Detroit Food Policy Council Focuses on Protecting City’s Existing Farms
March 31, 2014 | Trish Popovitch
By working through the challenges of its industrial past and embracing new ideas for a way forward, the Detroit Food Policy Council is working to rebuild a historic American city fallen on hard times into a shining center of urban agriculture.
The Detroit Food Policy Council, which launched in 2009, is a 21-member organization that brings members from across the food and public service world work together to help build Detroit’s urban agriculture and local food systems through policy recommendations with an emphasis on food security, food access and food sovereignty.
Ashley Atkinson is the Food Policy Council member for sustainable agriculture and Co-Director of Keep Growing Detroit.
“Right now we don’t as Americans think much about food or where it’s going to come from, what the environmental or social impact of our current system is,” says Atkinson. “When initiatives like this exist in urban areas and in high density areas it really connects people to food and makes them think about and be involved in creating solutions to enhance our connection to food and its historic place in our community. “
The city has an established history of urban agriculture dating back to the 1890’s when mayor Hazen Pingree’s potato patch program donated vacant lots to community groups to grow food. The urban agriculture regained steam in response to the economic crisis of 2008, which hit the City of Detroit hard.
A 2010 study by Michigan State University’s Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies, Michigan State University illustrated that it was possible to provide for a significant proportion the produce needs of Detroit’s population on less than 300 acres .
And in March of 2013, after much discussion, feedback and education, the Food Policy Council drafted and city council unanimously adopted Detroit’s first urban agriculture ordinance, giving legitimacy to and creating standards for urban agriculture in the city limits.
Still in its infancy, the DFPC is focusing on the already-established businesses, community gardens and farmer’s markets in the city.
“We’re still treading waters as we try to create an environment that protects the urban agriculture that was here first and foremost while creating new opportunities for this type of work to happen in the city,” says Atkinson.
Future plans include attracting sustainable businesses to the area, expanding agriculture in the suburbs surrounding the city and fostering educational opportunities while creating new food-related jobs. It’s not just farmers, but caterers, cooking classes and gardening workshops that are moving Detroit forward, says Atkinson. The city is expanding established markets and promoting value added local products such as pies, jellies and sauces. Incubators like FoodLab Detroit http://foodlabdetroit.com are helping locals create new businesses.
Validated by the new ordinance and fostered by the Council’s partners, the number of community farms and gardens is soaring in Detroit. According to ‘Keep Growing Detroit’ http://detroitagriculture.net/ the city has gone from just 80 community gardens in 2004 to 1,244 in 2013. In tandem with education, workshops, food stands and farmer’s markets, community gardens are just one way the city is revitalizing its neighborhoods.
Atkinson suggests that with the uncertainty surrounding traditional agricultural systems and the reduction in fossil fuels, all cities and towns large and small should consider adopting ordinances that present opportunities and foster urban farming.
“The population is growing; more people are living in cities,” she says. “We can predict that weather will be more unpredictable and that there will be challenges to sustaining the current types of traditional agriculture systems that we have now, with fewer farms in larger areas relying on fossil fuels that may not be accessible in the future. We really need to plan for opportunities to grow food closer to people and to diversify the means and size and scale of food produced to nourish and sustain communities.”