How Food Is Revitalizing Detroit
“There’s different people–black, white, rich, poor–coming together to talk about why their tomatoes aren’t growing,” says Scott, a 30-ish homesteader in Detroit’s heavily blighted Brightmoor neighborhood. “Gardening is a common language. There’s no hierarchy.”
Scott, who withheld his last name because what he’s doing—living in an abandoned house he doesn’t own, and farming land that’s not his own—is technically illegal, is one of about 40 urban gardeners in Brightmoor. Taking advantage of abundance of open space, people are growing their own food, and selling it through the Grown in Detroit program, which brings their goods to the city-wide weekly farmers markets.
Last year, Scott brought in $700 by selling through Grown In Detroit. He says that it may not seem like much, but in an area where people are unemployed or earning low wages, $700 can be significant. But more importantly, Scott says, gardening “builds community.” His neighbors are starting their own gardens, and they often ask him for advice. One of Scott’s neighbors, named K.G., volunteers his time in Scott’s gardens just because he enjoys it and it keeps him “out of trouble.”
In Metropolitan Detroit, you can hardly ride a mile on a bicycle without stumbling over a group of people—usually twenty-somethings—harvesting arugula. After decades of urban decay and population loss, the city is rebounding, but it is marred by numerous vacant properties, poverty, and unemployment. And food is taking on a key role in the city’s revitalization.
While urban farming has its support group, nevertheless, some Detroiters eagerly await the Whole Foods that’s opening up in midtown Detroit in the next year, seeing it as a welcome form of development. But one urban farmer, Greg Willerer, is refusing Whole Foods’ offer to sell his produce there. “Their labor practices aren’t good, and their 365 brand uses stuff that’s made in China and repackaged,” he explained to me at his farm, Brother Nature, which takes up an acre in a residential neighborhood of Detroit. Restaurants and cafés nearby sell sandwiches and salads with Brother Nature’s organic salad mix, and they also have a CSA with about thirty members, and a booth at the weekly city farmer’s market. Brother Nature brings in about $35,000 per year, and they recently purchased six acres of land outside Metro Detroit, where they can cultivate fruit trees and melons.
But urban farming is only one way that food is revitalizing the Motor City. 27-year-old Jess Daniel, a PhD student at Michigan State who lives in Detroit, started an organization called FoodLab that incubates small local food businesses. FoodLab has launched a series of business skill boot-camps that bring together twenty-something college grads with people from low-income neighborhoods, defying dominant notions that a start-up entrepreneur is young, white, and educated.
Daniel’s work is focused on two forms of growth: “me-capital,” which is about entrepreneurs building up their reputations within a community, so that they can accomplish things through trusting relationships; and “we-capital,” where social capital is built outward into the broader culture, creating accountability within a group and working toward policy change. What Daniel is doing is simultaneously business development—helping small food start-ups come above ground and get official status, expand their client base, develop their marketing and branding—and community development. It uses food as a tool for building relationships and improving economic situations.
In downtown Detroit, a restaurant called COLORS is working with a similar approach. They use local ingredients, purchased through Grown In Detroit, and employees are given workshops on how to start up their own food businesses. In this way, the restaurant provides more than wage jobs—it helps people establish worthwhile, independent careers in the food industry, and it supports local farms. COLORS aims to train around 150 people per year—that’s 150 individuals who will gain the tools to begin their own ventures, and potentially create more jobs.
Food is revitalizing Detroit, in every way possible. On a recent visit to the Motor City, I picked salad greens at Brother Nature, and marveled at their sharp, nutty flavors. Later, I had those same greens in a delicious sandwich at Astro Coffee, in a neigborhood called Corktown that is seeing an influx of restaurants and residents. I also attended the monthly Detroit SOUP event, where people pay $5 to enjoy a fresh, home-cooked soup and salad dinner and vote to give their money to a local social enterprise. And I witnessed the genius of Dr. Sushi, a twenty-something Detroiter who makes sushi in a kitchen once a week for devotees. He sells about 25 boxes of sushi, at around $9 each, and makes enough money to get by—“enough to live, eat, have beers, and try new things.”
Another food-based social enterprise in Detroit, Fresh Corner Cafe, brings affordable and healthy meal options, like veggie wraps and salads, to corner stores in neighborhoods where such options are difficult to find. The founder, 25-year-old Noam Kimelman, has brought his products into 20 locations, and the business is rapidly expanding as demand increases.
Food is an essential human need, and Detroiters have found ways to use the availability and affordability of space to put food production and consumption at the center of their efforts to bring the Motor City back to life.