Weekend mornings are the busiest days of the week at D-Town Farm. That's when up to 30 volunteers from across Detroit come out to till the earth and tend the crops at the seven-acre mini-farm on the city's west side. They sow, hoe, prune, compost, trap pest animals, build paths and fences, and harvest—all the activities necessary to grow healthy organic fruits and vegetables to nurture the community. There is a 1.5-acre vegetable garden, a 150-square-foot garlic plot, a small apple orchard, numerous beds of salad greens in a couple of hoop houses, a small apiary, and a plot of medicinal herbs such as purslane, burdock, and white thistle.
"One of our goals is to present healthy eating to people," says Malik Yakini, Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), which runs D-Town. "We think that healthy eating optimizes a good life generally. A diet close to nature allows the human body to function the way it is supposed to function."
D-Town is set in one of the city's greenest areas, a former tree nursery in the 1,184-acre River Rouge Park. It's a couple of miles downriver from Ford Motor Co.'s famous Rouge plant (that once employed 100,000 workers) and about a mile upriver from the Brightmoor, a formerly devastated neighborhood that boasts no fewer than 22 community gardens. The Detroit City Council granted use of the land to DBCFSN in 2008. Deer ate up most of the first crop: Volunteers who planted 750 tomato plants harvested only about five pounds of tomatoes. Now a fence keeps deer out, and other pests such as raccoons and possums are trapped and released far from this feeding ground. There are even a few apple trees on the grounds that are tended by folks from Can-Did Revolution, a recently established family canning company.
Urban farmers are leading an environmental and social movement to transform our national food system. Photographer Michael Hanson toured the country for his book Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival to document twelve successful urban farm programs, including The Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for pregnant teens and teen mothers in Detroit (pictured).
Nowhere in the United States has urban agriculture taken root as prolifically as in Detroit. Earthworks Urban Farm, Feedom Freedom Growers, GenesisHOPE, Georgia Street Collective, and other community gardens have stepped up to help create a healthier and more self-empowered food system. The Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women runs a small farm on the school's grounds to teach students about nutrition and self-sufficiency. This gardening renaissance has been growing for over two decades since the Gardening Angels, a group of southern-born African-Americans, began growing food and passing their agricultural knowledge on to another generation.
There are more than 1,200 community gardens in Detroit—more per square mile and more per capita than in any other American city. The number of community gardens is just a fraction of the number of kitchen gardens that families grow in yards and side lots. Locals are learning more about nutrition and feeling the health effects of eating the food they grow.
"You're only as healthy as the food you eat," says Latricia Wright, a naturopath who champions natural, uncooked, unprocessed foods. "It's all about the minerals in the food."
Better tomatoes—with a bonus
Kesia Curtis began gardening with her parents, Wayne and Myrtle Curtis, at Feedom Freedom Growers community garden. The 29-year-old had suffered from debilitating allergies since she was 17, often missing work, unable to sleep, and suffering from sinus infections.
"I was pretty much living on Benadryl or other allergy medications year round," says Curtis.
About a year after she started gardening, Curtis began eating a vegan diet—no animal products at all. She reports that her allergy problems have gone away except for some mild symptoms in the spring.
"My parents started the community garden, and it felt like a natural thing to do with my family," says Curtis. "The more I became involved with it the more I started asking a lot of questions about food from the grocery store as opposed to what you can grow. Tomatoes that you grow taste and smell different from what you get at the store. I had tasted tomatoes before but a local tomato had so much more flavor. ... I can't imagine someone being a farmer and it not changing your health and making some kind of positive impact on your life."
Food in the desert
DBCFSN's goals include empowering African-Americans within the food system and providing fresh, healthy foods in an area where access is not a given. Detroit was among the communities declared food deserts by researcher Mari Gallagher in 2007. Food deserts are communities where the kinds of foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet are unavailable, unaffordable, or difficult to get to.
"The types of food we live closest to—along with many other factors—are related to our health." reads Gallagher's report. "Unless access to healthy food greatly improves, we predict that, over time, those residents will have greater rates of premature illness and death from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity, hypertension, kidney failure, and other diet-related complications. Food imbalance will likely leave its mark directly on the quality, productivity, and length of life ... "
Those are the effects of malnourishment. Eating healthy food is the cure. This is particularly important in Detroit, where the population is 82 percent African-American, the unemployment rate is twice the national average, and the poverty rate is high.
African-American adults are twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes, almost twice as likely to be hospitalized for diabetes and more than twice as likely to die from the disease. "Type 2 diabetes is epidemic," says nurse practitioner Yvett Cobb, a member of DBCFSN. "I've spent 23-plus years in emergency medicine and critical care nursing. I've seen a lot of complications of diabetes. I've seen a lot of limbs being cut off."
Even though African-Americans suffer from higher rates of these diet-related illnesses and are more likely to develop kidney failure or complications from high blood pressure, all American demographics are suffering increasingly from the effects of bad diets and lack of exercise. Getting Americans to eat a healthier diet is a growing concern, exemplified by First Lady Michelle Obama's championing of gardening and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent attempt to ban sugary sodas 16 ounces or larger at restaurants. In cities across the nation, an urban agriculture movement focused on overcoming food scarcity and promoting healthy eating is driving a local food movement.
"It gives me so much tremendous hope that change can happen as we make gardening accessible," says Cobb, who also teaches yoga and has trained as a practitioner of the Tree of Life raw food diet. "As people get more and more into gardening and learning its benefits, it gives me hope. Planting gets you closer to nature, keeps your joints loose, and you get to eat all these nutritional things."
A host of infirmities could be avoided simply through eating well and getting some exercise. Both can be accomplished through gardening.
"Health is impacted by eating fresh produce," says Yakini. "Food loses some of its nutrient density over time as it is transported long distances. Food that is produced nearby and eaten soon after being harvested is more nutrient-dense and has a stronger health impact. Also, gardening is great exercise—bending, standing, and using muscles that you might not normally use."
A healing connection
Dinah Brundidge was already in the throes of changing her life when she discovered gardening. She had just kicked a 20-year alcohol and crack addiction and was going to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, near where she lives, to eat and shower. She asked one of the Capuchin brothers about a job and he referred her to the gardening training program at Earthworks, which supplies food to the soup kitchen. Brundidge's recovery was still shaky and she hadn't settled on how to spend her time when she wasn't getting high.
"I started the gardening work," says Brundidge. "It was like a healing process with me, a connection with the earth. The gardening motive gave me a purpose in life. I was used to the everyday drug life. I had tried many years to kick, but what really did it for me was urban gardening. The beauty of planting a seed and seeing food grow, that gave me a purpose. Having my hands in producing it really captivated me. How people really cared about growing healthy food."
Brundidge reports gaining weight and losing the skinny drug addict look. Her skin became healthier, and a chronically bad complexion cleared up. She reports feeling better, although she suffers from arthritis. But the biggest thrill seems to come from doing for others.
"I invite people to come out to my community garden, and they can't believe I'm doing this and enjoying it," she says. "Last year in the community garden I did so well—I fed a lot of people."
There's plenty of space for gardening in Detroit; most people live in houses and have yards. And there are some 20 square miles of vacant land in the city that could easily be converted into arable land. Many gardening activists say they think of food as medicine. If that's the case, there is potential for a lot of healing in the city.