Blog: Rebecca Salminen Witt

Detroit Green City? Now comes Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of The Greening of Detroit, to cover the fresh ideas and opportunities that support green infrastructure in Michigan's largest neck of the woods.

Post 3: Raising a Ruckus Around Local Food

Of all of the possibilities presented by Detroit's acres of open space, the possibilities for urban agriculture have certainly attracted the most attention.  Everyone from genius types to political heavy weights, and from millionaires to middle-schoolers, seems to have weighed in on the idea of growing food in Detroit's vacant spaces.  Will Allen has supported the idea, Jesse Jackson spoke out against it, Mayor Bing seems to be approaching the idea cautiously.  Meanwhile, more than 16,000 Detroiters have quietly made it a way of life.  

Last year, one in fifty Detroiters participated in the gardening movement.  In back yards and vacant lots all over the city over 160 tons of food was produced for Detroit tables.  The Greening of Detroit is asked all of the time what it would take to bring Detroit's gardening effort to a scale where it could really make a difference.  Our answer is that Detroit has what it takes already, and what we have now is not merely a beneficial pastime or happy hobby.  This is a movement that is making a real and substantial difference right now.  

Nine years ago the Detroit Agriculture Network, Earthworks Urban Farm, Michigan State University, and The Greening of Detroit formed the Garden Resource Program Collaborative to support Detroit's gardeners and to begin to create a change in Detroit's broken food system.  Gas stations and convenience stores were the most common venues for grocery shopping in Detroit and school children couldn't tell you where a tomato came from.  The Garden Resource Program Collaborative created an innovative model that combined resources, education and connection to support gardeners and create a ladder of success that encourages interested individuals to move from self sufficient family gardener to supportive community gardener to entrepreneurial market gardener.  The program, now entering its ninth year, has been spectacularly successful.  Last year it supported 1,234 gardens which cultivated around 300 acres of land for food production.  Eighty growers brought their food to local farmers markets under the Grown in Detroit label.  Local restaurants in every quadrant of the city served produce purchased from Detroit farmers.  

Estimates are that Detroit has at least 5,000 acres of soil suitable for growing food and if only 2,000 of those acres were farmed, we could provide Detroiters with over 70% of their daily vegetable requirements.  So, the question becomes one of scale and impediments.  Is there a scale at which food production can occur in Detroit that will allow us to feed our citizens without destroying the communities which embrace the industry?  Can we remove the institutional impediments to success that still exist?  Our answer is yes, and yes.  

As for scale, Detroit neighborhoods have already embraced hundreds of gardens ranging from ¼ of an acre to 3 acres in size.  These gardens are frequently the places where community is grown right along with collards and carrots.  At the smaller end of the scale, families feed themselves and their friends.  At the larger end of the scale, whole neighborhoods eat and individuals can achieve self sufficiency by selling their produce to commercial and institutional customers.  With hundreds of gardens like these we have seen a healthier community materialize.  With thousands, we will see a healthy industry fully emerge.