Zoo City Farm and Food takes root: Food sovereignty group works to expand its network in Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

When she was young, Remi Harrington never planned on growing up to become a farmer. Now, the longtime Kalamazoo resident and organizer of the local food sovereignty focused organization Zoo City Farm and Food Network, Harrington says she happened upon urban farming “as an act of rebellion and necessity.”

She adds that work is based on her determination to thrive in spite of the social landscape that has adverse and disproportionate negative outcomes for Black women and their children. 

Harrington describes Zoo City Farm and Food Network as a “local food policy council and industry association made up of cottage food businesses, folk artisans, urban farmers, and conscientious consumers.”   

The organization works to expand food systems literacy and pathways to participation in the local and sustainable food industry ecosystem by creating “neighborhood-centered food production sites.” They do this through a variety of different projects, which includes working to build urban farms in Kalamazoo neighborhoods. 

The organization was founded in 2020 as an expansion on the work that Harrington started as Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden, a community garden in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood that was created based on a story Harrington wrote for her daughter Tegan. That work ultimately led her to become the coordinator of the community farms program for Kalamazoo Valley Community College, a post she held for almost two years.

From left Ru Hensly, Salina Johnson, Hali Williams, and Remi Harrington. Harrington describes Zoo City as “essentially a forum that connects producers and farmers directly to consumers.”

One way the organization has been focused on cultivating those connections during the pandemic is through creation of the group’s new website. The site, which launched on April 10, 2021 offers information about the organization’s working groups and philosophy, how to get involved through membership or donation, as well as details about upcoming events. 

Most events will take place virtually for the time being, but beginning in the spring of 2021 Zoo City plans to host Community Build Days which they will be announcing on the group’s website. “This will get us moving so that we can get the farms built,” says Harrington. 

Zoo City Farm and Food Network has also taken root inside downtown Kalamazoo’s Park Trades Center where its newly opened community design studio will be large enough to host workshops and classes in the future when in-person meetings are possible again. 

Currently, the studio is used more for occasional meetings and planning sessions, and a large whiteboard covered in writing and notes (which the team refers to as their master plan) dominates the center of the studio space. 

Harrington is quick to point out that she hasn’t done the work behind these projects all on her own, and she is sure to acknowledge the contributions of Zoo City’s administration team. “The space and the shared vision is the story right now,” she says.

Another member behind that shared vision is Salina Johnson. A freelance consultant and Michigan native, Johnson is the granddaughter of a farmer, and has a background in customer service and public health. The two first met at the farmers market where they connected right off the bat recalls Johnson, who is now an integral member of Zoo City’s administration team.

Remi Harrington at The Community Design Studio.Also on the team are Ru Hensley, and Hali Williams, who agree that roles within the organization are not strictly defined in the traditional hierarchical sense. Both Hensley and Williams are listed officially as co-coordinators of operations on the group's website and the team agrees that they all work closely together as a unit, with roles, and tasks divided among them. They represent what they are striving to build — a network of diverse individuals whose working relationship is, as they put it “less pyramid, more tree.”

Harrington is nothing but smiles while talking about the collaborative efforts of Zoo City’s administration team and their vision for the future of the design studio, but her tone turns more serious when she outlines the difficulties Zoo City has faced in moving forward with some of their other projects. 

Efforts to develop an urban farm in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood have been mired in the very same systemic inequities that Zoo City was founded to combat. 

“We have all the things that we thought we needed to start our farm last year,” says Harrington, “and here we are now, in the middle of a pandemic where everybody is having to contend with access to resources and you can’t get a contractor because everyone is backed up and materials costs have skyrocketed.” 

“It’s hard for everybody right now, and we continue to have to bear the brunt of where deficits lie in the infrastructure and how networks exist in our community.”

“I’m asking that people reimagine how they allocate their time, so we can design new systems, not just new buildings for the old ones,” says Harrington, whose future goals for Zoo City include continuing to expand the group’s work into communities everywhere. Someday, she says, “I’d like our network to be worldwide.” 

Going forward, Harrington wants people to know that “we have amazing partners that have funded our work, a host of volunteers and supporters, and we continue to look for more support and to expand our community and network.”

“Everybody wants to see the farms in the neighborhoods and that's happening,” acknowledges Harrington, but there is still a major layer of organizing work to be done before the urban farm will see its first harvest. In the meantime, with a lot of hard work and some careful tending, Zoo City Farm and Food Network will only continue to grow. 

Information about Community Build Days and how to get involved with Zoo City Farm and Food Network can be found at their website.
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Read more articles by Caroline Bissonnette.

Caroline grew up in the Winchell neighborhood and graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 2011. She got her start in journalism in Second Wave’s On The Ground community correspondents program as a contributor for the Vine neighborhood. By shining a light on the people working to implement solutions to local issues she hopes to amplify important voices in our midst which are often overlooked.