beloved and best known for turning vacant land into vegetable patches to feed the city's needy during the economic downturn of the 1890s.
"He was the laughing stock of the country when urban agriculture was thought to be backward," Ashley Atkinson, co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, said during a Thursday conference session called "Detroit's Food and Food Justice Movement."
It is not considered backward anymore as the mission of Keep Growing Detroit, FoodLab Detroit and Detroit Dirt, along with many other nonprofit and for-profit city companies, is to grow and offer healthy food and vegetables in every quadrant of the city.
"A lot of neighborhoods are without access to healthy food so we teach them to grow food where they are at," Atkinson said. Keep Growing Detroit also tries to take down the barrier for people to grow their own food by giving them access to seed, compost, the right skill set and land. "We now deliver 250,000 transplants for the gardens we serve."
She said the organization trains people in farming and then trains them to be trainers. "Starting around June 1, we are very busy giving constant support to people who are growing."
Children are part of the agenda. They are taught at a young age — 3 to 5 years old when they are discerning what they like — about growing produce and eating healthy.
Keep Growing Detroit now produces 200 tons of fruits and vegetables a year of which 90 percent is consumed in city households. It wants to dispel Detroit's image as a food desert, which came about from a 2007 book.
There are 1,400 community gardens and farms networked in the city now, Atkinson said. "Of the 40 square miles of vacant land in the city, we'd like 5,000 acres of it for farming."
Devita Davison, marketing and communications director for FoodLab, which helps potential food entrepreneurs develop and sell their products, called the bounty of food in today's abundant grocery stores an injustice. "There's profound problems with our local food system," she said. "People are closer to fast food places than farms. ... Detroit is dying from diet-related illnesses."
She said after many years of scant exposure to healthy food, "we are now on our way to finding ourselves, and it started with our farmers. We have 2,000 locally owned, diverse businesses. We are closing the loop in the city of Detroit."
FoodLab started with seven food entrepreneurs; now it has 200. It uses underutilized church kitchens to test and prepare food and beverages.
Davison said the simple neighborhood coffee shop is helping develop communities where there were none. "Nine neighborhoods in Detroit want coffee shops now. They are places to have book clubs, open mic nights, to bring children and people together."
Pashon Murray, owner and co-founder of Detroit Dirt, a nonprofit that is reducing food waste by composting, is passionate about what she is doing. "I'm a little bit of a rebel when is comes to landfills and food waste. Twenty to 25 percent of landfills are food waste, and we keep repeating the same practices in this county," she said. "We could save $5.6 billion annually by cutting specifically on food not eaten."
Murray has taken her cause to businesses such as General Motors Co. and Blue Cross Blue Shield, which are giving Detroit Dirt their waste for composting.
Detroit Dirt's effort is multipurpose. It reduces food waste in landfills, while producing rich compost for farming and creating jobs, some of which are for people who can be challenging to employ.
"Our 2017 goal is to break ground and build a composting system here," she said. "Even if it is just one system, I don't care. I welcome all other people to come here and build as many as they want. I don't care about competition. I care about the next generation, because at the end of the day, if we continue to be wasteful at the speed we are going right now, our children's children will not have a fulfilled life."