Detroit’s urban garden


Cross posted at the Michigan Messenger

With its shortage of big-box grocery stores and the lack of enough fresh produce, much of Detroit could be said to be in a food desert. An urban agricultural movement is emerging as a solution to the problem.


Earth Works, a nonprofit based in Detroit, picks up where grocery stores leave off by empowering residents to grow their own produce. Founded in 1999 by Brother Rick Symon, a Capuchin Friar, Earth Works is a project of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Since 1929, Capuchin has provided poor Detroit residents with food, shelter, clothing and a host of other services. Earth Works provides fresh produce for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

In 2006, Earth Works grew over 6,000 pounds of fresh produce across three separate markets varying by ethnicity: Dearborn – Arab American, Southwest Detroit – Latin American, and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen – African American. Patrick Crouch, Volunteer Coordinator for Earth Works, told the Michigan Messenger that “Food security is not just about people having access to food. It is about food that is appropriate to their ethnicity and not demanding that people necessarily give up their culture.”

One of Earth Works signature programs is the Urban Roots class, where residents learn how to become master gardeners and gain community organizing skills. According to Crouch, People get really excited at first, but they don’t necessarily have the skills to really organize their community in order to make it a sustainable garden. If you are not working with your community to start these gardens, then come August, when it gets hot and disgusting, nobody wants to work in it, the gardens fail, and next year it is going to be a weedy lot again and all of your efforts will be in vain.

Entering its fourth year this winter, the nine-week Urban Roots class runs from February to April and breaks down to four weeks of community organizing, four weeks of gardening instruction, and one week of review where students are asked to put together a presentation packet that they can use for grant applications. Attendance for the class is capped at 25, but no one is ever denied due to financial problems. “A comparable class for master gardeners is in the realm of $300, so we consider our fee of $75 to be fairly nominal,” says Crouch. In fact, the cost of the Oakland County Master Gardener Training Program (provided by MSU Extension) is $300.

Earth Works also has programming specifically designed for children age 5-10 focusing on nutrition and gardening. Older youth participate in the Youth Farm stand, where they are taught how to grow their own food and sell it. They learn entrepreneurial skills and marketing methods, as well as basic business skills such as making change for the customer. Crouch explained that the Youth Farm stand “helps students apply math principles by having students calculate the cost/benefit of buying seed by weight vs. volume, making conversions from ounces to grams, and using multiplication to find the amount of yield per row.”

“A lot of restaurants have approached us about being able to support food grown in Detroit,” Crouch explains, “but most folks who are gardeners don’t necessarily have these skills. They might be able to grow a really good head of lettuce, but they don’t have the skills to be able to say, `I want to be able to grow 30 to 40 heads of lettuce for 30 weeks and figure out the schedule, harvest, et cetera.’ There is a need to push people to the next level and connect these people with local grocers.”

“The city is not necessarily really a huge fan of all garden activities,” Crouch says. “Some can be seen as a nuisance (namely composting). Our bigger concern is whether or not we are making our neighbors happy, more so than making the city happy.”

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3 responses to “Detroit’s urban garden”

  1. fabooj says :

    That’s awesome. Something like that would be great in Los Angeles. In the predominantly Asian and Latino neighborhoods, you see the produce that people are growing in their back yards. I’d love to see more people giving more of their backyards over to food.

  2. Bro Rick Symon says :

    I came across your site quite by accident and was inspired by your service,We not only share the same name but also a desire to feed people and help thoser in need.Your constuctive model is insiping
    I own a coffee shop in auckland newzealand called 7. My community has similar challenges to yours.I look forward to the day we meet .
    The original hipstar

  3. Brandon Q. says :

    Thanks for comment fabooj, I hope to see you at netroots nation!!

    Bro Symon, I am amazed at the power of the internet to help bring people together. I think it is great that you recognize the similarity in problems facing poor people across the country. What are some of the solutions people in your community are doing to address food deserts?

    Great name for a coffee shop btw, how long have you been in business?

    I look forward to us meeting as well. I will find you if I am ever in New Zealand…what a great thing to say,

    Take care

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