Urban Agriculture: Detroit

By: Lydia Whitbeck

Urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a town or city. It can be used to meet a community’s need for jobs, a use for vacant lots, educational opportunities, or access to fresh produce. The current local food movement stemmed from shifting farm policy in the 1970s when Nixon promised to cut food prices. He made good on his promise by cutting the farmers’ federal dollars. This led to big business farms purchasing smaller farms which turned into mega farms that mass produced commodity items such as soy and corn. The large influx of corn and soy into the economy led to America’s diet shift from a variety of vegetables to a market of processed soy and corn goods. The shift of America’s grocery stores created food deserts: areas where fresh produce was not readily available to the community members at a reasonable price. These deserts became common in inner city areas where child obesity rates were skyrocketing and family diets were dependent on what the local convenience store had in stock. The realization of this growing issue led to the idea to have these communities grow their own food and urban agriculture was born as we know it today.

Despite these recent realizations, urban agriculture has been utilized many a time in history, especially in Detroit to bring the city out of economic depressions and stressful times. Urban agriculture began in the 1700s when Detroit was a French outpost. The settlers at this time utilized ribbon farming along the Detroit River to allow residents to farm and grow food for their families and communities. Later, in 1893, an economic depression struck the United States. To combat the increasing unemployment rate in Detroit, the mayor started Pingree’s Potato Patches: a movement that turned vacant lots into gardens,

Pingree’s Potato patches in Detroit during the 1893 economic depression.

providing both jobs and food. A similar program was created in 1931 during the Great Depression called Thrift Gardens which was a top-down approached project by the government. Similar initiatives were created during World War I, the Great Migration, and today’s local food movement.


Currently, there are 70,000 unemployed individuals in Detroit. Of those 70,000, 30,000 could pass the GED exam. This means there are 40,000 people that need jobs. This is where urban agriculture comes in by providing jobs. Not only will it provide work, but it also creates community centers, educational opportunities for kids and adults, and a fresh supply of produce to eat and sell. Urban farms have the potential to level the playing field between socioeconomic groups in an area. Wealthy neighborhoods also do not have immediate access to healthy foods, but they have the transportation to easily gain access. These neighborhoods have access to community and education centers that inner city neighborhoods often lack. Urban agriculture can create these spaces for a community, therefore leveling out some of the disparities. Community gardens have the potential to transform an otherwise unused vacant area to a beneficial space for the community that lives there.

Today there are more than 1,300 community gardens within city limits. Non-profits such as Keep Growing Detroit, Greening Detroit, and The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative are working to create more green space and to create a food sovereign city. They work to meet these goals by providing farming education opportunities throughout the city, repurposing vacant land, increasing bike paths, working to foster communities and developing a strategy to meet the food needs of the city.

To learn more about urban agriculture in Detroit today, check out any of the links listed below. There are many opportunities to volunteer and donate to the urban farming movement in Detroit. There are also events throughout Detroit that offer urban farm tours via bike and bus every couple of months. Check out our events page for the next urban farm tour event!

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Recycle/Re-purpose With a Purpose


Recycle/Re-purpose with a Purpose

One of my favorite things to do is coach soccer to kids. I see this as a way to give back and  be a mentor for the next generation. I never thought this would expand outside my community, but this love has now reached all the way to another hemisphere and brought joy to many others.

I was talking with my great friend Denise Van Valkenburg  about a mission trip she was going on with a group called Paradise Bound  www.paradisebound.org . This group travels to Guatemala and helps in many ways, including building and helping the poor with medical needs. I was curious and asked if they play soccer in these villages you visit and found that yes, indeed they do.  If you have coached any youth sports you know that at the end of the season, you have an abundance of shirts, water bottles, and many other sporting items the kids leave behind and never reclaim. As we were talking, I realized I had a car full of soccer balls I have collected over the years and I asked if she could use any of these soccer balls for the trip? She said yes, as many as we could give.  I decided to reach out to the club I coach for, United Soccer Athletes www.united-soccer-athletes.com .  I know the hearts of the management and knew they would love to help out  if they could.  Bruce Lane and the club responded more than I ever dreamed they would by donating many bags of soccer balls.

This was a hit with the groups in Guatemala. They played soccer with the mission groups with goals made out of bamboo,  dirt/concrete fields, and in jeans and sandals. The kids  were awesome at the game beating the missionaries most of the time.

This has made me realize we can always help someone else while we are working, busy with life or having fun by collecting pop cans, needed scrap materials, or some lost and found soccer balls.  By having conversations with people and organizations we all can help in ways we never thought possible.

A great way to recycle/re-purpose soccer balls and other materials while helping others.

When it comes to recycling, you have to play by the rules


When it comes to recycling, you have to play by the rules if you want to make an impact on our planet.
Many people do not realize that a substantial portion of what they are recycling is going into a landfill. This is not because recycling companies are corrupt, it’s because people don’t follow the rules.
I hear on a daily basis,
“I was not sure if it could be recycled, so I just threw it in!”
I cringe on the inside every time these words are spoken because those items are doomed for an eternity in America’s wasteland. You have to think of the recycling companies as a middleman, or a broker of trash.
They have to take these items and sell them to companies who will in turn create new goodies out of said trash. The recycling companies are not the ones recycling the trash; they are just the sorters and sellers.
There are two main reasons why your recyclables might end up in the trash. Be a “rock-star recycler” by following this advice:
Wasting water is a common worry for recyclers and rightfully so. Use the same water to clean all of your recyclables to save water. You can actually save the city and your recyclers money by cleaning your goods. And remember: they don’t need to be clean enough to eat out of, but they should be free of globs and such. Recycling companies can be paid more for items that are clean!
If your items have not been rinsed out or still have food remnants, they will likely be thrown away. In fact, contamination in the recycling business is a big problem. Some estimates put the costs of irresponsible contamination in the neighborhood of $700 million per year industry-wide.
Clean items are particularly important for paper and cardboard. Pizza boxes are one of the major culprits. If the cheese and grease is still on the box, it can mess up the entire recycling process. Oil and water do not mix, and recycling paper and cardboard is often a water-based operation. The oil on the items can jam systems or ruin entire batches of recycled paper, costing companies a lot of money.
Wrong Items.
The most common mistakes made involve plastic. Plastic is sorted based on number and many plastic containers are comprised of several numbers. A juice container, for example, may have a body that is a number one, a cap that is a number five (or is unnumbered) and a label that is a different number. In some areas, not all plastics numbered one through seven are accepted.
If you are not sure about an item, hold onto it and call the company to find out. Never assume or just cross your fingers and hope it will be recycled—take the time to research. All of the time you spent cleaning is wasted if you include items outside of what’s allowed. Those items are going in the trash and it’s a lose/lose for everyone.
As a general rule, unnumbered plastics cannot be recycled curbside, so anything without a number needs to be put aside. However, these items can be recycled! You just have to look outside of your curbside recycling program.
After reading this article, revisit your curbside rules. Review what your recycling company accepts and more importantly, what they don’t accept. The days of sneaking items into your bin are over!
Once you have mastered curbside recycling, it is time to start recycling outside of the bin.

Many other local businesses will accept the drop-off or mail-in of random items for a small fee or even free of charge. See our recycling tab for more information about these locations.
Whatever you do, do not get overwhelmed. Simply commit today that you are going to get informed, follow the rules and be a recycling superstar!

By  Angela Topp